Interview – Matthew Rugamba, Founder of House of Tayo

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When a butterfly is born out of a cocoon, it not only spreads its colours around but also creates a beautiful new phase in its own life cycle. Fashion unlike other industries is like this cocoon that keeps undergoing both slight and extreme metamorphosis to keep itself alive. A 360 degree approach to fashion and trends are the most significant part of this industry and in that way House of Tayo is excelling.

In this interview, Hai Afrika speaks to the mastermind behind House of Tayo, Matthew Rugamba – a talented young individual who wants to show the World the beauty of the African Heritage.

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The beginning

What made you decide or inspire you to become a fashion designer?

I think I may have a slightly bigger passion for story-telling than fashion. I remember making my first trip to the tailors when I was about 8 years old. I went to have an outfit made for my family wedding. I found the whole process fascinating. After many trips to various tailors over the years I grew more and more in love with the process.

A decade or so later I went to college in the United States. During that time I faced many questions about my home and “life in Africa.” I was honestly surprised about the misconceptions of life in Africa and particularly about Rwanda. Many still thought Rwanda was poverty stricken and war-torn. It irritated me to the point that I felt that I needed to do something about it. I could try to have an intellectual debate with everyone I encountered with such misconceptions but I felt that I would reach fewer people and in some cases people will just decide to keep their opinions.

However I felt that if I create something that appeals to people through rich aesthetics and on a more emotional level then I could have a greater and wider impact. In my experience thus far I have been able to create a more genuine interest in Rwanda and “life in Africa” through my products and other similar items than through economic data and facts which also illustrate the rapid changes that have occurred.


What is your favourite part about being a fashion designer?
I love it when an idea or a plan comes into fruition. However there is the odd occasion where there is a mistake or an unexpected interaction along the way that makes a piece I am designing even better than I imagined.  So I would have to say that my favourite part of being a designer is the moment a client tries on something I have designed for the first time and they love it.

Some clients are very expressive and will say something like

“ I can’t wait to wear this out!”

and other clients are a lot more reserved but they have that look in their eye like

“Damn, I look good!”

A couple of weeks ago I had a client come in to buy a bow tie for his graduation. He came in way after business hours but I was working late and opened the store for him. I helped him choose a bow tie that I felt would work with the rest of his outfit. He was particularly quiet and reserved throughout the process but seemed to like the piece I picked out for him. The next week he sent me a message saying that he received so many compliments on his bow tie and he thanked me for helping make his “graduation day great.” It is incredibly rewarding to hear that your work has such an impact. Occasions like this keep me motivated when the going gets tough.


The challenges

What challenged you to create haute couture clothes and accessories from locally sourced materials?

I don’t really do Haute Couture at the moment but it is still challenging to source material for my products. In a few words, I created House of Tayo to be a creative vehicle through which I can capture and interpret the bright colors, rich fabrics, intricate textiles, poise, and elegance of African fashion. I feel that in order to do this as authentically as possible I keep a majority of the process local. At the moment all of the production is done in Rwanda with local cooperatives and all the material is locally sourced. As the business grows and the product line expands, we will begin to import some of the high quality material that you cannot get here. However, since authenticity is an integral part of the House of Tayo brand we strive to do as much as we can locally.

How do you select the materials you use for your collection?

I have a mood board where I collect photos of looks and art pieces that inspire me. I have no real criteria for the photos that go up on this board. In many cases the person in the photo is not even wearing any of the products that I make. Sometimes I will put a photo on the mood board for a unique colour combination or the juxtaposition of different prints and textures.  I will spend an evening going through the mood board then the next day I will head out to the market to shop for the fabric. Some days I get everything I want in a couple of hours, other times it can  take 2 days but I usually set aside a day to spend in the market going through the different fabrics.

Once I have samples of all the fabrics I like, I will go back to my store/studio and see how they all fit together before going back to the market to make the purchase. I always pick one fabric which I feel is a bit of a risk, or different from the ones I usually choose. Sometimes it turns out brilliantly other times it is an epic fail and I have to re purpose the fabric into a table cloth or something so it doesn’t go to waste. The great thing about doing this so many times is that I have become better at picking the fabrics…which is a good thing because it is cheaper and I have run out of tables I can cover with the rejects (Laughs).

What do you do when you do not get the correct form of the material to put together what you envision in a particular designer outfit of your collection?

I will look for the material in either Uganda or Kenya and see how feasible it is to bring the material here. Rwanda has a very underdeveloped textile industry so I run into this problem quite frequently.

In most cases I will go back to the drawing board and see how I can alter my design to work with the materials that are readily available in Rwanda. It is challenging but it has done wonders for my creativity. I have been working on a new bow tie for the past couple of weeks and I was struggling to find special clasp and slider to be able to make the bow tie. I went through every inch of this city searching for those pieces but I could not find them. I could not find them in Kampala either. I half considered buying a bunch of second hand bras and taking them apart for the closing mechanism because works almost in the same way as the components I needed. To cut a long story short I redesigned the components that I needed and had them made out of cow horn. Something that started as a problem turned into another way to differentiate my products while supporting local artisans.

Your thoughts

What do you think of the Rwandan Fashion industry in general?

I think that there is huge potential but it will be challenging to compete regionally and internationally with the more established fashion markets. As I mentioned earlier, our textile industry is still underdeveloped. To produce high quality products you have to import textiles and other raw materials like leather and even buttons and zippers. This makes it more difficult to create high quality products at competitive prices.  We also have to work hard to create local demand for our products so that our businesses have the stable revenue stream that will allow us to expand and enter other African markets.

Would you like to share your future plans for House of Tayo?

Yes! Ok, well just a little bit. There are a couple of really interesting projects that we are working on but it is a little premature to announce them. One of them involves integrating mobile technology with our products.  Aside from that we are working hard on expanding the product line to include other products such as shirts and bespoke suits.

I also hope to be working with at least two (2) more cooperatives by the end of the year to bring the total number of cooperatives we work with to four (4). The primary cooperative that we work with is made up of 35-40 hardworking and talented seamstresses. I have learnt so much about the trade through working with them especially since I do not have a background in textiles and designs.

Finally, we are working on having our products available in throughout East Africa, the United States and Europe. Hopefully we will have our products in 2 stores by the end of the calendar year.


All picture courtesy of House of Tayo

About House of Tayo

House Of Tayo aims to showcase this African Sophistication, Style and Flavour through contemporary, locally made clothing and accessories. With style influences ranging from the Motown era to traditional British tailoring as we seek to combine elegance and class with a strong sense of African Heritage and iconography.


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