Former Miss Tanzania making it big in Rwanda’s fashion industry

Recently, leading international fashion houses like Gucci, Michael Kors and Yves Laurent have been using African prints in their collections and collaborating with African designers. The latest development has caused excitement to most African designers, most of them terming it as the ultimate breakthrough for African designs and designers. But a leading designer in Kigali holds a slightly different opinion. She thinks it’s too early to call for a celebration though the collaboration is a step in the right direction.

Recently, leading international fashion houses like Gucci, Michael Kors and Yves Laurent have been using African prints in their collections and collaborating with African designers. The latest development has caused excitement to most African designers, most of them terming it as the ultimate breakthrough for African designs and designers. But a leading designer in Kigali holds a slightly different opinion. She thinks it’s too early to call for a celebration though the collaboration is a step in the right direction.

“Africa has so much to offer but we shouldn’t rest on our laurels because our designs are incorporated into someone else’s collections; we should retain our identity,” says Rehema Sudi, a leading fashion designer and proprietor of Kanyana Fashion House, which is located opposite KCB head office in Kigali.

Rehema is tall and glamorous and her short afro is rugged and shaggy. She has so much energy that it is hard to imagine her standing still or asleep. She is 29 years old (though you’d never guess it). She is the daughter of two PHD holders and is currently pursuing an MBA (another thing you’d never guess), which she says is not so that she can fit into the job market but just “to acquire knowledge”. Though she rarely mentions it, she was the winner of the Miss Earth Tanzania contest in 2005 and became the first Tanzanian to ever get to the semifinals in the same year in Manila, Philippines.

She constantly uses words like ‘creativity’,  ‘vibrant’ and ‘timeless’ as  she offers non-stop pronouncements on what a great design should include. She sounds like a designer though at times her modesty leads her to saying, “I will be a designer someday.”

She designs outfits, fashion accessories (like bowties and handbags), jewelry, and home décor accessories like table mats and wine dressers. She describes her designs as ‘ancient tradition merging with contemporary designs’. 

Coming to Rwanda

Rehema, a Tanzanian by nationality, first came to Rwanda in 2011 on a job assignment that lasted four months.

“I used to work as a consultant in the Development of Public Pay Policies. By the time my assignment was over, I had fallen in love with many things in the country – the culture, the people, the environment. I found Rwanda an ideal place for me to express myself through art. It is then that I started a fashion house,” she says.

The lanky beauty chose to name her fashion house Kanyana (Kinyarwanda for female calf) because of her love for livestock and as a prediction that as a calf matures and delivers, someday in future, her fashion house will come of age and have branches “allover”.

Early days

Though a daughter of two scientists, and brought up in a countryside in Tengeru, Tanzania, Rehema grew up in an artistic environment.

“My father travelled a lot in his line of work and wherever he went, he brought with him something artistic about the place. He collected anything he considered a work of art, and was a perfectionist; at times he would buy a watch and change its wraps. He only used custom-made wallets and belts. That might have had an impact on me.”

Rehema says she has always designed stuff for herself since she was a kid. She remembers designing an outfit made from coconut shells during her high school days. “It’s one of the best things I have ever come up with,” she says with a smile.

In her previous line of work, she had the privilege to travel the world and see art collections and designs in various parts of the world.

“I saw many designs that caught my eye and made me want to come up with something of my own. I needed a break from work and launching a fashion house seemed the most appropriate thing for me.”

It is not easy to start a new concept in a new country but that didn’t scare her. “Every morning I told myself that if I stuck long enough to it and gave it my all, I’d get to the heights I wanted to.”

Locally designed outfits are perceived by many as pricey and mostly reserved for the rich or white tourists (Abazungu). But Rehema disagrees: “What we design is not meant for foreigners; it is meant for us. It is not expensive but it is value for money. We invest in so much work and materials to come up with an outfit. I don’t just buy materials, cut and sew. I buy materials, blend them, design them and put outfits through tests to see their durability and quality. At times I use between 10 to 15 different prints. I seek to see what happens to it after washing and ironing it. It wouldn’t feel right to sell an outfit to somebody if I am not sure of it’s quality.”

In her designs, Rehema uses purely African print and locally available materials like beads, precious stones, and leather. “Africa is so rich in materials which can be used for various designs. We can be self-sufficient. Our materials have so much value that some foreign fashion houses are trying to rip off our heritage. Good examples are the Kikoi and Masaai Shuka which are being copied by Asian designers.”

Rehema advocates for creativity, quality and vibrancy and believes it is the only way local designers can get ahead and retain their identity. “Research may not always point you to the right direction. It is important to be creative and create need. The local market is beginning to see the beauty and timelessness of what local designers have to offer. In future I foresee a lot of collaborations between local designers and even more collaborations with international fashion houses.”

Designers are often accused of delegating all tasks to their employees and taking credit for things they didn’t accomplish. But for Rehema, “I go to markets and look for fabrics myself; it is not easy describing to someone how you would like a particular design made, and some things can not be expressed by words. You have to do it first for someone else to see how you’d like it done. I always want to guarantee my clients uniqueness and timelessness of outfits. It is not something I would easily delegate.”

Inspiration

Rehema looks up to Adel Dejak, a designer based in Kenya, who she says has a way of expressing herself by blending different locally sourced materials.

When she is not responding to her creative spark, she spends time reading books. “I think everyone should at least read something every now and then – not for academic purposes but to gain knowledge which makes you a better human being and enables you to make better decisions.”

To all upcoming designers who are finding it hard to stay afloat in the industry, she says, “Keep screaming till they hear you out.”

And on whether she is single or seeing someone, Rehema is elusive: “I’d like to keep them guessing”

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