Filmmaker turned fashionista: how a woman found her place in clothing | The new times
There are no better words to describe Joselyne Umutoniwase than ambitious and relentless, which has made her unstoppable and a force to be reckoned with in the fashion industry.
In 2012, at age 23, Umutoniwase put aside his university studies and a career in cinema to embark on his passion, fashion. She never looked back.
Umutoniwase is the founder of Rwanda Clothing, one of the country’s leading fashion brands, also a member of CollectiveRw, a collection of leading fashion houses in Rwanda.
Born and raised in Kigali and the middle child of six siblings, five girls and a boy, Umutoniwase grew up in a family of creatives, and even what she studied in school wouldn’t stop her from tapping into his creativity.
At university, the former Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), now University of Rwanda College of Science and Technology (UR-CST), Umutoniwase pursued a degree in ICT while taking film lessons.
“I worked in different organizations and I travelled. I was actually going to be a filmmaker for sure. That’s what I wanted to do as a career,” says Umutoniwase, but the creativity in her didn’t let her settle.
“I can say that I grew up in a very noisy environment with so many siblings but very creative. This creativity that I have now is something that started when I was very young.
“I used to collect a lot of fabric scraps, cut different kinds of fabrics at home,” she says, adding that her mother taught her embroidery and knitting from an early age.
In 2012, she took the risk of giving up everything she was doing to start Rwanda Clothing, drawing mainly on the resources and means of her family. It is not something that started by chance.
Growing up, she had an uncle, a twin of her father, who was a tailor specializing in suits, based in Nyanza, in the Southern Province. Every school holiday, she went to her grandparents, who also lived in Nyanza.
While there, she spent time in her uncle’s workshop observing how he and his five tailors went about their work. The art of sewing a costume is something that captivated her.
“I spent my time there admiring making a costume. It’s really powerful when you see how it’s built, it’s almost like a work of art.
“They put wires inside and put different kinds of materials to make it really standard and look like it looks because it’s one of the most complicated parts to make,” Umutoniwase recalls.
As she observed her uncle’s sewing skills and dedication, the passion within her grew, driven by curiosity. She was 10 or 12 at the time and was really fascinated by clothes and fashion in general.
In her uncle’s workshop, she started sewing and patching things up and once in Germany, after finishing her film studies, around 2010, she had the opportunity to discover independent designers from the country, great and regular, to learn a few things about fashion.
She noticed that for the regulars, there was a showroom in front and a small workshop behind with three or four tailors. She wondered how they were doing. Everything she saw shocked her.
“I came back here and wondered how do I start? I want to do the same thing but then it took me another year because I was scared, really scared to start.
“I didn’t see anything like it that time. I was actually one of the first to do it that way,” she recalls. She did some research and brought in some friends she consulted.
Driven by talent
Through it all, Umutoniwase was driven by talent. All her life she was always sketching, drawing things, thinking of ideas, that’s part of why she chose fashion because fashion is art. It’s all about creativity.
In fact, if she wasn’t in movies or fashion, she would be an artist because she excelled in art. In high school, she studied biochemistry, and her parents thought she would be a doctor or a nurse.
People often told her how good she was at drawing. Traveling to different countries through filmmaking gave her the exposure she needed to get started.
During the five years she juggled movies and other things, she saved up in hopes of starting something of her own.
In February 2012, she followed in her uncle’s footsteps and started her own workshop, with the support of her husband and sister and possibly two tailors. It was a team of five.
They started small, sketching and drawing over the first six months and making sure the idea grew. It wasn’t about the money at this point. They didn’t even make any anyway.
She didn’t even officially launch the brand, but there was hope as the government was driving the ‘Made in Rwanda’ program. His idea was to make a lot of good Made in Rwanda plays and do them again and again until people liked it.
His trick was to customize clients’ ideas and people’s individual style, rather than producing similar pieces.
Umutoniwase’s target market was people who really know what they want and she would try to bring it to life, with a touch of originality and quality. It worked like magic. People loved what she was doing.
His customers kept coming back and recommending others. As they say, the rest is history. Today, it still thrives on the same model, doing exactly what people want.
But it wasn’t easy. She had to train people to fit the model. Dismissing claims that its target market is high-end, Umutoniwase says its target has always been the local market, but due to quality and effort, the price must have stimulated market demand.
In fact, his first mission was to create a job-creating brand. If people like it, they come and buy, especially if they can afford it, but it’s not for any particular group or type of people.
The beginning was not easy because the materials she needed for quality products were not easy to find. She was going online to check fabrics and find a way to get them to Rwanda, but it was not easy for a young fashion start-up.
Also, jumping into the murky waters of entrepreneurship for a young 23-year-old woman, in an industry not yet quite developed like fashion, was not for the faint-hearted. Starting small was not his choice.
“I could have applied for a loan or you know, made it big, but the thing is, the market wasn’t ready to understand how the whole concept will work. Will it really generate money? they asked.
She even approached some banks but they said to come back in two or three years, we will see if the idea can work. It took him a long time to convince people to believe in his dream.
Also, at the time, few people believed in Made in Rwanda as they were frustrated with the quality as well as the cost. From the start, they couldn’t even accept prepayment from customers, just their orders.
10 years later, the dream has come true. Today, she has a team of 45 people, including the same family members she started with, and two showrooms. New customers bring new customers and that’s how the brand has grown.
She is now looking to start an online store selling clothing for men, women and children, specifically to serve the international market where she wants her brand to grow.
Umutoniwase’s advice to young girls is to have a vision of something they want to be or build because that’s what’s most important. Revenue simply becomes the result of the brand you have built.
Use your talents, your knowledge, your networks and your versatility and you will succeed in everything you do. It was that kind of resilience that drove her.
Umutoniwase is also proud of the current situation of Made in Rwanda, having been among the pioneers who decided to believe in it and today she can look back and say “we have succeeded”.
Interior of the sewing workshop. Photos/Willy Mucyo
Joselyne’s sewing workshop