From Underdog to Frontwoman, Gloria Wavamunno
This season, “less is more and community is key,” for Founder and Art Director of Kampala Fashion Week, Gloria Wavamunno.
Those familiar with the African fashion landscape most likely set their sights eastwards in the past week, to behold a fresh crop of designers serving up their latest collections during Kampala Fashion Week (KFW).
As East Africa’s most prominent Fashion Week property, KFW is set in the heart of Uganda’s bustling capital city, where a once marginal and now robust artistic hub has taken shape across the creative spectrum; in art, music, and fashion.
Gloria Wavamunno, the founder of KFW and, perhaps, the frontwoman for Ugandan fashion, has joined the ranks of African entrepreneurs spearheading the growth of an industry that has been stilted by little-to-no investment and a declining manufacturing sector.
“I was always interested in creation and art, and fashion became the main outlet for that”
Wavamunno’s foray into the fashion industry began with an inherent love and inclination for artistic expression, “I was always interested in creation and art, and fashion became the main outlet for that,” she says. “I have worked in various fields in the fashion industry in Europe, the same ladder-climbing story. From interning upwards [and] a lot of late nights and many unpaid days.”
After earning her stripes abroad, Wavamunno returned to Uganda to launch her eponymous brand, and, later, the well-known KFW and the Ugandan Fashion Council (UFC). The latter has since joined a slew of burgeoning Fashion Week platforms across the continent, all driven by the premise and promise of a lucrative industry on the horizon, while vying for the attention of the international fashion establishment (of which Edward Enninful – the newly appointed editor-in-chief of British Vogue – has shown support via Instagram (2016), “Go Kampala!!! So Proud.”)
“I saw the challenges to grow and succeed as a fashion brand in Africa, and I wanted to create a platform that could support and elevate fellow designers, which in turn would elevate our industry through exposure”
With seven years as the Art Director of her brand under her belt, Wavamunno is not unfamiliar with the complexities of running a fashion business. Experiencing, first-hand, the barriers most designers are faced with, Wavamunno identified a need for a platform like KFW and a fashion council, “I saw the challenges to grow and succeed as a fashion brand in Africa, and I wanted to create a platform that could support and elevate fellow designers, which in turn would elevate our industry through exposure.”
As the founder of Kampala Fashion Week, “the challenges vary.” Initially, the platform was perceived as “just another fashion event. But [since then], we have always strived and will continue to be more, to focus on detail, to challenge our comfort zones, to really create an art experience that honors and supports the creative industry in Uganda, East Africa and Africa at large.”
Supporting local is never enough, people have to like local design, appreciate the quality and then buy it over imported second-hand clothes,” says Wavamunno.
There have been endless accounts and optimistic estimations about the potential economic scope of the African fashion industry, helped by the rise of newly-flushed African consumers and foreign luxury brands sprouting in every metropolis on the continent. Yet, however hopeful these forecasts appear to be, a pinch of reality is necessary to understand the dearth of commercially successful African brands that are able to compete in scale and global brand ubiquity.
In addition to challenges in sourcing quality materials and running a financially stable business, “our clothing market is saturated with second-hand clothing, so price points can be tricky. Supporting local is never enough, people have to like local design, appreciate the quality and then buy it over imported second-hand clothes,” says Wavamunno.
While the global retail industry has taken a knock of late, thanks to a slumping economy, a shift in consumer behaviour, and the growth of e-commerce giving way to the advent of international brands in search of new frontiers and taking up commercial residence across the continent, local designers are coming under pressure to keep pace with the fluctuations of the retail industry. Furthermore, designers are unable to compete at a cost level to appeal to the pockets of local consumers, albeit with an increasing disposable income.
Nevertheless, what designers lack in affordability and quantity, they could make up for in originality of design, authenticity, craftsmanship, and a meaningful brand identity; qualities consumers are steadily coming to appreciate. This is helped by the increasing change in attitude toward local fashion, “I believe these fashion weeks are highlighting and causing attention that is developing the space for growth in this industry. Most importantly, it is allowing for fashion to become a business and not just a hobby.”
Against the tide of ongoing appropriation from the West, Wavamunno is unfazed by what appears to be a revivified interest in Africa, “The internet has just been a great window for people to see what’s going on here, heightening the interest. However, people who had access to the continent before have always known what is going on. It’s just more viable and that is great because now we can use the attention to make our mark in the global industry.”
Part of the allure of attending KFW is to witness the transformation of the different venues it occupies -from an airstrip, to a mall, to an industrial building, and now a resort – all achieved with the help of New York-based LDJ Productions (also the resident production team for New York Fashion Week). “We challenge ourselves and pick a different venue, style, [and] theme, every year; we want to transform spaces and create memorable visuals for our audience,” says the founder.
While established Fashion Week properties abroad seek to redefine the concept and viability of a traditional Fashion Week, budding properties in Africa are seen as an antidote to cash-strapped designers in need of a far-reaching marketing platform and potentially gainful networking opportunities with media and buyers alike. KFW might not have a sizeable budget on a par with its Fashion Week neighbours, but the result and reach of its shows are often equally impressive, garnering the interest of CNN, BBC, Spice TV, and Radio France Internationale, among others.
This season was KFW’s fourth edition, showcasing a dozen East-African designers, including Wavamunno. Of the designers showcasing, a few are supported by the Skilled Expressive Entrepreneurial Designers (SEED) collective, which shares in KFW’s objective to support entrepreneurship in fashion. The three-day Fashion Week event, in addition to runway shows, also encompasses a pop-up shop to exhibit local fashion brands, followed by a pulsating after-party to conclude yet another successful edition of Fashion Week.
Wavamunno has a dedicated team who preside over the operational, logistical, and marketing activities of KFW, with additional support from outsourced suppliers and sponsors. Wavamunno presents herself and her team as a driven squad of underdogs, “We have an underdog mentality, so we are trying to really work with passion and detail for this craft. We take the fashion industry seriously, it’s the business we are in, so we use our platform to educate the audience, our team, collaborators, and the business community in Uganda.”
The KFW team’s emphasis on education suggests a slightly edifying approach to solving the daily problems of local designers, driven by Wavamunno’s belief that, “Education is key. Once quality is taught and understood then the business aspect is the next area designers need to learn and understand to develop their brand, followed by marketing.” She adds, “At the moment production quality and exposure for the designer are our priorities. We do workshops and seminars which we hope to expand.”
“Education is key. Once quality is taught and understood then the business aspect is the next area designers need to learn and understand to develop their brand, followed by marketing.”
Whether the local fashion sector will prove to become the backbone of the local economy is yet to be seen. For now, Wavamunno is determined to lead the charge for a sustainable fashion industry, by giving designers a leg up with the ultimate goal of KPW and the UFC “to be a production hub where designers from various places know there is a market, and an ability to have a fashion brand that functions at the right pace and in its true identity, while giving back to the spaces that one comes from.”
As for African fashion as a whole, Wavamunno would like to see, “more support from each other, more collaborative projects and spaces. Us valuing our work, teams and environment, and a lot of creativity, because this continent is bursting with it. Let us share and develop it.”
written by: Kirigo Kamore
All images supplied by Kampala fashion week 2016