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Rwanda is fast becoming Africa’s leading fashion hub, with a new generation of young designers turning to the country’s rich culture for inspiration to create beautiful, wearable pieces coveted by visitors and locals. The result is fashionable clothing inspired by local traditions but with sights set firmly on the future. Culture Trip speaks to the founder of Kigali Fashion Week and the creator of one of the city’s first fashion tours about their pick of the best designers and top boutiques in the Rwandan capital of Kigali.
Five years ago, the country’s government went on an initiative to promote home-grown talent and products abroad, launching the Made in Rwanda campaign. The result has seen a 69% increase in exports, and the fashion industry has boomed. It’s also inspired a new generation of young designers who are keen to put Rwanda, and specifically Kigali, on the map.
“The Made in Rwanda concept has, without doubt, increased the number of young people interested in establishing their dreams in the fashion industry,” says John Bunyeshuli, founder and director of Kigali Fashion Week. “I’ve always said we want to have Kigali as the fashion hub of Africa – in other words, the ‘Paris of Africa’ – and our government is injecting a lot of funding into the creative industries. Designers are all benefiting from that support.”
As the local fashion community has grown, so too has the number of annual fashion events. Kigali Fashion Week was one of the first when it launched 10 years ago, but is joined by others including the Rwanda Cultural Fashion Show and Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, which held its inaugural edition in Kigali in 2019.
“I created Kigali Fashion Week as a platform to promote Rwanda’s creative arts industry,” says Bunyeshuli. “I felt a need, having seen the raw talent of young creatives with a passion to open up international doors for sale and marketing opportunities.”
Four years ago, Bunyeshuli also launched Kigali International Fashion Week to showcase Rwandan creativity around the world, which has since held events across Africa, Europe, North America and Asia – 2020 looks set to be the organisation’s biggest yet, with Kigali Fashion Week taking place in June, followed by shows in Tokyo in July, the UK in August, and New York and Toronto in November.
For visitors to Rwanda looking for the inside scoop on where to track down the best Rwandan designs and boutiques, local hotel and tour group Heaven Rwanda offers a fashion tour recently launched by the group’s founder, Alissa Ruxin, designed to connect travellers to entrepreneurs in the local fashion industry. The half-day tours cover designer boutiques as well as local cooperative workshops with a social mission.
“Heaven Rwanda has had so much fun exploring every corner of Kigali to find the workshops and boutiques showcasing Rwanda’s top talent,” says Ruxin. “We take our visitors off the beaten track to discover and support entrepreneurs who might not otherwise have access to a market to sell their products.”
Her favourite local labels include Rwanda Clothing, House of Tayo, Moshions, Sonia Mugabo, INZUKI and Haute Baso. “They are the leaders in innovative and upscale luxury fashion design, and each has a unique story,” says Ruxin. “We also admire how they give back to the community through training programs for tailors and young students and interns interested in developing a career in fashion.”
Most of the top designers are committed to storytelling through their creations, and many of their designs are inspired by Rwandan traditions and culture, which are adapted to create products with a more contemporary look and feel.
“The work of Moise Turahirwa, the designer behind Moshions, is inspired by traditional imigongo artwork, featuring geometric black-and-white designs,” Ruxin explains. “House of Tayo’s designer Matthew Rugamba combines African heritage with modern designs and is especially known for his bow ties and men’s suits with elegant trims of African kitenge fabric.”
House of Tayo made global headlines in 2018 when a bespoke ‘Wakanda Secret Service’ three-piece suit designed by Rugamba was worn by the brother of Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o to the premiere of hit film Black Panther.
While this kind of locally inspired fashion makes for excellent souvenirs, it isn’t only popular with tourists. Other fans include Rwandan celebrities and politicians such as President Paul Kagame and his wife, Jeannette, who regularly attend high-profile events wearing locally designed bespoke pieces.
“There isn’t really much international competition here, as we don’t – yet – have a lot of malls with global brands,” says Ruxin. “But our guests at Heaven Kigali are always extremely impressed by the quality and variety of products now available and created in Rwanda.”
Equally impressive is the sustainable vision – both environmental and social – behind many of these brands. Jewellery designer Abraham Konga creates elegant, minimalist jewellery from recycled cow horn and melted padlocks, while Jean Marie Habiyaremye of Cow Horns Rwanda uses discarded cow horn to create jewellery, as well as training others in the unique skills and machine work needed to produce these products.
“We also love the local cooperatives with a social mission supporting street children or women with HIV or people with disabilities by creating beautiful products like handmade soaps, woven jewellery and kitenge handbags,” says Ruxin. “The price point is a bit more affordable, and you have the chance to learn about each cooperative and understand how purchases contribute to the economic development and support of each. There is such incredible rising talent in Rwanda – not just in Kigali, but throughout the country, young entrepreneurs are creating spectacular locally made products.”