18 June 2017

Rwanda: Ikwiize, Kigali's Newest Fashion Brand

Ikwiize means "to dress fully, embodying modesty and dignity", explains Joanita Kayonga, the managing partner of Ikwiize Fashion House.

Over the past weeks, it is an explanation she has had to make frequently to curious fashion lovers, this being the fashion high season in Kigali.

The newest kid on the local fashion scene, Ikwiize was one of the fashion brands that showcased its collections at the recently concluded Collective Rwanda Fashion Show. A week earlier, the brand had graced its first major runway at the Kigali Fashion Week.

The brand represented itself well among seasoned industry veterans like Sonia Mugabo, Inzuki Designs, House of Tayo and Uzi Collections.

This for a fashion brand that only joined the fray in January this year.

Ikwiize was born out of a merger between two different fashion lines; Swav, a retail textile and fashion accessories store that's been running in Kigali for the last six years, and Qaal Designs.

Qaal Designs is a contemporary Islamic clothing brand owned by the Somali-American fashion designer Nimco Adam Qaal. Qaal is an experienced technical fashion designer and pattern maker who grew up in East Africa and who plies her trade between her native Somalia, Los Angeles in the US, Nairobi, and Rwanda where she is currently based.

For Joanita Kayonga, the journey started when she founded Eklektik Designs, a retail fashion boutique in 2011 as a homage to her childhood love and taste for good quality fabric. Located at the MTN Center in Nyarutarama, the boutique deals in an assortment of cotton, linen, chiffon, silk, khaki, suiting, satin, and complementary fashion accessories.

In 2015, Eklektik Designs morphed into Swäv Ltd to carry on with the textile/fashion accessories business alongside the bespoke tailoring workshop.

"In 2016, Swäv was ready to start our ready to wear clothing line and partnered with Qaal Designs to bring the idea to life. The combination of each company's expertise and experience brought Ikwiize to life," Joanita explains.

She describes Ikwiize as "an Afro-contemporary ready to wear fashion brand that caters to a clientele that's looking for minimal and modest clothing items for men, women and children. Ikwiize which means to dress fully and modestly is inspired by Rwandan and Somali cultures.

"Our businesses complement each other in terms of skills sets and in terms of growth. We wanted to grow our businesses and get into a ready to wear clothing line so we created Ikwiize. Why this choice, because of our cultures. I'm sure you've seen how Rwandan women and men dress -they dress modestly and the Somali culture too encourages modesty. So we just wanted to keep it easy and cater to that clientele," she added.

On participating in the recent Kigali Fashion Week and Collective Rwanda Fashion Show she explained;

"We were hoping that putting the word out there on what we're capable of doing will increase our clientele not just locally but globally."

"When I met Joanita at her store I saw amazing fabrics some of which I'd worked with before and I got interested in collaborating with her because with my skills as a fashion designer, technical advisor and product developer, I knew something great would come out of it," Nimco Adam Qaal chips in.

"After we registered the company (Ikwiize) we brainstormed and started working on the designs and getting to understand more of the Rwandan culture that is similar to the Somali, especially the umushanana. That was exciting for me."

She describes herself as "a Somali-American fashion designer who celebrates her heritage by creating modern, modest Islamic fashions born out of the culture of cities and villages of the African continent."

She was born and raised in East Africa where her passion for fashion design was born.

As a teenager, her talent was showcased in tie & dye and batik, with which she made a name in the region.

In order to pursue her dream of becoming a designer, she enrolled at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), in New York City en route to her journey as a professional fashion designer.

Today, Nimco is the Creative Director of Ikwiize Designs, while Joanita is its Managing Director. The fashion house operates out of the same premises as Swav, at the MTN Center in Nyarutarama.

For the Kigali Fashion Week, Ikwiize announced their foray into the local fashion market emphatically with solid colors -mostly black, elegant office and evening wear. A week later at the Collective Rwanda Fashion Show, the two designers went in largely for African prints, a common trait with the other fashion houses that showcased.

"We asked for coffee husks from Bourbon Coffee and they gave us about five kilos which we took home and boiled and used the solution to dye our fabrics which we showcased at the two events," Nimco revealed, adding that putting together a collection for a fashion runway is no walk in the park:

"There's obviously a lot of work that the designer must put in to get their clothing collection ready. First is sketching all the designs that you want to showcase, then you get into explaining these sketches to your tailors, after which you must then choose the right fabrics that will bring your sketches to life. Then you have the fitting process with the models. You have to have the right measurements. After fittings you have to adjust the measurements to the models, then get ready for the show."

Yet that's not all.

"When you start sourcing for fabrics you want fabrics that can be reproduced. You don't want something that looks beautiful but is not on the market. It's a challenge for a lot of designers. We couldn't do our own prints because there was not enough time although doing prints is our main thing. So we went to the market and sourced fabrics and color combinations."

Nimco is what you would call a fashion globe trotter, always on the move with her designs because "as a fashion designer you have no borders":

"You have to source for fabrics, if our business grows we need to sell in Japan and in China because they love African prints. As I travel across the world I'm collecting different ideas and collaborating with different designers. The reason I chose Rwanda is because I feel safe here. I can wake up at 3:00 am and walk on the street. I can't do that in Somalia or in Kenya or in Los Angeles. It's clean, quiet and I love the hills as well. This is a great place to meditate and design, a welcoming country."

She describes the learning process she has undergone over the years as a combination of awareness, interest, evaluation, trial, and adoption. For

"Through this, I get influenced so much by information sources and personal and social motivation and self image. I would like to implement a design that will have a trend in the near future because I dream, walk and think fashion. In my view, fashion tends to bring uniqueness, individualism and excitement in life; a differentiation between a person from the rest. My influences are derived from the ethnic cultures from the numerous tribal communities of Africa. I try to bring back memories from the original native look, where you can throw whatever you want on, mix it up, mess it up and break up all the rules layers."

Nimco's parting shot:

"For me it's exciting being in Rwanda because there are a lot of resources -it's an organic country where you can use the trees and flowers -we dyed our garments with coffee and even with tea and for me it's a great opportunity to grow not just in Rwanda but even back in Somalia and elsewhere. Rwanda should be an example to the world and to Africa in terms of how far it has come from and what the country is all about."

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