Fashion Capital: How Circular Fashion Created Kampala’s Experimental Style

Fashion Capital: How Circular Fashion Created Kampala’s Experimental Style

Uganda is renowned for its spectacular natural beauty, warm people, mouth-watering food and vibrant nightlife. Over the last two decades, the East African nation’s art, music, film and fashion industries have been increasingly recognized for their innovation and dynamism. Now, it’s no surprise that events such as the Nyege Nyege music festival and Kampala Fashion Week 
(KFW) bring together revellers from across the globe. 

In Kampala, the country’s capital, style is experimental. “People are bold and embrace mixing different concepts together,” says fashion designer and founder of Kampala Fashion Week, Gloria Wavamunno. “Growing up witnessing this freed me from the pressure of following fashion trends,” she adds. Perhaps this unorthodox way of dressing is most apparent in the outfits of boda-boda (motorcycle taxis) riders. Boda-bodas are integral to life in Uganda as they are a quick mode of transport for people and goods. The operators are known for their quirky ensembles that do not adhere to seasons.

As they snake their way through the heavy Kampala traffic, you’ll see them in a puffer jacket with jeans, cowboy boots and dark shades. Their motorcycles often reflect their unconventional style, too. Wavamunno cites them as inspiration for the duffle bags she designs for her brand Gwavah. “I was drawn to the durability of the boda seats as well as their funky designs. When I learned more about the fabrics used to create the seat covers, I felt that they aligned with the sustainability ethos of my brand.”

Boda-boda seats for sale in Kampala. Photo by Clare Wise de Wet

Boda-boda seats for sale in Kampala. Photo by Clare Wise de Wet

Bark cloth has been manufactured in Uganda for more than six centuries, making it one of the world’s oldest textiles. The bark of a Mutuba tree is harvested during the wet season and then beaten using mallets to create a soft, fine texture. Bark cloth is central to the ancestral and funeral rituals of royals in the Buganda kingdom.

Ugandan artists and designers such as Xenson, Bobby Kolade and José Hendo have all created garments using the fabric. London-based Hendo was drawn to the eco-friendly properties of the textile and its versatility. “When I was developing my ‘Sustainable by Design’ approach more than 20 years ago, I needed an earthy, rustic, organic eco cloth. Bark cloth matched all these criteria, and I set out on making it work alongside other luxury fabrics.” Her creations range from structured boleros crafted from 100% bark cloth to mulberry silk kaftan tops with bark cloth-inspired prints. In 2014, Hendo launched the Bark to Roots (B2TR) initiative to preserve the Mutuba tree. B2TR encourages creative people to work with the textile and includes a million Mutuba tree-planting campaign in Uganda.

Although sustainability is a core principle of many Kampala brands, the abundance of second-hand clothes poses a major challenge. Every year, thousands of tons of second-hand clothes are exported from the global north to the global south – a practice often referred to as “waste colonization” – where they are sold in expansive markets such as Owino Market, one of the biggest second-hand clothing markets in the world, or condemned to overflowing landfills. 

Return to Sender project by BUZIGAHILL
Return to Sender by BUZIGAHILL. Images courtesy of BUZIGAHILL

On his podcast with filmmaker Nikissi Serumaga, Vintage or Violence, Kolade, a Woolmark Prize finalist in 2015, explains that most of the second-hand clothes that end up in countries like Uganda, Ghana or South Africa are often poorly made and less durable. The higher quality clothes are distributed in vintage and thrift shops in the global north. In Uganda, a second-hand item can retail for as little as UGX1000 (about $0.27). While this makes clothing more affordable, local designers find it incredibly difficult to compete. Through his BUZIGAHILL brand’s first project, Return to Sender, Kolade disrupts this destructive pattern. Instead, second-hand clothes from the global west are redesigned and transformed into edgy panelled hoodies, T-shirts with braided gathers and patchwork dresses. These items are targeted at customers in the global west, back to where they originated and are discarded.

While the business of second-hand clothing relies on the circular fashion system, where the final form of an item of clothing at the end of its life-cycle is considered during its creation, the disposable nature of fast-fashion production and the volume of unwanted clothing it creates indicates that it is not inherently sustainable. As of 2015, 70% of clothing donated in Europe end up in African countries, compounding the challenges facing the continent’s textile industry – the overflow of cheap second-hand materials from the global north means that designers find it difficult to work with local, traditional textiles in their home countries.

However, these challenges have resulted in a growing appreciation for local designers. Whether it is casual or bridal wear, Ugandans are turning to homegrown labels. Kwesh’s elegant, colorful coordinating pieces transition seamlessly from day to night. Those gracing the city’s endless occasions opt for the brand’s bespoke evening wear. After designing and creating her wedding gown in 2018, the label’s founder Juliana Nasasira started a custom wedding gown service in 2021. Anita Beryl’s flamboyant haute couture, bridal and evening wear have been worn by musicians, politicians and media personalities. Her creations feature elaborate beadwork and ruffled flouncy tiers in eye-popping colors.

Kampala Fashion Week, 2018
Kampala Fashion Week 2018. Image courtesy of @KampalaFashionWeek

offers a stylish take on men’s thobes, women’s abayas and kaftan dresses. The garments include panelled stitching in denim,
appliqué finishings and cutout details. Lukwanzi and Kwesh have both showcased collections at previous iterations of KFW. Wavamunno launched the platform in 2014 to promote the work of designers and help them access funding. “I wanted to create a space where people in fashion from Uganda and across the African continent would come together and share their work,” she says. Through Kampala Fashion Week, Wavamunno has also been able to mentor and train upcoming designers.

Similarly, the Bold in Africa retail store runs a fellowship program for young women designers and artisans based in Uganda. Since 2012, the store has been bringing fashion and house décor by Ugandan and African designers directly to customers in Kampala. The fellowship shares business tools that have sustained the store for more than a decade while participants learn skills in marketing and financial systems. 

Although Kampala Fashion Week is currently on pause, Wavamunno is optimistic about the future of Kampala fashion. “If you look around or go to KFW, the majority of the designers are making a push on creativity, ethics and conscious development. There is a growing community addressing various aspects of the industry.”



Words by Siima Itabaaza

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