23-year-old designer on telling Rwanda’s story through fashion

Emmanuel Keza is the founder of Kezem clothing brand. / Photos by Gad Nsimiyimana

Like most creatives, Emmanuel Keza Niyonsenga, loved fashion since childhood. He spent most of his time watching his mother, a tailor, go about her work from start to finish.

“I was curious about everything she did. How she cut fabric, sewed it together and designed it to the last product. When I grew up I began doing research on how I can be a fashion designer. I started exploring my fashion passion after high school but couldn’t pursue it professionally because that was the same time I was planning to join university,” he recalls.


Today, the 23-year-old is the founder and creative director of Kezem, a new Rwandan clothing brand that ‘tells the Rwandan story and Africa in general’.


Although his skill is mostly self- taught, he shares that he also got additional training from Rwanda Clothing, a local fashion brand where he was taught the importance and power of a brand and how to work with clients to satisfaction. The Art Rwanda Ubuhanzi competition in 2018 in which he participated was a stepping stone for him too.


Some of the fashion items displayed at his store in Kigali.

“The competition was a way to expose my talent and get support from the sponsors. The platform was very helpful because we were trained to improve our skills through their incubation centre and a store to sell some of our items. We were also able to attend some events like Collective Rw Fashion Show and were introduced to some professionals in the same field who shared their experiences,” he says.

With enough training, he decided to open shop early this year but this came with challenges.

“Starting out was very difficult for me because it was around the same time Covid-19 made its way in the country. The pandemic was a challenge because clothes were the least of people’s needs as they struggled to manoeuvre through the pandemic’s effects.

“It, however, pushed me further to work harder and think of ways to push through. Thanks to the government’s efforts to promote Made in Rwanda brands through their campaigns, I was able to get some clients,” he says.

The other challenge he adds, is getting quality fabric locally.

“Most of the fabric is imported which makes the end product costly. The local market is also yet to fully acknowledge that local brands are quality brands that are worth their money.”

Telling the Rwandan story

A tour through his shop, where he employs two more people, you cannot help but notice how his signature print patterns, cow horns and cow patches dominate most of his designs. This for him, is how he wants to tell the Rwandan story.

“I wanted something that can reflect our culture and express what I like, cows. I love the royal Inyambo cows because of their integral part in the Rwandan culture. Besides these patterns, I use hand embroidery to embellish my clothes,” he says.

Notably, he has designed many of the Iwacu Muzika festival artistes, many of whom are Art Rwanda Ubuhanzi colleagues and celebrities like Alyn Sano and other models who have been spotted wearing his designs.

“We are planning on new design collections for next year and I want my brand to be international. So we are working with several celebrities to promote our brand. I would be happier if Rwandans fully embraced not just Kezem, but also made in Rwanda brands in the streets,” he says of his next big move.


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