When he was an International Affairs student at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, Mathew Rugamba was frustrated by the negative perceptions his colleagues had about Africa. It was all about conflict, famine and poverty.
So, when he came to Rwanda on holiday, he resolved to get something purely African to take with him to the US to show his colleagues that his motherland had a brighter side.
“I thought bow ties and scarves made from the Kitenge would do the trick since I had never seen anyone wearing them.”
But it would not be easy for the ambitious Rugamba because he didn’t have a clear description of what he wanted.
So, he ventured into downtown Kigali and bought five Kitenge fabrics. As he was coming out of the market, he met a woman who introduced herself as a seamstress. His new acquaintance asked him what he intended to do with the fabrics and, reluctantly, Mr Rugamba told her how he wanted to make unique bow ties and scarves.
“She told me that she could sew them but I didn’t believe she could do a good job because she was working from an alley with one sewing machine. In fact, hers was more of a makeshift business!
“Nevertheless, I drew sketches of the bow ties and scarves. She told me to go back in three days,” he said.
When Rugamba went back, he was pleasantly surprised.
“Even though I knew that she had sewn unique bow ties and scarves, I was not sure if they were genuinely good. So, I had to seek a second opinion.”
He went to Illume Studios in Nyarutarama, an upscale Kigali suburb, and the communication specialists he met there seemed genuinely excited about his creation that they wore them to Spoken Word, a monthly poetry recitation event. At the event, the originality and uniqueness of Mr Rugamba’s bow ties made them the ultimate conversation starter.
In his own words: “That evening everyone was asking me, ‘You designed this?’ I didn’t know how to answer... but it was such a good feeling!”
That’s when Rugamba knew that he was on to something and decided to make more bow ties and scarves. He also launched a fashion line, House of Tayo. (His fathe calls him Tayo, derived from Matayo, Kinyarwanda for Mathew.)
During his internship at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC, he wore his own ties every day.
“I got very good responses from people who saw me wearing my ties,” he said.
So, buoyed by the good responses, Rugamba designed a logo and started developing the House of Tayo brand, setting up Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook accounts (www.houseoftayo.com). During the festive season in 2011, he had one of his friends take photos for his business.
“I uploaded the pictures on January 1, 2012 and two days later I got a request for an interview from a fashion blogger.” he said.
The following week he got a request for another interview and was invited to showcase his designs at a fashion show in Chicago, courtesy of the African Students Association of Northwestern University.
But he declined the invitation.
However, “I later accepted the invitation because they were paying for my air ticket, meals and accommodation among other things. You see, when good opportunities come by, it’s good to grab them with both hands,” he said.
In May 2012, Rugamba received another invitation to showcase at the Africa Fashion Week in London. At first he thought it was a just dream. A good dream.
Africa Fashion Week London is one of the biggest and most bustling fashion events in Europe and is attended by at least 20,000 people.
“It was hard for me to believe. How I was going to hold a fashion show in front of thousands of people I really couldn’t imagine. The event was slated for August, meaning I had only three months to prepare. But those three months looked like three days!
“I had to start working 18 hours a day, six days a week. I had to become the good fashion designer I had portrayed in my designs – and do so in three months,” he said.
Just like that, Mr Rugamba found himself forced to learn everything he could about the art of fashion design. He spent most of his time studying YouTube videos of famous designers as he prepared for the London gig.
After the success of his London show, he decided to return to Kigali and do fashion design for life. And now things seem to be looking up for Rugamba and his fashion line. Currently operating from Illume Studios, he works with about 30 tailors to create ties, bow ties and circular scarves, which come in bold colours, strong prints, story-telling motifs, and culturally drawn textures.
He told Rwanda Today: “The type of guy who wears my ties is the one who wants to make a statement – that there are good things that are purely African.
When famous people like Kevin Mable (a Hollywood actor), June Ambrose (American hip-hop star Jay-Z’s stylist) and Andrew Mwenda (Ugandan journalist) endorse my products, it means that I am on the right track. For them to genuinely like them is an incredible thing.”
Over the next couple of years, Rugamba sees himself launching and expanding his business, but will continue specialising in accessories.
“In future I want to retail in the US and Europe, but first I want to capture the East African market,” he said.