Brenda Nakalema is an entrepreneur, fashion designer, writer and poet who started Uganda's Mosaic fashion house. She talks about Ugandan style, fusing the traditional with the international, and the power of self-confidence.
What does style mean to you, personally?
Style is a timeless way of being, the way a person expresses themselves in clothing outside of the strict rules of fashion. A person’s style is their essence, almost like their character. The more self-aware a person is, the more evident their style becomes.
Tell us about Ugandan style – where, for example, does traditional design meet international trends?
I don’t think that there is such a thing. Uganda is a very culturally diverse country with some people hailing from two or more cultures. Ugandans also happen to be a very open people, we love to look around and borrow ideas from other cultures and places, not just in our own country but across the globe.
For this reason, I think that ‘style’ in Uganda is a very personal thing. What one person would wear, another would never even consider viewing. Having said that, I think international trends have greatly influenced traditional cultural wear, resulting in brighter colours, richer fabrics and interesting appliqués being used to make and create traditional garments.
You mainly use African batik prints, but your designs seem globally-inspired. Why did you choose that approach?
I choose to use African fabrics because I love their bold colours and patterns. They are the kind of fabrics that do not allow a person to shrink into themselves. You cannot fade into the background.
I choose to marry kitenge prints – textiles printed with a batik technique – with globally inspired designs because they are beautiful. They are also not being designed to attract the younger, more vibrant generation who are interested in bold, interesting and often risqué clothing. In my childhood, I mostly saw these prints worn by women my mother’s age and older. When I grew older and developed a greater appreciation for these fabrics, I went on to create outfits I thought would appeal to people within my age group.
The women modelling your clothes online appear diverse and relatable – was that a part of your business plan?
Models can make anything look good. They are trained to strike a pose that captivates the audience and photographer alike, regardless of what clothes they are wearing.
Magic happens when you make a regular woman feel like a goddess in what she’s wearing. She forgets what she thinks are her flaws or what society has told her are her flaws. I think this approach is more powerful and speaks to my brand ethos more than the conventional methods used to portray clothing in magazines and online. When my outfit can make any woman – dark, light, tall, short, slim or full-figured – feel like she owns the world, when I can see that translated into her walk, her smile, how she carries herself, I think that’s potent.
'I choose to use African fabrics because I love their bold colours and patterns. They are the kind of fabrics that do not allow a person to shrink into themselves. You cannot fade into the background.'
Was Mosaic your first business?
Mosaic was my first business but not my last. I hope to start and grow a few other businesses in different sectors in the near future.
In business school, I developed a fascination for business and how it just might be the solution to some of Africa’s problems. In Uganda, for example, a recent graduate might have graduated top of her class in university, and may have ideas and enthusiasm, but can't find opportunities in the Ugandan job market. A lot has been said about Africa's problems and in many cases, governments have looked to foreign aid as a solution. But with a lot of young people and a growing middle class, I think we can solve our own problems through entrepreneurship.
How did you find a market for Mosaic in its early days?
In the early days, finding business was basically about talking to a lot of people about what I do. I didn’t yet have social media pages, so I attended networking events and talked to friends and family and that is how I got my first clients. With the first clients came more referrals, until I finally decided to open social media pages for my business.
Social media means that business is not bound to a geographical area, and that has truly been a game-changer for African entrepreneurs. Social media has enabled businesses to know their customers intimately, which is helpful in a business like mine because I am able to make products that suit my customers' tastes. It has also greatly reduced the costs of doing business. In my industry it is possible to grow from zero customers to an unlimited number without incurring ridiculously high rent costs.
Where do your skills in business and in the arts meet?
During routine business such as managing production, negotiating with suppliers or managing resources, I have to apply creative thinking to solve problems. In the same way, when designing outfits, I have to manage my creative pursuits by applying my business skills towards things like cost management. I think the two go hand in hand and, daily, one set of skills lends assistance to the other.
What advice can you give to other entrepreneurs in the arts?
Know what your brand stands for and by extension what you stand for, and what sets your brand apart from others, and then stick to that. Sometimes in the creative industry, it’s easy to copy what another successful entrepreneur is doing simply because it works. In the short run, you might earn some money, but in the long run, your brand will not build its own identity. You will also suffer personally because you won’t have taken the time to develop your own unique talent. Don’t be a cheap imitation of someone else – be your own unique self.