Young African Designer Models His Clothes on the Past

July 13,2016

KIGALI, RWANDA— A young African fashion designer is putting a modern twist on men’s clothing styles from the 1960s.

Twenty-six-year-old Matthew Rugamba got his start in fashion trying to modernize the traditional “kitenge” loincloth common across East Africa. At his House of Tayo in Kigali, the Rwanda designer has expanded into African outfits and accessories with a contemporary twist.

Rugamba said he is inspired by the looks of the 1960s and the era of African independence, especially the styles of former Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and the U.S. civil rights activist Malcolm X.

“If you look at the 1960s, that time the independence movement was picking up. That was the perfect blend of West and African style because you’d see Patrice Lumumba wear the bow ties and suits, but you’d see him wearing a leopard skin of some sort of print and I really - that sort of aesthetic really caught my eye, and I used that as a foundation for this brand,” said Rugamba.

As Rugamba’s designs find bigger audiences abroad, he is determined to keep manufacturing local, producing all of his accessories through a Kigali-based women’s cooperative where seamstresses say they have a voice in design.

“When he first proposed the designs to us, we had trouble adapting and then we got used to it. He shares his ideas with us and accepts our ideas - eventually it became good,” said Mukarukundo, a stylist.

“The unique designs that House of Tayo brings will now go hand in hand with the enthusiasm people have for these new products, beginning with the loincloths. Recently, fewer people are buying imported, secondhand products,” said Jeanne, another stylist.

Most of Rugamba’s high end designs are too expensive for much of the local market. As he looks to expand from East Africa to North America, he says his No. 1 goal is to make House of Tayo products more affordable for everyone.