How Rwanda's fashion industry has evolved over the years

If you have been attending local social events recently, you will have noticed that more people from various walks of life are elegantly dressed in African print exuding the confidence of those who know they have dressed to impress.
Rwandan made clothes on display at a local store. (Teddy Kamanzi)
Rwandan made clothes on display at a local store. (Teddy Kamanzi)

If you have been attending local social events recently, you will have noticed that more people from various walks of life are elegantly dressed in African print exuding the confidence of those who know they have dressed to impress.

They are not dressed in Dior, Louis Vuitton or Dolce and Gabbana, instead, when asked, they proudly say they have donned a House of Tayo , Sonia Mugabo or any of the other local designers.

Needless to say, the Rwandan fashion industry has slowly but surely evolved into a lucrative and vibrant business sector over the years. As Rwandans and fellow Africans continually embrace the African print and sophistication, the rise of Rwandan designers could not have come at a better time.

Currently, Rwandan designers are placing the country on the global fashion scene with their designs being showcased in New York, Paris, Geneva and other fashion capitals of the world.

Francis Zahabu Fashion house is the brain child of Francis Iraguha and one of the fashion brands that have undoubtedly caused major waves on the Rwandan fashion scene. He told Sunday Times the fashion industry in the country is indeed on the rise and attributes the steady growth to the government’s support of ‘Made in Rwanda’ products.

“Initially, people received Made in Rwanda designs with skepticism but now I see perceptions changing and people learn to embrace and love our designs and styles. We ourselves as owners of fashion houses have come together to form an association to work together and take this industry to the top,” he said.

Iraguha adds that there are still many wrong perceptions about Rwandans not making quality suites or clothes in general, however, he notes that it is not true as the quality of their designs are more often than not impeccable. His fashion house designs collections for both men, women and children.

Having been in the industry for the last six years, he advises startup designers to give value to their work and endeavor to maintain uniqueness in their designs.

“This industry faces many challenges like few and expensive local raw materials, little advocacy and so on. If novice designers work diligently to learn the ins and outs of this industry, they have the potential to capture worldwide attention.” he said.

Also firmly established and here to stay is Rwanda Clothing, a fashion house that officially opened in 2012. It makes various assortments of clothes including dresses, shirts, blazers and skirts from various fabrics other than African print like cotton and linen. Their collections are for both men and women and they are soon launching a kid’s collection.

Antoinette Twagirayezu, the product manager, says they dress all kinds of events, from formal occasions to casual daily activities.

She says progress has been made but a lot is yet to be done to encourage Rwandans to embrace local designs.

“Currently 50% of our clientele are mostly foreigners living in the country, 30% are tourists and 20% are locals. Towards the end of the year the industry faces a peak season however this year has been crowded since January which speaks volumes on the standing of the Rwandan fashion industry,” she noted.

“Apart from using our own designs, we also do bespoke designs where people bring us the exact picture of what they want their clothes to look like and we tailor them. The favorite item among clients seems to be dresses and we do receive more orders from women than men”.

She further notes that the major challenge facing the industry is insufficiency in quality fabrics and other raw materials which they have to import.

“We are still using fabrics imported from Congo. It’s still quite an issue to get quality fabrics at affordable prices. For us the business is growing at a great pace. When we started, we had 3 tailors and now we have 10 and a show room. I think it all depends on the kind of product you provide,” she said.

Doreen Umwali, the owner of ‘D’zoyah Kreations’ is a start out designer and definitely one to watch as she also incorporates her fashion psyche into the African print. She started her enterprise last year and reckons there is room in the fashion industry for further creativity, innovation and growth.

“I have always loved fashion and eventually life led me to this. I design African print clothes for both men and women. My clientele is mostly people outside the country. I would say only 10% of my clientele are Rwandans,” she said.

She told Sunday Times that her peak season is mainly during summer when people from abroad are coming into the country or placing orders from other countries. She adds that social media has been paramount in the early success of her collection line.

“I market myself as a brand over social media and people respond to all my posts placing orders and the like. I do see a future for my enterprise at the current pace it is growing. It is important to follow up customers to obtain and learn from their feedback. There is power in customer care,” adds Umwali who also imports her material from Accra and Goma. 

In an effort to encourage made in Rwanda products, Rwandans on Twitter (#RWOT) have come up with a hashtag #MadeinRwandaFriday where they don locally made outfits every Friday and post pictures online.

Dany Rugamba, one of the participants of the popular platform told Sunday Times that he stands in full support of the local fashion industry.

“The designers need national support. It may still be a growing industry but it is showing a lot of promise and thus ought to be appreciated.

Likewise, the designers need to step up their game to produce a variety of quality products. I see a steady but not remarkable progress for our country that envisions a ban on second hand clothes,” he said.

Divine Umutoni, a young fashion enthusiast appreciates the incredible work done by Rwandan designers and would like to see more variety in their creations.

“An African print clothing is undoubtedly very sophisticated attire but it cannot be worn everywhere. We need variety in Rwandan fashion creations to include sports attire and casual wear. It would be wonderful to have an entire wardrobe of clothing designed by Rwandans,” she said.

Clearly, the Rwandan fashion industry is still at a youthful stage with a handful of designers and skilled pattern makers. However with their zeal for growth and local support for made in Rwanda products, there is great potential for Kigali to become a fashion Capital in the near future.

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