The changing face of Ugandan fashion

Tuesday November 24 2020
Kampala Fashion Week.

A model at the first fashion week show held in Kampala on November 15, 2014. Ugandan top fashion designer Gloria Wavamunno is calling on her colleagues to tailor their businesses according to the local market. PHOTO | AFP


Ugandan top fashion designer Gloria Wavamunno is calling on her colleagues to tailor their businesses according to the local market.

Uganda's fashion industry is characterised by struggling ventures, semi-professional small-scale production, and lack of infrastructure, institutions and government support.

And now the challenges have been exacerbated by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Wavamunno, who is the CEO and founder of Kampala Fashion Week, also suggests recycling second-hand clothes and collaboration among the stakeholders in order to survive in the current health crisis.

“It is time for designers to think locally, and that their businesses do not have to be the same as international business models. In our creative industry, you have to see the clients because we are still more into tailoring than mass producing for shops,” the 35-year-old fashionista says.

“So how do you keep yourself and your customer safe? How do you reduce your production costs? I know people look at second-hand clothes negatively, but they can be a boundless source of materials if you look at it in a different way. It can be where you find your zippers, buttons or re-purpose clothing and fabrics.”


People want to be cost-efficient but the Covid-19 pandemic issues may push up costs,” she said. “When everything opens up people are going to double charge because they want to make their money back.

“Creatives also need to put their minds together. I am a founding board member of the Fashion Council Uganda and we are trying to connect designers together. Through the Kampala Fashion Week, I have reached out to many designers. Now it is about bringing designers together and helping each other.”

Wavamunno advises her counterparts to concentrate on the African market.

“I believe in the business module of functioning locally to expand globally. Expanding globally does not necessarily mean that you have to travel to Western countries. Globally is just as well the African continent. You can source your things to Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria, South Africa or Congo, among others.”

Early influences

Born in England and raised alternately between London and Kampala, Wavamunno studied at the Kampala International School in Uganda.

Wavamunno says she was influenced into a life revolving around art by her mother, aunties and art teacher.

“My character when I was younger was more introverted, a bit of a loner. I was drawn to art through artistic expression, whether dance, painting, singing or things instrumental like playing piano. These are things that caught my attention.”

“And my mother was into tailoring with her sisters, which they still are, and now more into design. So, I learnt to tailor my own pieces. I was cutting, stitching here and pinning there. I was expressing art in so many forms,” she adds.

“My art teacher in boarding school, Mr Smalley, saw me sketching. My form of sketching was still life. I loved to do portraits, body forms that evolved into outfits.

Smalley noticed that I liked sketching a lot of clothes. And art to me was an expression of how you dressed. Being shy, I found my best way of self-expression through how I dressed.

“It was after my teacher pushed me that my eyes were opened to the world of fashion. In Uganda, the tailoring industry existed in the past and not really the fashion industry in a global setting. But today we have many fashion designers,” Wavamunno told The EastAfrican.

She holds a fashion, design and marketing degree from the American Intercontinental University in London, UK.

Wavamunno interned at Ghanaian British men’s designer Oswald Boateng. She has worked for various retail stores and magazines such as Flare, New African Women and Arise.

Growing brand

After studying and working in the UK, Wavamunno returned to Uganda in 2009 and launched her ready-to-wear brand GloRia WavaMunno.

Her brand draws inspiration from her Ugandan culture and heritage, experiences and environment.

“I have showcased in Rwanda, Bujumbura in Burundi, Nairobi in Kenya, Lagos in Nigeria, Johannesburg in South Africa, and the UK. Each country has such a different structure, audience and energy. So, they were all amazing experiences because they further educated and inspired me to find my voice and direction,” Wavamunno says.

Her clothes are sold in the US, Kenya and Uganda. “At the beginning of my career, it was more of the global audience that was purchasing my pieces. Now I have more African clients, from ready-to-wear as well as tailoring.

"I am trying to create art pieces that mean something and have sentimental depth narratives that are long lasting, reusable, versatile in their usage, changeable and bold. I make people feel the best they can feel,” she adds.

She has designed for Nokia Face of Africa and her works have been collected by museums in America and Europe.

“I have also had my pieces in museums. I did a barkcloth jacket years ago for a museum in Texas, US. I am interested in the importance of barkcloth and how we can utilise it in clothing here in Uganda. I also have pieces showcasing in museums in Switzerland and Germany,” Wavamunno said.

“I find museums as places that let you to express to a western audience that is sometimes very naive or ignorant about African culture. They [in the West] only have their own version that they receive and display. It is good as an African being able to educate them in their own spaces. Sometimes they will educate themselves, but if you are there you have to say this is my fact, this is my truth, and this is my experience being of this background.”

When asked what inspires her fashion designs, Wavamunno said: “I am not really into the one-off pieces that you can wear multiple times. I like clothes that you can live in.

“I also got deeper into understanding my heritage, ancestors and background. I wanted to incorporate my culture as an African, as a Ugandan, and as a multi-tribal individual. My dad is a product of two tribes and my mum is of mixed-race heritage. I give the wearer their own identity, and they turn my pieces into their own story."