When Linda Mukangoga, 31, and Candy Basomingera, 35, met for the first time after admiring each other’s work from a distance, they knew it was time to merge their enterprises — Haute Rwanda and Baso Designs — into Haute-Baso.
Haute-Baso, a social enterprise, was officially registered in March 2014 and to date makes highly sought after ready-to-wear clothes and jewellery; handbags, handicraft and house decor. Their unique products set them apart from the commonplace Rwandan bespoke trend.
Mukangoga and Basomingera, both graduates of International Relations, say their designs are created on the basis of something they both love and cherish — aesthetics. They design all their products themselves at an office they share at their shop in Kigali.
The business partners invested Rwf1.6 million ($2,000) each, and one of their objectives was to come up with products that could be recognised as ethical fashion brands.
Ethical fashion is an umbrella term used to describe design, production, retail and purchasing processes that cover a range of issues such as humane working conditions, non-exploitation of artisans, fair trade, sustainable production, environmental conservation and animal welfare. This is in keeping with modern trends in fashion where businesses strive to be good ambassadors of their products.
Haute-Baso products are made by artisans from 200 women’s co-operatives in keeping with its social enterprise agenda.
In the two years it has been in business, Haute-Baso has grown from employing four artisans to 202. “We are very intent on making the livelihoods of our artisans better,” said Mukangoga.
They also offer internships to budding entrepreneurs, and provide stipends for apprentices; and so far, since the launch of the internship programme, they have had eight interns. Part of the duties of the interns is to run the company’s social media platforms and see to the day-to-day running of the business in the shop.
In turn, the interns get to learn from each other, indeed, some of them have gone ahead and started careers or businesses of their own in the fashion industry, something that Mukangoga and Basomingera are proud of.
On their designs, Mukangoga said, “Our goal was to make stuff that was wearable. We did not want to make your typical basket earrings, which are cool; we make them functional too. For this, we import some of our fabrics,” she said.
When they started in 2014, the duo had no physical store and used social media and pop-up shops around Kigali’s car-free zones, the Urban Cafe, Pilipili Bar in Kibagabaga and the Poivre Noire restaurant as the marketing and selling platform for their merchandise.
“This is what we started with and whenever we get the chance we still do it,” said Mukangoga. They eventually opened a shop at Nyarutarama Road near MTN Centre last year.
“The store is a reflection of who we are but there is no particular thing that fully defines us. We believe the entire store is our aesthetic expression, and our customers recognise who we are, and any piece from here is easily recognised,” explained Basomingera, a mother of two.
The shop also sells other companies’ goods such as the Felek notebooks from Ethiopia and Kurema Kureba Kwiga postcards (loosely translated as “create, see, learn”) from Uganda, in support of other social enterprises. The postcards retail for Rwf2,500 ($3) and are one of their cheapest products, while their most expensive as of the time of writing this story was the Haute-Baso trench coat that goes for Rwf75,000 ($95).
The shop has an art-meets-style ambience, offering both personal clothing and jewellery items and home décor items in the same space.
Haute-Baso is big on social media because it is what put them on the global market. For instance, their Twitter bio reads: “We make beautiful things that have beautiful stories.” Most of their buyers express their satisfaction online on the company’s Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts.
“Our first intention from the beginning was to sell online but shipping costs were too expensive and since we could not find a way around that, we opted to sell our merchandise through stockists by giving inventory to direct sellers. However, if one wants to buy online, they can still do so but will have to pay the shipping costs,” said Basomingera.
The challenge they face is leaving the inventory to stockists as no quick returns come from it still, the designers are aware that fashion is a long-term investment, and you have to really wait for returns on investment. The other challenge is access to finance for small businesses like theirs, which they describe as a struggle.
Most of the Haute-Baso merchandise is sold through friends and social and business contacts. On why people should buy their products, Mukangoga said, “You buy goods that are made in Rwanda without sacrificing quality. Consequently, you are also buying stuff that is made by strong women and designed by women.”
Some of their biggest clients in the country are Arancha Gonzalez, the executive director of International Trade and local celebrities as well as Laurie Dejong, one of their advisors who is the owner of the eponymous LDJ Productions, the brains behind many fashion week productions across the world.
Apart from selling online and on social media, Haute-Baso designs can also be found in the United States where they are sold by PaperFig Foundation; in Kenya, they can be found at the Design Africa Collective in Nairobi run by celebrated Kenyan designer Diana Opati. They are in negotiations with two other unnamed companies who want to stock their designs.
As far as the running of the business is concerned, Basomingera explained that they manage to work as a team by sharing tasks.
“We try to split the tasks, with each person doing what they know best how to. We can do more because there are two of us, so we complement each other and it is less stressful compared with being a solo designer,” she said. She further pointed out that since 2014, their profits have been growing but so have their responsibilities — the need to create better designs, and managing production costs especially the overhead costs of rent and salaries.
“Part of the growing process is that everything else is growing too. Money is coming in and going out,” said Basomingera concurring with Mukangoga, who pointed out: “We are at the scaling point where we know what works and we are trying to grow it. The business is profitable but it’s very hard to tell how things will turn out because we want to emphasise on the growth.”
To keep abreast with changing industry trends, the duo have entered various competitions, one of them being SPRING Accelerator. SPRING works with growth-oriented businesses on innovations that can transform the lives of poor and vulnerable girls and young women in East Africa and South Asia.
It works with world-class experts to support these businesses to create innovations with purpose and commercial potential. The Haute-Baso duo also apply for and attend various programmes to learn new business ideas to help them make smart business decisions.
On August 13, Haute-Baso had its debut appearance at the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in Johannesburg, South Africa. This was not their first time at a fashion show, having previously showcased their work at the Kampala Fashion Week, where they launched their designs on the runway.
Not ones to shy away from collaborations, the design house teams up with other fashion houses to create some of their bestsellers. For example, this season they teamed up with Inzuki Designs to create a mash-up of both their works on basket bags.
Since they did not share the same vision with the organisers of the Kigali Fashion Week, Haute-Baso collaborated with various Rwandan companies like House of Tayo, Tamiim, Inzuki Designs and Sonia Mugabo and came up with a fashion show dubbed Collective Rwanda that showcases their values and beliefs, and augurs well for their fashion future.
The Collective Rwanda show will take place in October 14 and will feature Rwanda-based designers and models showcasing locally produced designs and merchandise.