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African designer's dream : putting 'umugwegwe' on the map

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AFP
Published
today Feb 25, 2008
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PARIS, Feb 25, 2008 (AFP) - When young fashion designer Bill Ruterana was looking for inspiration and cheap material to make clothes in his native Rwanda, he found it sprouting under his feet.


Creations of Marie-Claire Ateni (Mayonka), Olivier Couturier
and Bill Ruterana, to the Labo Ethnik 2008

"Umugwegwe", a plant something like flax or raffia, grows prolifically in Rwanda and when treated produces a frothy wool-like fibre.

Ruterana used it to spectacular effect in his latest collection unveiled this weekend at the second edition of Paris' "Labo Ethnik World Fashion Show" spotlighting African, Caribbean and multi-cultural design.

"Umugwegwe serves no real purpose but is a goldmine for me. It grows everywhere and it's very easy to work with," said the slight 24-year-old, who is such a fan that he used it not only for flamboyant multicoloured head-dresses but even for a show-stopping wedding gown.

He discovered that by pulverising the plant he could tease out fibres and colour them with vegetable dyes.

Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ruterana moved to Kigali in 1994 at the age of 10, just after the genocide that left 800,000 people dead, according to the UN.

"I saw bombs, mines, piles of corpses on the roads and in bushes, my friends with hands and feet chopped off," he says. The trauma if anything left him determined to succeed. A cartoonist and artist by training, he turned to fashion after painting dancers' bodies for a festival.

"That's where I came up with the idea of people and clothes as mobile canvases. I realised that the human body could be a canvas too. I replaced my paintbrush with a pair of scissors," he said.

A large tailor's scissors feature as an accessory on one of his creations, which make abundant use of vibrant oranges and yellows and gothic draping and swathing of umugwegwe.

Ruterana's designs have already made waves, winning him the bronze medal at the 2005 edition of the two-yearly FIMA African fashion show in Niger. He has established a small market back in Rwanda but says it is at shows like Labo Ethnik that he can fully express his creativity.

Bill Ruterana was one of 15 mainly African designers invited to showcase their ready-to-wear 2008/2009 collections over three days at the Paris show.

"This is the shop window these designers are so badly in need of and that's missing," said Yvette Tai, coordinator of the event.

Kicking off the parades was a polished collection of mostly silk and chiffon evening-wear by Niger's Alphadi, who for years has promoted stylists from the continent and is regarded as "the godfather of African fashion".

Other highlights included Anna Ngann Yonn from Cameroon, who launched her own label Kreyann in 2001 and whose sumptuous bodices, slim pants and full skirts in shantung and raw silk drew enthusiastic cheers from the crowd.

In the same chic format, Nigerian Dada Okorududu produced a range of heavy brocade corsets and long fishtail skirts with flamenco ruffles for her label, JD7 Couture.

Relaxed streetwear was dished up by Amadou Sidibe for Heverton Couture, a French designer of Malian origin, with streetwear with a more military feel from Kampala's Madoi Kasumba Lattif.

In sharp contrast was a muted all black collection of soft trousers and tops from Sandra Cardoso Muendane of Mozambique, while French Guyana's Marie-Claire Ateni, came up with cute rapper girl highwaisted denim shorts and cropped jackets under the label Mayonka.

by Mary de Sousa

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