Valentine’s night found me at the Eminence Hotel in Gacinjiro, home of Rwanda Clothing, a local fashion house. The occasion: a fashion event code-named Rwanda Clothing Fashion Party and the host was Joselyne Umutoniwase.
Rwanda Clothing is housed in front of the hotel. Since the hotel is located by the road, no sooner had the event kicked off than a large crowd of onlookers gathered, craning their necks for a bit of the action. It was obvious some of these people were witnessing this for the first time.
Even for those of us already familiar with fashion events, the feeling was that they had been demystified further by a daring young designer.
“Rwanda Clothing is a home, which is the reason we maintain an open-door policy. You can come with your whole family and we drink coffee or just talk about fashion. You can go back door and meet the tailors or watch them work,” says Umutoniwase.
“I have done lots of fashion shows, always between August and May, with nothing at the beginning of the year. I really wanted to do this long time ago,” she said.
Her open door policy, she says is intended to give any person an opportunity to walk in and take a look. Umutoniwase works with a team of seven tailors, up from just two when she set up shop. These are her core workforce and without them, her creative ideas would not come to life at a sufficient pace.
“All my workers are older than me, because since childhood I have always been more comfortable around older people. I give the tailors the chance to choose new staff – and I tell them to find people we are both comfortable working with. They all earn monthly salaries, not commission,” she says.
“This is meant to ensure that they do not work under pressure to produce. When people are thinking more about the money, the creative process is already dead. The company also pays their medical insurance, and they work only on weekdays.”
“I allow them to make mistakes, because it’s part of the creative process. I make sure they have nothing to lose when they make a mistake,” Umutoniwase adds.
Living her dream
At school, Umutoniwase studied sciences. For three years, she studied chemistry, although she did not like it one bit.
“I studied biochemistry at Ecole Secondaire Kicukiro, and it’s not because I loved it. When I joined the school, there were two faculties; biochemistry, and painting. I had never seen some one survive out of art, so I shied away from it. Even my family was opposed to the idea,” Umutoniwase reveals, adding that she has loved art since she was a kid.
“Even in science class, I was the one drawing diagrams for illustration because I was better than the teachers. I always knew I was an artist, but sometimes society influence makes you afraid. As a child, most gifts bought for me at home were pencils and crayons because I was always drawing. At school I had a special sense of clothing and style. Everything I wore had my personal touch in it.”
So, studying biochemistry was “a big mistake” because Umutoniwase knew that she would never study medicine. “I wanted something that involved art and creativity.”
When she heard of a month-long training workshop in filmmaking for young people out of high school, she immediately seized the opportunity.
“They were giving small tests and if they found you with basic orientation, they took you on. They asked me what I knew about films, I said I only knew how to draw pictures. I was the only one in the class who knew drawing. They created for me a story board and I illustrated it in drawing. They said I had an eye for cutting images, so I was immediately assigned to the editing suite as an editor.
“I studied six months of basic editing and was appointed senior editor at Rwanda Cinema Centre, now Kwetu Film Institute after six months. After a year, I was promoted to the rank of resident editor,” she revaels.
At this point, the fruits of her efforts were beginning to bear: “I was now a professional, and so was paid for my work. I worked for five years as editor, the last two as trainer for editors.”
Within this period, she also directed two films, one of which showcased in South Africa Film Festival 2010, while the other has showed at the Hillywood Film Festival since 2009.
“While at the cinema centre, I enrolled for a night course in ICT at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology. I was brilliant at it, but couldn’t figure myself working in ICT,” she notes.
She left for Germany to attain further trainings in cinema, and “it’s here that I had time to think about myself and what I wanted to do. I took my first collection to Germany with me, which included skirts, jackets, and dresses, all in African fabrics. I took items I knew even if they didn’t buy, I’d wear them. Also took some jewellery. In all, I took a collection of 25 items,” Umutoniwase says.
“Before going to Germany, I’d never called myself a designer, but to sell my items, I introduced myself to potential buyers as a designer. I sold each and every item I took with me. Even with this, I was still reluctant to venture into fashion design, coming from a background of a salaried job.”
She credits her then boyfriend, now husband for giving her the all-important psychological push: “He encouraged me to take it up seriously, but my main worry was that there was virtually no fashion industry back home.”
Setting up shop
“I wanted to start small, and it’s what I did. I wanted something we could control and do on our own. We started with two tailors, who I had to train from scratch for six months. I would come up with a new idea or trick, and they’d try it out and bring the sample to me.
Friends were my first customers. When we started going into competitions, people started noticing our designs. Customers started coming. I hired two more tailors, so the room became small, and we decided to get a better place,” Umutoniwase says.
What’s her personal style?
“You don’t have to go high fashion all the way. I don’t want to see the brand. I want to see your personality. It has to be a small thing that puts everything in place.”