When Matthew “Tayo” Rugamba ventured into the fashion business in 2011, he began by selling his bow ties out of a backpack. At the time he was still living and studying in the US, but whenever he came back home to Rwanda for the holidays, he would work on making bow ties, and peddling them informally.
Rugamba is the founder and creative director of House of Tayo, a Kigali-based fashion label known mostly for its attention-getting bow ties, neck ties, pocket scarves and snoods which are made from African “kitenge” fabrics.
Rugamba uses House of Tayo as a creative vehicle to dispel myths and showcase the “actual” African culture, lifestyle and heritage that many around the world do not see.
“The brand is about celebrating elements of your individuality,” Rugamba said.
While his designs have found bigger audiences abroad, Rugamba continues to produce in Rwanda with the help of local artisans and tailors to “keep the brand authentic” while creating employment opportunities.
Something out of nothing
At the time when Rugamba started, Rwanda’s fashion sector was practically non-existent. Today, there is much more excitement about the industry, which has its eyes set on the international market. The growth of Rwandan fashion is driven by young local designers like Rugamba who have moved back home after living abroad.
By his own admission, Rugamba is a self-taught fashion designer. He developed his design skills by watching online tutorials, reading fashion blogs and studying the industry in general.
“In specific things like the art of designing and creating a brand, I read a lot and studied what other people are doing and picked out some of the best practice to start developing this business,” the 27-year-old graduate of international relations explained.
He started the company with personal savings from a summer job and was able to expand it with support from his family. “The first success we achieved was getting a store in Kigali. That was in 2013 when I moved back,” he said, adding that “being around every year in this business is a milestone”.
Over the years, House of Tayo has been able to grow steadily due to “genuine reviews” from people who have purchased the product. He has already showcased his collections abroad and has also been invited for speaking engagements at the Wharton business school and the World Economic Forum.
Social media and fashion
Social media also gave House of Tayo a leg up. In early 2012, it was a Tumblr post Rugamba published on his ambition to tell the story of Africa with bow ties that first shot him and his brand into the limelight. That year, he got the opportunity to showcase his collections at the Africa Fashion Week London.
“Social media is how we got our name out there,” Rugamba recalled. “But while we are using the social media, we make sure that what we put out there is quality.”
“You know, you can pump thousands of dollars into getting the names out there but if the product and experience of working with you is not great, it’s going to be a ‘one and done’ – a situation where the customers come in once and they don’t come back. Businesses only grow when you get customers and retain them. Retaining the customers is even more important than gaining new ones.”
Building the next fashion capital
Although the Rwandan fashion industry is still young, it is steadily evolving into a lucrative and vibrant market. Rugamba said initiatives such as the “Made in Rwanda” campaign have helped the industry grow. “Five years ago, the fashion industry was basically ‘I have my local tailor who will make me an outfit’. Now you have brands that have more than one store.”
However, he pointed out that to no single designer alone can grow the industry into a fashion trendsetter. The future lies in collaboration.
In early 2015, Rugamba and four other local designers created CollectiveRW, a strategic alliance positioned to launch Rwandan fashion onto the global stage.
“We realised that our industry is not going to grow if everyone is doing their own thing,” he explained, adding that, the goal is not only to get the products out there but for designers to start holding themselves accountable especially in terms of “producing high-quality products, high-quality events and collaborating to help establish an industry that was non-existent”.
“If I go out there as House of Tayo, yes it’s cool for my brand but how much pull do I have in this one brand? But as a group, the expenses can be shared. It will also give us lobbying power.”
“One of the main things we are doing is that we are showing the potential of the Rwanda fashion industry to the world. We are showing sponsors the quality of designs we can put together. We are putting our country on the map.”
Already, brands that participated in the CollectiveRW have gained more traffic to their stores but Rugamba and his team are also looking at the business side of things, especially how designers can capitalise on the hype.
“We are not doing shows to drink champagne and have after-parties. It needs to translate into business as well,” Rugamba said.
Challenges facing entrepreneurs
According to Rugamba, an underdeveloped textile industry and inadequate access to finance is still a significant challenge for fashion entrepreneurs in Rwanda.
“Even when you are able to get start-up financing, the rates and terms are not favourable,” he said, adding that these challenges have limited local players from competing internationally. He suggested that the government could have a special loan interest window for young people starting their own business.
On the other hand, Rugamba said local designers have to pull their weight by producing quality products. “The government is sacrificing a huge amount of taxes to help our industry grow. The infrastructure is there, it is all about getting the right players into the market.”
For young entrepreneurs, his advice is to “start small with low risk”.
“Sometimes young entrepreneurs try to grow too big, too fast without really understanding their market,” he said.