A pioneer of Rwanda’s fashion industry, Sonia is setting the standard for Rwandan fashion in global and local markets. Since its start three years ago, SM has cultivated a loyal following of customers who value the brand’s innovative and high-quality designs.
Rwanda’s fashion industry is nascent. What impact has that had on Sonia Mugabo and other fashion businesses in Rwanda?
Most people in Rwanda wear second-hand clothes imported from Western countries, which basically means Rwanda’s local talent is largely ignored. Luckily, with the aim to encourage consumption of local products, the Rwandan government is putting a stop to the importation of second clothes.
As such, local designers are seizing the opportunity to build brands with a strong Rwandan heritage as well as creating jobs and inspiring young talent to pursue fashion careers. I believe emerging markets, like Rwanda, are centres of innovation since they’re compelled to innovate to solve unique challenges.
You interned at Teen Vogue in New York. What are some of the things you learned there that helped you navigate the Rwandan fashion scene and those you’ve had to discard?
Teen Vogue New York was a fast moving and fashionable environment. The behind-the-scenes of the fashion world intrigued me. I learned about clothing brands while observing talented fashion editors define the next season’s trends. I got a sense of how the business of fashion functions and the hard work involved to remain at the top in a highly competitive industry.
In Rwanda, I’ve had to follow my gut, work hard and just do everything possible to make my brand stand out. Also, since we’re in an age where we can market freely on social media, I’ve leveraged that platform to create brand awareness and reach a diverse audience.
You said your best work is created in New York, a city that’s been branded a fashion haven by fashion aficionados. Why did you choose to move to Rwanda to open Sonia Mugabo?
When I realized I wanted to pursue a fashion designer career, I discovered starting in New York was almost impossible without having gone to fashion school.
However, in Rwanda, there’s a lot of incentives by the Rwanda Business Development (RDB) for companies and individuals wishing to do business in the country. That encouraged me to return home after I graduated college to launch my brand, Sonia Mugabo.
What’s your advice to women considering a career in fashion but can’t access a fashion magazine internship or fashion school?
I’d say educate yourself as much as possible about the industry. Research how your favourite brands became fashion powerhouses.
Most importantly, if you want to start your own brand know that there is a whole other aspect of just making beautiful clothes. There’s the business side of fashion, so make sure you understand the 5 Ps of marketing [product, price, place, people and promotion].
Another key to note is, though the fashion industry might appear glamorous from the outside, a lot of work takes place behind the scenes. It isn’t an overnight success story so don’t expect to bear fruits right away. Sometimes, you even have to plant fresh seeds.
Lastly, I’d say set up a 5 to 10 year plan for yourself, set milestones and try to achieve them one step at a time.
If there was something you could change about the Rwandan fashion industry, what would it be?
I would encourage people to support local businesses as much as they support foreign ones.
I’d change the mindset that “Made in Rwanda” is of lower quality than something sold in Nordstorm. Support your own.Opportunities in Rwanda encouraged Sonia Mugabo to return home and launch her brand @soniamugabo Click To Tweet
What’s next for Sonia Mugabo the brand and the person?
We’re excited about launching our second store at Kigali Marriott in Kigali, which will carry our up-scale collection inspired by timeless fashion.
We plan to continue creating strong fashion pieces that celebrate and capture the essence of global trends with an edge that is purely African, and will be distributing SM products around Africa, North America and Europe through e-commerce, retail stores, stockists and stores across major fashion cities in 2017. We also hope to present seasonal collections in New York, London, Paris and Milan fashion weeks.
Personally, since I’m self-taught, I would like to take fashion courses to enhance my craftsmanship. I’m excited about the future.
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