A Belgian touch to Rwandan fashion

Chris Simoens
17 October 2019
A growing number of local Rwandan fashion designers offer stylish clothing ‘made in Rwanda’. Did you know that fashion country Belgium contributes to this?

Rwanda is gradually finding its way economically. The country is even known as the 'Little Singapore' or 'the Switzerland of Africa'. The economic dynamism reflects especially on the capital Kigali and its extremely clean streets, luxury hotels and modern boutiques. Even trendy fashion stores are located there.


Passionate designers

One example is Rwanda Clothing, the company of Joselyne Umutoniwase, a leading fashion designer in Kigali. ‘The Rwandan economy is becoming stable’, she says. ‘It's easier for people to spend money on luxury goods. Ten years ago, they had to focus on other priorities. Today they have jobs and they want to look good.’

Or Sonia Mugabo, another leading fashion designer in Rwanda, who created her own brand SM. Fashion house Haute Baso offers ‘ethical fashion for the modern individual looking for simple and functional clothing’. It trains young women who are often the only ones who earn money in their families. Kolbe Hategikamana is passionate about fashion and designs stylish men's clothing. Elegant handbags can be found at Dokmai.

All of them are passionate designers with entrepreneurial spirit. The official policy in Rwanda encourages them to start their own business. For example, the government is increasingly restricting the import of second-hand clothes by means of import taxes in order to create more room for the market share of local companies. Rwanda is clearly committed to the ‘creative economy’. The national organisation Fashion Hub Kigali, for example, wants to provide a platform for creative talent and organises the Kigali Fashion Festival every year.

The government is increasingly restricting the import of second-hand clothes by means of import taxes in order to create more room for the market share of local companies.

Chinese clothing

However, as the expensive clothing 'made in Rwanda' is not affordable for the average Rwandan, he has no other choice but to dress with second-hand clothes that are still available and items from countries like China. Besides, Chinese clothing companies such as G&H Garments are also established in Rwanda. The Rwandan government has already imposed conditions stating that they are not allowed to export the whole production, 20% of which must be offered for sale in Rwanda.

Young designers who produce their garments in Rwanda cannot compete with the cheap Chinese textiles, simply because Rwanda does not have its own raw materials such as cotton and silk. All fabrics must be imported.

This does not prevent the Rwandan fashion business from gradually flourishing. Not only expats - foreigners living in Rwanda - but also the growing Rwandan middle class are showing more and more interest in stylish clothing made in Rwanda, adapted to their own taste. Some designers such as Umutoniwase, are already venturing into export.

The fashion business creates jobs and enhances the country's image. By doing so, it lays the foundations for more and more fashion 'made in Rwanda', step by step, which targets an increasingly wider public. But for the time being, the main obstacle remains a lack of training and organisation. Even C&H Garments has to ensure the training of its own staff.

A rack with clothes of Rwanda Clothing in the pop-up store in 2015.
© Raphaël Cardinael

Fashion show at the embassy

Belgium, as a fashion country, wants to contribute to the thriving Rwandan fashion. Former ambassador Arnout Pauwels made the first move in 2015. ‘We were living in the aftermath of a tense relationship between Belgium and Rwanda’, he says. ‘That is why I wanted to add a positive note. And why not put fashion in the spotlight instead of the usual beer and chocolate?’

Een model op de catwalk in Rwanda
Fashion show at the residence

So Pauwels organised the big show of the Kigali Fashion Week, intended for local designers, in the garden of the residence. ‘That attracted quite a lot of young and trendy people’, he says. The ambassador also invited Belgian designer An Buermans, who opened a pop-up store in an arty building for 2 evenings.

‘At that time, local designers did not yet have a store of their own, so the pop-up store gave them the opportunity to sell their own creations,’ says Buermans. ‘But it was rather rudimentary, there were no hangers or garment rails. I had garment rails made at the embassy's expense. I showed the designers how to organise a sale and  directly earn customer loyalty’.

Detachment of experts

What struck her most was the lack of materials and training. For example, some local tailors did not know how to put a garment into production, in other words, how to make a model available in several sizes: small, medium, large... They were still used to designing unique and custom-made pieces.

Buermans then put the non-profit organisation Exchange in touch with the ambassador. This organisation sends professionals to Africa. Several Belgian experts travelled to Rwanda to offer training courses. These sessions were mainly intended for members of the Rwandan Association of Professional Tailors (APT).

An Buermans herself hosted a workshop on pattern drawing and Audrey Marion an illustrator training. Liesbeth Verhelst (ZLQ) focused on handbags while Nathalie Aerts taught pattern design. Dominiek Dolphen, management expert, taught APT strategic planning. Finally, Chris Vijt, stylist at Ba*Ba Babywear, shared her technical knowledge on design production, i.e. scaling it up to multiple sizes. She also focused on the development of a collection. ‘That offers opportunities to create employment,’ she says.

An Buermans with 2 local fashion designers
© Raphaël Cardinael

Professional training

In the meantime, Exchange is working together with APEFE. Thanks to a programme that runs from 2017 to 2021, this organisation wants to improve the training opportunities needed for the Rwandan fashion industry. APEFE is fully in line with the Rwandan ‘Made in Rwanda’ policy, which aims to stimulate the local industry. It also cooperates with all the relevant government services.

In March 2019, Feride Karahisarli, an international expert in textiles and design, travelled to Rwanda for APEFE. She visited several small, medium and large companies to better understand the sector. Her evaluation revealed that the available labour force, which is mainly located in rural areas, has only received a basic training. Most tailors do not have any experience in working for the fashion industry.

So APEFE wants to contribute to the development of professional training courses that meet international standards. The organisation also sent other experts, such as Massimo Cipolloni (MPA Style) for leather processing. Chris Vijt, through a partnership agreement with Exchange, participated in a pattern drawing training course. ‘With what I have learned, I can save fabrics and apply the international standards to my work’, stated Jean Marie Vianney Ntirushwa afterwards.

In short, Belgium keeps working towards a flourishing local clothing and fashion industry in Rwanda. All Belgian experts experienced their stay in Rwanda as being unforgettable. Have they been influenced by Rwanda in their own designs? An Buermans and Chris Vijt replied unanimously: ‘Not so much in terms of style, but well in terms of colour!’


Exchange and APEFE are partners of the Belgian Development Cooperation.

Rwanda Fashion
Back Economy
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