Joselyne Umutoniwase started fashion brand Rwanda Clothing in Kigali in 2012. Today her workshop is bustling with 45 tailors and employees busy producing garments, accessories and home décor items. Jeanette Clark talks to her about the company’s growth, competition in the industry and what it takes to build a profitable fashion label.
Give us an overview of how you started the business.
I was passionate about fashion and clothing design from a young age. I grew up in a family where my uncle, who lived in Nyanza, had an atelier, a small production workshop for clothing. I spent every holiday there, taking apart garments I had bought at the market to see how they were constructed. I was always sketching, from as young as 10, perhaps. After school, I studied film direction and editing. It was creative and there were opportunities, unlike fashion where we didn’t even have a fashion school to attend.
In 2010, I went to Durban in South Africa to present my film at a festival and was inspired by the number of small, independent fashion designers. I thought: “If it can work here, why don’t we have something like this in Kigali?”
Later that same year, I was given the opportunity to travel to Germany for extensive training in film. I made a small collection of 25 pieces – very simple and classic – to take with me as representation of my country. The people were interested in the garments and I sold all of them.
I didn’t immediately start the company when I returned at the end of 2010. I spent 2011 doing research, asking questions and consumed with doubt. Finally, in March of 2012, I officially registered the company with my then boyfriend. We started small, with two of my sisters as employees and two sewing machines, using the money made from the sales in Germany and our savings.
Tell us about the challenges you faced in the early days; how have these evolved?
When you start a business, especially in the creative industry, there are definitive challenges. In Rwanda, the fashion industry was very young. People didn’t understand what a brand was; we had to work hard to get them to a point where they believed we were bringing value beyond the traditional ways things were done. People brought their fabric to the market and would ask the tailor to make the garments.
The way Rwanda Clothing operated was different. It was slightly more expensive than what was available at the time and was more structured. It was a challenge to find people to include in my team; people who understood my style and would take guidance on how to produce the clothes. I spent almost six months training the first two tailors. They were already professional and knew how to sew but getting them to follow my style was a struggle. I was a young, female designer of 23 and most tailors in Rwanda are men.
Growth was not as fast as we anticipated. We wanted to start with a bigger production output, immediately establish a shop and perhaps participate in exhibitions outside of the country. That didn’t happen. We approached institutions and banks to secure loans for this expansion but finding people who trusted you were worth the investment, proved difficult.
What was your big breakthrough?
We acknowledged the first year would be difficult and had enough savings to see us through. We also paid our rent for the year in advance. During the second year, I participated in a competition run by the ministry of commerce in Rwanda which was looking for new talent and won the award for best innovative idea. The competition was televised; the brand name Rwanda Clothing became known and our creativity had been noticed on-screen. The increased demand pushed us to open a shop.
Also, the time was right. Customers were gradually becoming interested in the creative industry in Rwanda. Within a year you could see the interest pick up.
What steps did you take to grow the business?
From the very beginning, I created a fashion calendar for myself. That first year I did one fashion show; the next year two… I did that regularly and people anticipated the release of the new collection. Every year, we learnt new techniques and used different fabrics and would showcase this to the people at the fashion show. To generate even more awareness, we created our website and advertised more.
When we opened our new showroom in our third year, we made sure it was beautiful and attractive. It drew in customers.
I joined a five-year business training programme and had to learn new skills, particularly resource-, time- and production management. We have been at our current location for five years and have expanded the production team from the original two tailors to 45. The growth is steady.
How did you finance the company?
I have never had a loan. All the money I made, I reinvested into the business.
Describe Rwanda Clothing’s style.
I was initially renowned for designing clothes in colourful fabric – kitenge – and became a specialist. Rwandans used to wear kitenge as a wrap. I made trench coats, evening clothing and jackets and followed that style. However, to attract the customers who preferred a more subdued design, I had to adapt and produce clothing outside of that. But the signature stayed the same; I will always love a good finish.
If I am honest, I am never going to be the designer who creates trends. I am more interested in helping the customer discover what works for them and their body. That has not changed and will remain the ethos of the company: to be really attentive to our customers’ needs and help them evolve and try different things.
We will always offer the customising. Yes, we have a showroom that indicates what we are capable of, but we still create the items the customers want which matches their taste.
Many people dream of running a successful clothing brand, but more often than not it fails. What do you think are the reasons for Rwanda Clothing’s longevity?
Our longevity lies in the fact that we are willing to customise our creations. Although, nowadays everyone is customising. To keep growing your brand, you have to develop your technique and approach as well. You don’t want customers to find you at the same level you were five years ago.
I invest substantially in production. If there is a new technique I want to add, I put money aside to buy the machine or add more people for hand technique designs. This is how you maintain the intrigue for customers. If I don’t hold a fashion show, our customers ask when we plan to have another; they look forward to seeing the new techniques.
Who are your main customers?
For now, we only sell in Rwanda and have extended our shop footprint. We now have three outlets: the Rwanda Clothing shop; the second is home décor, something I began at the end of 2017 and it has been expanding in a slow and manageable way. We started with accessories and home décor items were added. We use different types of traditional techniques but try to update these and make them more modern.
The third shop, Umutoni, focuses on couture. This is where I experiment with complicated techniques and expensive fabric. As a designer, it makes me happy to experiment.
Apart from the local market, I have collaborated with people outside of Rwanda to create collections specifically for them but we don’t yet sell to the export market.
Is it easy for African designers to sell their garments internationally?
People are beginning to embrace African creativity in terms of colourful fabric and design. It makes me sad, though, when a well-known international brand produces something with an African influence, it is seen as innovative and creative. But when it is created by an unknown African designer, it is seen as ethnic, traditional or African and doesn’t have the same value.
This is slowly changing and the more we push the boundaries and put ourselves on the platform, it will continue to improve. E-commerce and an online presence will help to change this perception over time.
Describe your manufacturing process.
We do everything, from A to Z. The team is divided into smaller groups and I manage them. It begins with me sketching and explaining the process for the pattern cutting to a team of three. They cut it in muslin and we produce a sample. From this, the customer can adapt, request changes, customise and place their order.
Team members specialise in a specific garment for a whole year. They learn all different types of techniques for that garment in order to master the skill.
We also employ people who create accessories. At the moment, two people produce leather items and there is a team of five doing just beadwork. We also have a hand-finish team that works on hems and buttons which are still done largely by hand. Each shop has two salespeople.
Tell us about your growth plans.
I have always aimed to reach the most customers I can, within Rwanda. I was planning to expand this year to an online shop and find ways to collaborate in other markets. But 2020 and Covid-19 have postponed these plans.
It has been a difficult year. We have employees who depend on their jobs at Rwanda Clothing; many are part-time employees who produce handmade items for the home décor division.
How competitive is the industry?
I was the very first clothing brand in the country. However, there are currently a lot more, just in Kigali. This is a lot for such a small area.
When you start your brand, you have a unique style, you know what you are doing and there is no fear. People know what they want from your brand and you can offer it. Competition is tough but it keeps pushing me. It has enabled me to find my particular style and voice. I don’t have to be everything to everyone. I can find my own identity.
The market still has room for all of us to grow.