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Designer Sonia Mugabo (in blue) at the second Kigali Fashion Week  
Designer Sonia Mugabo (in blue) at the second Kigali Fashion Week

Rwanda's economy ripe for fashion industry

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When Rwandan designer Colombe Ituze Ndutiye began drawing at the age of six, she thought she would grow up to be a cartoonist. But now, at 25, she has the distinction of being the first Rwandan to own her own fashion label, INCO icyusa.

Ndutiye was one of 10 local designers who showed on the runway at the second Kigali Fashion Week on 8 November.

“I wanted it to be something young and more classic, but I added traditional accessories to combine the two very different cultures,” Ndutiye says of her new collection, Wild Identity.

“Normally, when we have those traditional accessories it’s just for a wedding. They symbolize a Rwandan theme. Having it mixed with western culture, for me, it was something wild,” says Ndutiye, who first became intrigued by fashion design when she met a Belgian designer in Rwanda.

Long way since 1994

Rwanda’s economy has come a long way since the 1994 genocide that resulted in the deaths of almost one million people in less than 100 days. Before 1994, the country had a “small and uncompetitive” industrial sector, which manufactured soap, textiles, small-scale beverages, furniture and plastic goods. But now the government hopes it will become the Singapore of Africa. 

“Rwanda hopes to emulate and replicate Singapore’s ICT feat in Africa by creating favourable ICT policies that lay the groundwork for its ICT sector,” an October economic report by South African-based research and strategy firm Consultancy Africa Intelligence states.

According to the report, post-genocide Rwanda has achieved a lot in its Information and Communications Technology sector.

And there is hope that Rwanda could become just as successful with its fashion. Local company House of Fashion was established almost two years ago to support and promote the Rwandan industry. House of Fasion’s head John Bunyeshuli says Rwandans have a “subtle” style, with the “high end” of the population able to travel to Europe to buy clothes.

“But the middle [income sector], mostly go to markets [that sell] secondhand clothes,” Bunyeshuli says.

He says there is a perception here that fashion is not for the serious-minded.

“Rwanda is a new country, we’re still catching up. Yes, people here do fashion shows, but they take it as a luxury,” Bunyeshuli says.

Gap in the market

Upcoming Rwandan designer Michaella Rugwizangoga sees a gap in the local market and plans to continue working here on her line, Chicissime, which she launched last year.

Born in Ivory Coast, she points out that the West African fashion industry is much older than that of Rwanda’s.

“They have more skills [in West Africa],” Rugwizangoga says. “And the country where I was born is on the sea, so it’s not a land-locked country, like Rwanda, so there’s much more choice of fabric.”

She also points to the success of Ghanaian and Nigerian designers who are now selling their clothes at London’s Selfridges department store. Selfridges stocks Ndani, the Nigerian fashion project label that showcases a number of Nigeria’s designers.

But because fashion is a new industry in Rwanda, Rugwizangoga points out, “there’s a lot of excitement and curiosity”.

An industry without a school

Belgian-born Candy Basomingera, who partnered with Sonia Mugabo to design the women’s range, Afrikana Exquisiteness, would love to learn more about the industry, but Rwanda currently lacks a local fashion school.

“You can learn on the job but it will never be as good as if you went to a school where they teach you the basics and you go for internships with big fashion houses,” says Basomingera.

Basomingera, who is part Belgian Congolese and part Rwandan, worked in public health but when her contract ended a year ago, she decided to venture into fashion. She says she would love it if Rwandan designers, models, tailors and photographers were able to travel aboard and be exposed to international fashion industries.

Her wish may be fulfilled. There is a possibility that some Rwandan fashion designers may go to New York Fashion Week next year. And there are plans to bring international sponsors onboard for the third Kigali Fashion Week. But before that, in May, a mini Fashion Week will be held with a fashion school involving industry figures from the US, Canada and the UK. The long-term goal is to construct Rwanda’s first school of the arts with the House of Fashion.

Originally published by IPS