Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 44 seconds.
In a gloomy hat full of fascinating clothes, plastic and laughers in Mpigi, Uganda
Fashion and social impact is not an ambiguity
In the back a woman is handling her child while working with the sewing machine on some for me unidentifiable piece of cloth. It is cool inside the hut we are sitting in. Next to me is a hat rack of beautifully designed clothes and accessories made from recyclable materials. Julie with a simple black dress is turned half facing the woman and her child and half facing me siting on the opposite side. Restlessness and the will to succeed shine through her body language. She definitely does not belong to the patient Ugandans.
With the sound of the sewing machine in the background and beams of sunlight that sneak their way through the roof we start our interview about struggle, fashion and traveling.
Julie is the founder of Kimuli Fashion. It would not be fair to just call her a fashion designer. A true fashionista she is. Everything she does is related to fashion and always was. Starting to sew little pieces of fabric that her grandmother left her as a 5 year old orphan Julie fought her way up without any financial resources. The picture I took of her in front of her designs actually shows her drive very well. Nothing can stop her. I am not surprised that she is about to meet the President of Uganda.
Recently together with her team she executed a fashion show to support deaf and lame people. From extremely humble backgrounds her early exposure to fashion gave her the drive to never give up and chase her dreams that one day she will design her own clothes. Several scholarships enabled her high school education and a short course in fashion. With an additional internship where she learned about commercial sewing machines and techniques she was ready to start her own venture.
“If you’re using African fabrics first use them and test your customers. What do your customers want? Also what do you want?”
Actually on the way to meet Julie I saw what she is working with… trash. Trash is everywhere in Uganda. She uses that as a resource instead of an obstacle to work. Rather than using normal materials she utilises waste instead. Passion and ambition are following her wherever she goes. Collecting used rice and cement bags she started to design extraordinary clothes and innovative accessories such as a little case made from milk containers. It is just the beginning of her adventure.
I myself tried on some of her beautifully designed shirts and jackets while chatting to her team. Kimuli fashion is a combination of modern influence with African fabrics. The end result is a fusion of emotion and good vibes. The social impact as well makes you think how much waste each and every one of us throws away without giving it a single thought. Julie is actually empowering deaf and lame people to lead an independent life through employing them. The woman that was sitting next to us did not realize that her child was quite loud because she just could not hear it.
I believe we all can lead change in small steps just like Julie does. Obstacles will always be there but with passion and drive we can get anywhere we want to be.
Learn about the advice Julie would have for the president of Uganda in the complete interview.
Fashion and childhood
You are the founder of Kimuli Fashion, right? So when did everything start?
I started the whole project. I came up with the idea in November 2015. But it was just a study. The real start was 2016 in January.
OK, for me fashion is something that is in my blood. My grandma, she was a fashionista, she’s been a tailor and she’s the person I grew up with. Looking at fashion or tailoring or simply looking at a sewing machine that is where she used to get money from and pay fees for me. Because me, I’m an orphan. My mother and my father died when I was very young. So, I loved fashion a lot. I never loved tailoring. So when I finished my form 6 I told my grandma because I didn’t have money that I want to go to university. I told her maybe I can do a short course of fashion and designing. So I went there to do a short course for 6 months because there was not enough money for me to do at least a diploma.
But you got some basic skills and essential ideas.
Yes. So after that, I went for an internship for just about 2 months in Jinja (Uganda). There is a factory where I went. It is a textile company so that is where I got to know all sewing machines, specific garments and other things.
So you saw all the specific ways to do clothes with specialised sewing machines.
For me there is no sewing machine that I don’t know how to use it. Because that is what I specialised in my internship when I went to Jinja. Also, when I went to do the short course I was on a scholarship because in my education I’ve been on scholarships throughout. So, that is how I coped with my situation. Based on my background story apart from my grandmother being a tailor not only that but for me ever since I was a young I used to love fashion. My grandmother could cut the materials and the remaining pieces I picked them and made small clothes for my doll.
Oh, wow! You sew them yourself?
Yes, I used the hand needle. So, I could collect those small pieces I sew them for my doll and also after sewing them I designed them for my doll. So, I looked all the time at my doll to be beautiful and design it with specific clothes.
I can imagine and you were like 6 years old?
I was really young. I started from I think 5 years of age. Another thing is those small pieces they could buy for me a dress. Then I get it, then I got small cut offs, then I make flowers ribbons and then I put them on my dress. I could change the garments they bought for me because I didn’t consider them as something good. So, I started developing that passion ever since I was young. Even up to now I can go buy a dress or something to wear and then when it’s not good I change it. I always change my garments. I can put African fabrics; maybe I reduce something or put some decorations.
Your way of looking at things do you also have that when you look at buildings or when you look at interior design?
I look at so many things not only clothes but I look at shoes, I look at buildings, and I look at the nature because a fashion designer who does African stuff you are supposed to take pictures at a background which is African. So, I cannot go and just sit. I am showcasing and marketing a garment with barkcloth and you are standing on a veranda and then they take a picture. That is vague! Look for an African place where they have some nature.
A picture with giraffes in the background (laughs).
Yes, or grass and then you take a picture where there is art in nature.
Personal growth and mentorship
To grow your business what are the skills that are important for you?
First of all, I have a mentor, a fashionista working with African fabrics. She tells me to focus on one thing only. There are very many fashion designers, who use the African fabrics, then they use the Western fabrics, then they use the chiffon fabrics, then they use linen materials… There are so many! But what is your focus? If you’re using African fabrics first use them and test your customers. What do your customers want? Also what do you want? What do you want to achieve? First, focus on the African fabric. If you decided that you are using the African fabrics, then after focusing you see that things are really moving on well. You are really selling out. The market is becoming wider all the time. Then you can look into other things and maybe you can bring the chiffon material and all these other modern fabrics. Then you combine them with African fabrics. But at the beginning focus on the thing you began with and understand your customer segment and understand your business very well and then you can move on.
You just came up with the question that everybody has to ask him or herself “What do you want to achieve?” So what do you want to achieve?
OK, for me my goal what I want to achieve until the end of this year. First of all, I want to expand my project. I want to expand it in terms of production and marketing. I want to have a big shop having products and garments. Because what I realized is my market is widening internationally. These times I get difficulties when customers come and they want 50 bags and I don’t have them. What happens is I end up sending products of not good quality because of rushing you see. So, I want to have products in stock. When they ask me I don’t want to waste time. I just send them. Maybe I just change a few because customers have different interests. So, I want to first of all widen my production when I finished registering the business which is a major concern right now.
So you want a more professionalized business so it can run without a lot of adjustments.
Yes. So another thing, also in terms of marketing you know the market sometimes changes. So I want to have a marketing team where we can market our products from so we can reach to every country not only here in Africa but to so many countries having a brand of Kimuli and no one can duplicate them. So a person just looks at that pencil case made out of a milk package and says yes this is a brand this is Kimuli which is the company that makes these products of good quality. I also want our brand to be boosted so people can know it is only Kimuli that does that. I also want to focus more on disabled people. The deaf and the lame to not only train them from here but also going to institutes, organisations, schools where those people are. We train them for a fee. That money can also help us to buy more sewing machines and also cater for many people.
Can you get more into depth about the social impact of your company?
We upcycle plastic waste and create beautiful fashion with it. Beyond that we empower the disabled people in training them the skills we have of fashion design. I think there are 2 areas of impact. The first impact is we promote environmental sustainability through upcycling plastic waste by blending it with African fabrics that depict the African nature. The second impact is that we empower the disabled people training them the skills we have of fashion and design so that they can be self-employed in the future.
Is that social impact like a personal mission for you? You seem to be very convinced of your ideas.
I’m so convinced because this is what I’ve been yearning to do in my future. I like sharing my skills with other people and as I told you fashion is my passion ever since I was young. I also want to create impact. I am a woman who wants to be unique because very few fashion designers design things that are made out of waste. People throw the empty packages, people throw the sugar sacks and they throw the cement sacks. It is very rare to find a fashion designer who collects that waste and make something very useful out of it and earn a lot of money rather than only using African fabrics which are very common to so many people. People have seen the barkcloth, people have seen the waste and stuff, people have seen… So what is something unique about you besides using the African fabrics? Let all fashion designers ask themselves if I am making a dress and you are making a dress, too. What is unique? Why is it that they have more customers? They should ask themselves something new. That’s why this year on the 27th of May I came up with an idea of a charity fundraising fashion show for people with disabilities the lame and deaf to gain skills of fashion and design.
Something unique that we did on the fashion show was that we showcased waste with African fabrics. They were putting on dresses made out of plastic waste and African fabrics. Also, the theme for the show was to put waste to worth. We wanted to promote environmental sustainability to show the society that these things that you look at are useful. You can make garments out of it. You can also educate people on the dangers of throwing the waste into the environment and you can also earn money out of this waste and that is the focus of Kimuli Fashion.
How was the fashion show and what were the biggest obstacles?
The obstacles were the disappointments … We got a lot of disappointments at the last moment. The second thing was a lack of enough funds. We had so many ideas for this fashion show. But we didn’t have enough funds. People would promise and then at the last moment they disappoint you. We even reached on that day when people maybe not yet sent their money and we put in a lot of transport expenses and we went there so many times… Nothing they would do for us. Another thing was the skills of preparing the fashion show. It was our first fashion show. We really lacked some skills to the extent that we really had 8 designers to showcase their designers and they didn’t turn up. We reached that point that it was only Kimuli Fashion to showcase and we had to go with that. Also the time setting up the fashion show was very limited. Because to set up a fashion show you need to plan it almost for a year and you need to advertise it a lot so that people can really get in touch and get to know you.
Now we heard about the disappointments. What about the good things about the fashion show?
I’m the first person here at the Social Innovation Academy (SINA) who does fashion and who has ever done a fashion show and it was successful. I wouldn’t say that it was a complete success but it was a success nevertheless. What I know that Kimuli Fashion is now in people’s mouths. We also got the opportunity to talk about our social business on radio and even on TV. So, we are seeing that Kimuli Fashion is recognized more and more. In addition, we got so many opportunities. We have around 6 burning opportunities and each opportunity has a lot of potential. All of them need our project to be registered.
Opportunities are awards or some competitions?
There are some competitions. Others they are not rewards but connections. One of these opportunities is that we might meet the President of Uganda. One of our team members, Cyrus, is getting an ID because you can’t just meet him. There is a group of people they are also innovators. We got all of these opportunities through the fashion show. Moreover, imagine all of those 6 opportunities are opportunities of the government of Uganda. Right now most people give me respect according to the things I made and the overall idea. I’m seeing that right now what I’m doing is moving forward after this fashion show. Now, sometimes I sit down and I visualise the 2018 fashion show because now I have the experience and I will do things better. Reaching the fashion show without the garments being ready that is what Julie did (laughing). Another thing is that the market has widened. People looked at our garments and were like “Wow, look at the neatness”. They were ordering garments like nothing.
You told me that you might meet the Ugandan president. What would be a question you would raise?
Do you really feel happy, you as the President of Uganda to see these people who are really vulnerable, people who have disabilities to suffer here in Uganda? People that lack skills they can really do to earn something. Do you really feel happy seeing those organisations with big budgets but very little impact? Why don’t you get that money and invest it into vulnerable people to train these people’s skills so that they can earn money and do something with their lives? Then another thing I would ask him is about the upcycling. Do you really like when you walk on the streets or you are in a car you as the President and you see waste being littered? For you as the president people are there to collect, burn and throw. Would you also like to see young citizens who come and they collect that waste, they are making products out of it, they are selling to the country, and that project is registered and it is paying taxes which go back to the government?
What are your dreams?
I’m a girl who always dreams and I set goals for myself. Before I die I want to get to 4 countries. I want to go first of all to Nigeria. If money is there I would go until the end of this year not only for Kimuli Fashion but also to rest. I really admire Nigeria a lot. So, the second country I want to go is South Africa. I also just want to go there just to rest but also to look at those garments I used to watch South African fashion they are very professional. The country is one of the leading producing countries for fashion crafter arts. Another country I want to go to is the USA. I want to have a shop of Kimuli Fashions in New York City. That’s where I want to have it. The last one is the UK. Even the 3rd of May I was supposed to go there and pitch my idea on a women start up competition. Unfortunately, I had a fashion show coming up, I didn’t have a visa, I didn’t have a passport and there was only one week to go. I even shed tears it was just not my time. So these are the 4 countries I would love to go to and I don’t just go there because of work but to go there when I made myself a name.
Interviewed by Marlon