African fashion takes Paris

One of Bill Ruterana's multicoloured sisal-made gowns on the catwalk at Labo Ethik in Paris One of Bill Ruterana’s multicoloured sisal-
made gowns on the catwalk at Labo
Ethnik in Paris.

Bill Ruterana takes a bow on the Labo Ethnik catwalk. Rwandan Bill Ruterana takes accolades on
the Labo Ethnik catwalk.

Janine Erasmus

Sisal is little more than a weed in Rwanda. Fibrous and not particularly pretty, it grows abundantly, but with no real use beyond rope-making. Yet this plain plant took to the catwalk in Paris in February, transformed into fabulous wedding dresses and headgear by Rwandan fashion designer Bill Ruterana.

Ruterana was one of a number of creative minds from across Africa showcasing their designs at Labo Ethnik, a celebration of youthful, innovative and multicultural fashion that is part of the programme of the prestigious Paris Fashion Week.

Fifteen young designers – most of them African – were invited to show their autumn and winter ready-to-wear collections. As part of the twice-yearly Paris Fashion Week, the premier event on the global fashion calendar, Labo Ethnik was the place to be for up-and-coming designers.

The show’s value, say organisers Afrikaevents, is that it brings together fashion designers from a rich array of cultures, allowing them to draw inspiration from each other’s colourful backgrounds. It celebrates diversity, contrasting different influences on the same stage.

And diversity there was. The models strutted out with creations by designers from Niger, Uganda, Nigeria, Cameroon, Mali, Rwanda, French Guyana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Togo and Morocco – mostly former African colonies of France. Others came from Portugal, the Caribbean island of Martinique, and France.

Creativity from chaos

Only 24, Ruterana’s head for innovation comes from being completely self-taught – and making a success of himself against horrendous odds.

Born in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, at the age of 10 Ruternana moved with his family to Kigali in Rwanda in 1994, a few months after the explosion of ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis that left 800 000 people dead and forced many more to flee their homes.

“There were still corpses in the fields or in the streets,” he said in an interview with “It was very traumatic for a child my age. But life has prevailed.”

Instead of sinking him into despair, the carnage he witnessed made him determined to rise to the top in whatever he did. Ruterana initially planned to become an artist and sculptor. But at the age of 19 he got the job of painting dancers’ bodies for a festival. He realised then that the human body could also be a canvas.

He says he has no idea where his creativity comes from. “I cannot live without doing what I love. I remember always having drawn even before going to school. Then, I was unable to enrol at university because I had to work to help my mother. I had odd jobs and was trying to make portraits, but in Rwanda culture is a very hard area to be successful in.”

But that didn’t stop him. In 2005 he entered Nigeria’s International Festival of African Fashion, won third place – and began to experiment with new materials, one of them sisal.

Known in Rwanda as umugwegwe, sisal grows prolifically but isn’t really used for anything – until now, it has simply been material for rope. But from his experiments Ruterana found that crushing the plant’s leaves released each leaf’s 1 000-or-so fibres, which could then be coloured with vegetable dyes and woven into fabric.

Umugwegwe serves no real purpose but is a gold mine for me,” Ruterana said. “It grows everywhere and it’s very easy to work with.”

Other than his successes at global events such as Labo Ethnik, Rutera now keeps his design business going at the small market he owns back home in Rwanda.

Africa’s textile tradition

African design is strongly rooted in beautifully coloured and hand-woven fabrics, created from indigenous materials for hundreds of years. Many have distinctive styles and motifs, uniquely identified with their particular culture.

In Nigeria, for example, the Yoruba people in the west of the country weave an intricate fabric called aso oke (literally “top cloth”), used for garments worn on special occasions such as holidays, weddings and funerals.

Mali has bogolan – “mud cloth” – another hand-woven fabric that, dyed with mud, shows rich and earthy colours.

The famous kente cloth comes from the Fante people of Ghana, with the patterned fabric holding religious, political and even financial significance, often signified by colour.

There are many more, from across the continent. Africa’s fabulous fabrics are increasingly influencing global fashion design, producing a beautiful blend of modern and traditional. And if you want your own, many fabrics are available at speciality shops, and online.

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