The fifth edition of Uganda’s best fashion event took us on a journey of empowerment and ethical creation
Sitting on the platform at Kampala Railway Station one warm evening, it wasn’t a train I was waiting for but a fashion show. The fifth edition of the city’s annual fashion week chose this unusual location for three days of ambitious programming that not only expressed its theme, Darkness/Lightness, but also helped to mark the city’s arrival as a nascent fashion destination. All aboard because the Kampala Fashion Week (KFW) express is full steam ahead.
“The creative industry here is growing. We have many players pushing things forward and we’re all speaking to each other. We’re still at the beginning but it’s no longer a mirage,” says KFW founder, Gloria Wavamunno, one of Uganda’s leading designers. Having hosted earlier editions of KFW in an old airport, an industrial warehouse and a forest setting, she is articulating both her own personal progression and that of her experimental event. “Every year I have a theme based on how I’m feeling about the world. Last year was about rebirth and healing and the idea of less is more. This year is about self-reflection and learning to stay in the light while understanding the strength that can come from the dark. Life is a journey, both bad and good.”
Kampala Railway Station was built in the 1890s and is still functioning but only just. KFW gave the facility a small face-lift, highlighting the greater need for an official refurbishment, while set designer Mirembe Musisi turned the space into an installation for the weekend. From the mirrored infinity room in the ticket hall, to the eerily red-lit tunnel where performance artists loomed, KFW asked guests to fully immerse themselves in the experience. A pop-up market gave retail exposure to young designers and a make-shift boxing ring featured female sparring partners – Wavamunno’s rallying call for Ugandan women to take self-care and protection into their own hands.
Needless to say then, KFW isn’t your normal fashion event, and with its core mission to strengthen the region’s design voice and entrepreneurship, it has turned heads. Previous years have received favourable reports from Vogue Italia and a shout out from Edward Enninful plus Ugandan supermodel Aamito Lagum started out here.
KFW also partners with Laurie DeJong, founder of New York-based LDJ Productions, not only to ensure a smooth run of shows, but also to produce the SEED Project Showcase. This initiative by DeJong’s The Paper Fig Foundation undertakes a talent search across Uganda each year, with finalists receiving mentorship and a chance to present on the first night of KFW. As one of the 2018 judges, I was impressed with the passion and dedication shown by the 12 chosen designers. Ssonko Brian took home the cash prize for his deconstructed look inspired by the life and death of a cow, which featured hand printed cotton and artful accessories made from recycled jerry cans and horn. “I come from the ghetto, so I want to use fashion to make an impact,” the emerging talent says. “Each one, teach one – that’s how you help the youth to create a better world.”
“This year is about self-reflection and learning to stay in the light while understanding the strength that can come from the dark”
The next two days saw catwalk moments from some of Uganda’s strongest labels. Catherine & Sons by Edward Sempa, who is also KFW’s creative director, presented both a menswear collection and women’s collection. The former focused on classic wax print pieces with unexpected details while the latter progressed Sempa’s on-going exploration of upcycling denim and linen trousers into one-of-a-kind, loosely layered looks and beaded wigs. This ethical approach is both a comment upon the influx of second hand clothing into Uganda and the wasteful nature of fast fashion production. “What’s happening in the West is unsustainable and has to change, so I’m doing my little steps here. KFW proves that fashion is a business and that we don’t have to follow the same systems as in Europe,” he explains. “This collection is about identity and how the women around me have different characters as friends, partners and wives. Like them, each garment is unique.”
IGC Fashion by Kasoma Ibrahim and Katende Godfrey also embrace an ethical approach. Calling their style “Afrovanguard”, their oversized, sculptured pieces are constructed using local materials such as bark cloth, kitenge and leather and have a nomadic, raw appeal. At KFW they presented the collection Kampala Disaster. “It’s about portraying our heritage and culture through natural fabrics and by experimenting to create a vibe,” Ibrahim says. These childhood friends also hold monthly fashion cyphers in their community to teach street kids how to make clothes. “In the future we want to have our own production house where all the disadvantaged people we are teaching can find employment that support their families.”
Well established brand Eguana Kampala by Emmanuel Bagwana combined feminine and sporty silhouettes for a continent-spanning collection incorporating fez-style headwear, off-the-shoulder boubous and graphic dresses. “SS19 is about African Greatness,” Bagwana says. “I’ve been inspired by the cowrie shells of the Baganda, the kente of the Asante, the gold of the Egyptian pharaohs and the regal nature of the Swahili people. The uneven silhouettes and mix of prints celebrates the traditional construction style of many regions.”
Other highlights included tropical, crochet swimwear by Nina Mire, armour-like body adornments by Margaux Wong, frothy tulle frocks by NFKA, and of course Wavamunno, whose Fifth Dimension collection featured her signature jersey dresses with rope and drape accents alongside minimalist duffle bags and athletic separates with logo elastics. “My brand is about simplicity and versatility, and proving that quality doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.”
Having studied in London and returned to establish herself in Kampala eight years ago, Wavamunno’s conscious approach to creation (she’s also co-founder of the Salooni art collective and is regularly commissioned to make couture pieces for museums around the world) is the glue that brings the city’s good people together. “I want us to embrace collaboration and to inspire each other to make masterpieces that have heart. I don’t call myself an activist but I’m human, I have compassion and I’m aware that what I do should have purpose. It’s about fighting battles and finding balance. We all want to be part of tribes but it comes down to feeling cool and comfortable in yourself.”
Nataal would like to thank the British Council’s East Africa Arts programme for supporting our Kampala editorial focus