Glitter Trotter: Hello Emmanuel and welcome! I am so glad I can visit your studio and meet you in person! Can we start with the name of your brand? What does it mean?
Emmanuel Eguana: Well, it’s actually a combination of my family name – Eguana – and the place I now call home, which is Kampala, Uganda. I grew up in a family that loved fashion. As a child, I was surrounded by fashion magazines and TV shows about fashion. I think this was what spiked my interest in fashion design. I did consider other career options as a young adult, but eventually realized that I am meant to be in fashion. So, here I am.
GT: How interesting! So, who was the main fashionista in your household when you were growing up?
EE: Oh! Everyone loved dressing up! We did not have any fashion designers in our house – that is before me. But if you pick up a fashion magazine from 60s or 70s about Africa – this was us. Despite people’s love for fashion at the time, however, fashion design was not considered a serious career. So, I did a course in Fashion and Design at Evelyn College of Design in Kenya, but my first job was with the Monitor in Uganda -- writing a fashion column.
GT: Do you remember the name of the newspaper?
EE: Sure! It was called Monitor. Believe it or not, that experience helped me jump-start my career as a fashion designer, because I built a great business network.
GT: When did you launch your fashion brand?
EE: I started in 2007. I was living with my brother at the time, and I can honestly say that the brand started from his dining table. We were lucky because the family and friends came together to support us. It took time, but now we have our own workshop and a number of stockists, who sell our collections across Uganda, although we do hope to sell across Africa one day. We also have plans for an online shop, because this is the best way to reach a global audience; this is in our pipeline.
GT: So, what is Eguana Kampala about? How would you describe your brand?
EE: We describe it as Afrocentric streetwear and ready-to-wear fashion. Being Afrocentric is at the core of our business. For example, we were among the very first brands in Uganda to incorporate traditional African prints into our clothes and our own print design. We also wanted to cater to people’s everyday routines. There are plenty of designers, who would make a fancy wedding or evening gown. We want to make sure that our clients dress well every day – when they are out and about, going to work, going to a friend’s house, and so on. We want them to have something nice in their closet that they can just pick up and go.
GT: So, who is your client?
EE: We try to be a very inclusive brand. As a ready-to-wear brand, we want everyone to be able to find an outfit that fits their lifestyle. So when we think about our clients, it really from school kids to their grandparents. Same goes for the foreigners vs Ugandans – we want all of them to feel comfortable in their Eguana ready-to-wear pieces – in Kampala, outside Kampala, and when visiting places outside Uganda.
GT: How do your clients typically find you?
EE: Mostly online. We are very active on social media – and it’s for a reason. People are learning about a lot of new things, new trends and new brands online. But just being on social media is not enough – we have to be very creative to stand out among a multitude of really cool brands. For example, we recently did a photoshoot inspired by the movie Black Panther. Many people saw us differently after that photoshoot; we received so many compliments!
GT: Oh, I saw that video. It was really outstanding!
EE: Thank you! And it brought us a few new clients.
GT: I can imagine! Congratulations!
EE: Yes, it was really rewarding. We hope that through all our online materials -- photos and videos like you've seen -- we can continue sharing the values and the aesthetics of Eguana Kampala with a much larger audience.
Photo courtesy Eguana Kampala
GT: So, tell me more about the values you are communicating through your brand and your products.
EE: I would say there are three – comfort, emphasis on your personal style, and respect for our origins. I think comfort is more or less self-explanatory. When it comes to personal style, we do not want people to be styling total looks by Eguana Kampala. Surely, some people like total looks and do them well, and that’s great. But we are more pleased to see people incorporating just one piece – a skirt or a top – into their own wardrobe and incorporating them with other pieces from different designers. That’s why we also make a lot of separates – because we really enjoy seeing people creating very unexpected combinations of our pieces with something they already have at home.
They say, style has a weight. It weighs on your mood, on your creativity, on your relationships – on every aspect of your life. I believe we are making pieces that give more wight to your personal style. I do follow global fashion trends, but sometimes it feels like people use fashion as a sort of uniform – they lose their individuality and because just loke other global fashionistas outfitted in the same big brands and thus, looking the same. Our goal is to help people regain and emphasize their individuality and uniqueness.
When it comes to our origins, we always highlight the fact that we are from Kampala, Uganda; and we tell the story of our country through our clothes, which are made in Uganda. If you travel through Kampala, but the countryside as well – you will see hat Ugandans really like bright, colorful prints. Unfortunately, we cannot yet produce such prints in Uganda, although our textile industry is starting to make some strides. Meanwhile, we are importing the prints from West Africa. But we do believe that those prints combined with our designs and someone’s unique personal style create that feel of “Ugandaness” that is really hard to explain in words. You have to feel it! And you feel it the most, probably, when you wear our clothes outside Uganda, in a different country.
GT: I love this – “Ugandaness”!
EE: Yes, people in Uganda like to make a statement with their outfit. As I mentioned, even walking around Kampala, you see a lot of prints and a lot of colors. This is what inspires our designs – people going about their everyday life in their colorful outfits. Sometimes, we make references to the history of the country. For example, our 2020 collection was inspired by the 1960s-1970s in Africa; we wanted this collection to feel like you’ve just entered a 1970s club somewhere in Congo or Lagos; we wanted people to imagine even the music that would play in such a club, the dance moves.
GT: Do you have musicians that you favor from that period?
EE: Oh, definitely! I have a whole collection of musicians from the 70s – Fela Kuti, Franco, Pepe Kalle, Ghanian musicians, Congolese folks, so many! When I listen to their music, it takes me back to those times. Someone might find my taste in music very strange, but it really inspires me to create.
GT: What about your new collection? What is the inspiration behind it?
EE: Well, our newest collection is inspired by travel. It is radically different from what we’ve done before, but we felt like in the post-COVID-19 world people are looking for something radically different to help them refresh, renew, and rediscover themselves. And our new collection reflects that. All pieces are very versatile, for example you can wear a dress as a coat and a blouse as a light jacket. This versatility allows you to travel light while remaining stylish.
It also still has some vintage feel to it -- you can still see the silhouettes that were popular in 60s and 70s -- puff sleeves, gathered waistlines, and so on. I really loved that era and the way it influenced fashion and style; so I always have some references to those decades.
GT: Why do you think 60s and 70s are so special for you?
EE: I think it all goes back to my family. I get a lot of ideas and inspiration from our family photo albums. I often look through those albums – you really get this strong sense of a specific, very interesting style, that I am drawn to in my work as well.
GT: I know exactly what you mean! That’s how I feel when I look at my parents’ photo albums. Tell me, what are some of the challenges in your work?
EE: As we talked earlier – getting good prints is a challenge. We do often have to bring them from West Africa, although for the last collection we tried working with our neighbors from Tanzania. Their batik and kanga are amazing, and that formed the basic of our travel collection. Meanwhile, I do hope that eventually we can have the entire production, including the making of our own prints, be done in Uganda. I know currently a lot of work is going on around building a strong textile industry in the country, there are even some innovations like making textiles from banana fiber and eucalyptus. So, I am very hopeful.
Photo courtesy Eguana Kampala
GT: Going back to your travel collection – you mentioned that the attitude towards fashion changes after the pandemic. What are some of the new trends you are noticing?
EE: Well, comfort is definitely the case; people want clothes that is comfortable. Many now work from home and have to multi-task balancing work life and home life. So, the clothes should look professional but feel non-restrictive.
The second trend I would say is versatility and functionality. The pandemic brought with it a lot of economic hardships. Many can no longer afford to have separate wardrobes for work, casual outings, and celebrations (e.g., weddings, church, etc.). People are looking for clothes that can transition almost effortlessly from an office to a family celebration, to just a nice walk about town. We had to learn all about such transitional pieces and make them the center of our travel collection and the new clothing line overall.
GT: Do you see Uganda’s attention shifting from international to local brands?
EE: Yes, I do see that. When we just started as a brand, many people were only thinking about local designers as tailors. They would come to a tailor to make a dress for a funeral – something long, shapeless, and subdued just to get through the sad event.
But now, I noticed, more and more Ugandans go to local designers when they want something exceptional. For example, when you are going to a wedding, and you want to stand out among the multitude of guests – that’s when you go to a local designer to order a custom dress. And as this movement growing, customers are actually noticing that locally-made outfits are of much better quality that some of the imported staff.
This renewed interest in local fashion has also forced local designers to up their game. You are now seeing more creativity, more effort put into local designs as well. Ad yes, the suppliers – companies that import fabric and accessories for local designers – have also changed, we are now seeing more variety of fabrics and better quality.
GT: This sounds great! Has the attitude towards sustainability and responsible fashion also changed?
EE: Most definitely. Before COVID-19, we were churning collections – just like machines – SS2019, FW 2019… New season – new collection. We rarely thought about what actually happened to our clothes after clients were done wearing them; yet we all knew that fabric and clothes were one of the worst enemies of the environment.
Photo courtesy Eguana Kampala
I feel that the pandemic taught us to think differently. We started talking about reusing fabric – remaking old pieces into new pieces – proper recycling, proper disposing of the old fabric. We also started learning a lot about responsible production. Unfortunately, it is still not always possible to track the production cycle of some of the materials to ensure that were done with sustainability in mind. But as a minimum, we now can ensure that people engaged in the production were paid fair wages, they are not under-age, and the overall cycle was done with sustainability in mind.
I also believe that as designers, we can also contribute to sustainability by planning our collections differently. There is no reason to have a new collection every 3 months, because the old collections would just be disposed of. So, we need to plan new releases better – and that’s where thinking of versatility, comfort, and multi-functionality should help.
But to our earlier discussion about textile – one of the reasons to produce it locally is that you can then control the process and try to improve the sustainability and fairness of it.
GT: Now that we’ve talked about the evolution of your brand, what does the future of Eguana Kampala look like?
EE: Our biggest challenge for the nearest future is to continue building our presence online. During the pandemic, a lot of people were living in the digital space, because everything was closed. They were communicating online, meeting online, shopping online. Social media brought us new clients – Ugandans and foreigners. But for many, shopping with us is complicated because we only have physical stockiest in Kampala. Unless you are already here for business or leisure, you are not going to come to Kampala just to buy a dress. But online retail is not as simple as some people think – you need to figure out packaging, logistics, costs of delivery and returns…
Our production will also have to be adjusted to make sure we can cater to the needs of the digital audience. One of the worst things that can happen to an online shop is that your best pieces are always sold out because you did not plan well. People come once – it’s sold out; they come again – it’s sold out. They would not return for the third time – you lost them forever.
There are so many nuances! We want to do it right, and I think it will take us a couple of years to figure out – and scale.
Another thing we want to look into is sustainable fabric. There are a lot of experiments currently going on in Africa. I’ve heard of fabric being made of coconut fibers and pineapple; I also talked to a company in Rwanda, who produce tensile from eucalyptus. There are all these novelties coming to the market, which make fashion fun and sustainable. I also know there is a group in Uganda experimenting with silk production locally. I would like to learn more about that and see how we can incorporate such fabric into our work, because it can help us diversify – venture outside just making clothes from cotton.
GT: This is really exciting!
EE: I agree. But in the spirit of being Uganda-made, I also want to look into bark cloth. You know, Uganda is famous for it, this is truly a signature material for our country. Yet, we do not use it enough, and I feel it is underappreciated globally, although I understand that there is a lot of work to be done to make back cloth more wearable and washable – so that a regular user can take care of their outfits.
GT: All these materials sound a bit out there, don’t you agree? I feel like we are talking futuristic talks.
EE: True. But I feel that people globally and in Africa are becoming more open to new materials and futuristic, innovative fashion. For example, I am seeing a lot more bark clothes being used in wedding gowns these days. Also, some designers are incorporating bark cloth into formal wear for traditional ceremonies and even government events. For the longest time, bark cloth was sort of an outcast in the fashion industry – but I am seeing the industry showing a new interest in it.
Overall, there are a lot of interesting new movements withing fashion industry globally and locally. I would like to be a part of it, to be a source of creative inspiration for other designers. And I also would like to play a role in building a strong textile industry in Uganda.
GT: I admire this aspiration! I really hope your achievements exceed your expectations!
EE: Thank you!