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Our Creatives

Five minutes with Evalyne Okwarikunda, Hawa'z Gallery

Evalyne Okwarikunda is the owner and the designer of Hawa'z Gallery, Uganda's own unique handbag brand that blends together passion, curiocity, hard work, and a unique sense of style to bring you timeless pieces that as much an accessory as they are wearable art.
Five minutes with Evalyne Okwarikunda, Hawa'z Gallery

Glitter Trotter: Evalyne, I am really happy you got a minute in your busy schedule to have coffee with me! I am really keen on hearing your story and the story of your brand. Tell me everything!

Evalyne Okwarikunda: Well, my name is Evalyne Okwarikunda; and I am originally from Western Uganda, from the Chiga tribe. I came to Kampala in 2012 to study at Makerere University Business School.

GT: What did you study?

EO: I studied Transport and Logistic Management at Nakawa campus, it’s a satellite campus for the Business School.

GT: This is an interesting profession; one of my friends in the US studied Transport and Logistics Management. But it seems so far removed from your business today. How did you shift to your creative business?

EO: I started beading when I was a sophomore. It was just by sheer luck that I met a person, who was selling beaded jewelry at the campus gate. I was astounded to say the least. In my mind, all jewelry – especially beaded jewelry – was imported to Uganda. I could not even imagine that somebody could actually make jewelry right here – in Kampala. Of course, I did not know much then – I had just arrived to Kampala, and I was spending most of my time either on campus or at home studying.

GT: As a good student should do!

EO: Yes, true. That’s why meeting this person, who was selling beaded jewelry at the gate, was so eye-opening for me. I approached her right away and asked her if she was the one making the jewelry. She said, “Yes.” And I immediately wanted to try it. I did not know much about how to start – where to buy the beads or how to put them together – but there was something very captivating about that beaded jewelry. I loved it!

GT: It sounds like a start of a great movie, “I saw it, I loved it, I started doing it!”

EO: And this is how it felt. It was so exciting! In my hometown, nobody made beaded jewelry like this.

GT: Really?

EO: True. Don’t get me wrong – there was and is plenty of craftsmanship going on in my hometown, even some beadwork. But I grew up knowing mostly paper beads and some “wild” beads made from berries. But the beads this lady was selling at the gate were different – colorful, modern, and very beautiful. And so were her designs. I just had to test my creativity!

GT: So, what happened then?

EO: The lady told me where she was buying beads and other supplies. She basically said, “Go to town, go to this building. People working there will guide you.” So, I got on a matatu (shared taxi ride) and went to town. It took me a while to understand Kampala – it’s a busy town!

GT: Tell me about it!

EO: But once I got to the right building, people helped me find the beads and the supplies. And you know, that lady at the gate – she was very generous with information. She told me what supplies I needed for making earrings, necklaces, and bangles. So, I bought exactly what she said and went back home, where I made some bangles and necklaces. It gave me a lot of satisfaction being able to make something beautiful with my hands. But this experience also made me think.

GT: About starting a business?

EO: Well, not really starting a business yet, but I did realize that – just like the lady at the gate – I probably could earn money selling my jewelry. As a young girl, you need to not just sustain yourself but also have a bit of fun in life. My grandmother, who raised me, was helping a lot – paying for my college and my room, but I also needed money to dress up for college, make my hair, keep myself up.

GT: I think we’ve all been there. I also left for college when I was very young – just 16 years old. My parents provided a lot of support, but I needed extra money for extra things. So, I started giving English lessons to earn money for dressing up and make up.

EO: So, you know how it is. I called my grandmother and asked her for a loan. She sent me 50,000 Ugandan Shillings ($13.5); I bought my supplies and started making beaded jewelry for sale. I was very shy at the time and could only really sell to my classmates or people I knew at my hostel. It was very hard for me to sell to strangers, but even with my classmates – I would make a sale every single day.

GT: This is very impressive! Tell me, what was your secret? Did you have special designs that nobody had? Or special beads?

EO: Both! I quickly realized that I had a unique sense of colors, which made my jewelry stand out. I would also take time at the market looking for special beads, that nobody else would use. Finally, I would not overprice my jewelry like some makers did; for me, it was more important to make a small sale every day than to wait for a month to sell something expensive.

GT: This is a really smart business strategy! That’s your schooling in management in practice!

EO: Yes, I learned that I had a few advantages over other makers of beaded jewelry – good taste and a good business sense. I was always paying attention what jewelry was selling and at what price point. For example, I felt that bangles were too expensive to make and to sell, so I focused on earrings because they were easy to make – and they were moving fast.

So, I kept earning money through jewelry till my third year in college. But then my boyfriend taught me how to make bags.

GT: Hold on, hold on! Your boyfriend taught you to make bags?

EO: Yes, he was more knowledgeable about beads and jewelry than me, so he was the one, who helped me start Hawaz Gallery – the business that I am known for today.

GT: This is an interesting twist to the story! Tell me more about your boyfriend?

EO: He was working at the shop, where I used to buy beads. That’s how we met.

GT: Oh! I see now. How wonderful! Your creative passion led you to your love interest.

EO: Yes, indeed. So, my boyfriend is an art teacher. But after work, he would always go to the beads market to help his mentor, another art teacher, who had a shop selling beads. So, my boyfriend knew a lot about making bags, and he taught me everything he knew at the time. It took me two days to learn the basics.

GT: Only two days?!

EO: Yes, he was a very good teacher! But at the time, bags were not very popular – jewelry definitely sold better, because there are so many occasions for wearing cool jewelry – weddings, birthday parties, work functions, and so on. So, I continued making and selling my jewelry; but I also kept leaning how to make better, unique beaded bags. My boyfriend helped me at the beginning, but then I also started watching YouTube videos to educate myself beyond what he could share.

GT: I have to tell you – you’ve succeeded in developing your unique style. I was amazed when I saw your bags for the first time; they are beaded bags, but they keep the square shape so well. How do you do that?

EO: You mean, how do I make the hard corners? Trust me, it took me for a while to figure out! My first bags looked nothing like this. Since they were not selling well, I thought I would just keep making them for fun – learning how to make different shapes, how to mix colors… I kept experimenting with bags, meanwhile, jewelry was the hot item, which sold really well.

But then I got pregnant and had my first child. In the first 5-6 months, I stopped everything; I stopped selling my jewelry, and I stopped looking for a job. I was just a stay-home mom. My daughter required a lot of special care, and I did not have time to think about what I wanted to do next. But once she’d gotten a bit older, I felt it was time to go back to my business – but I had to figure out something new, a business that would not require me to be at the market every day selling jewelry – because now I had a family, a child – and a new home in a small town outside Kampala, in Kawanda.

GT: This feels like a whirlwind! Everything in your story is happening so fast! I can’t wait to hear the rest of it!

EO: Maybe I am just telling it to you fast. In real life, it took me some time to figure out what I wanted to do. It was very clear to me that there was no going back to jewelry. But my love for art, for a creative occupation was still there. I loved art since I was a child, and I took art classes throughout my secondary school.

GT: Have you ever thought of getting a degree in art?

EO: I did. But I was not sure it would be a practical decision. After all, it is much easier to find a job as a manager than as an artist. But once I found myself on the crossroads after the birth of my first child, I went back to exploring things related to fashion and design. I tried tailoring first; my auntie gave me her old sewing machine; and I learned how to make wallets and tote bags. But in our town, people were not interested in these products – and it made no sense to take them to Kampala, where competing with local makers would be tough. I played with a few other ideas, but nothing seemed to work.

GT: I am so sorry!

EO: Yes, I felt pretty lost for a couple of years. But then in 2019, I was like, “This is it! I have to get serious about something and pursue it!” I went online and found a few motivational speakers, so I can get inspired. There were a couple of people, who really gave me hope that I can start over again and rebuild my business.

At some point, YouTube started recommending some videos to me – mostly videos about people running digital businesses, you know – online shops of sorts. They were making good money selling all kinds of things – from jewelry to cosmetics and clothing. The businesses were very different, but there was something common about their owners – they were all very passionate about their businesses. So, it donned on me – to build a successful business online, you have to specialize in something, you have to have unique products; and to specialize in something, you have to do things that you are really passionate about.  In other words, to be good in doing something, you have to do what you love. And I loved beading. That’s how I came back to beading and beaded bags.

GT: Did you start making your current designs right away?

EO: No, at first, I was making the same bags as the local makers – tailored fabric bags, where the beads are stitched to the outside of the bag. But the market had shifted by then and people were no longer buying bags like this. So, I started searching online for examples of beaded bags and bag makers; most of them were Asian, and they had an interesting style, which I really liked. I decided to try this new style – and that’s how my bags came to be.

I launched my Instagram page in 2019. My first photos – made on a really simple, old phone – were very blurry. But I kept at it, because one thing I learnt from those inspirational videos on YouTube – consistency always pays off. I heard so many times from those speakers, “Be patient. Stay the course. Keep practicing…” Even my husband’s mentor at that beads store was encouraging me! I was ready to give it a go. So I kept posting, kept learning, and kept working on my designs. I even bought a new phone – with the goal of taking better pictures of my bags. And then COVID-19 and the lockdown happened.

GT: Were you forced to close the business?

EO: On the contrary. That’s when I met Nina, and my business really picked up. Nina is a well-known designer in Uganda, she makes crocheted swimsuits. Nina saw me on the Facebook marketplace, where I was promoting my bags and sent me a message, “Please, contact me – I think we can do business together.” I was hoping she would order a bag or a belt, maybe; I really needed some clients at the time. But her offer was even better. She said, she was about to launch her new collection – and she wanted me to make bags to accompany her swimsuits. She invited me for a collaboration, which was new and really exciting! And this is how I got my first real client in the midst of the pandemic!

GT: Congratulations! How did it go?

EO: I was very happy! I delivered the bags, and Nina promoted my page. Within a week, my following on Instagram went from 500 to 1000. Those were all Nina’s followers, who also liked my work. It was very gratifying. This was the first time I realized that my dream of becoming a designer was actually going to come true!

GT: I am hoping a few young designers will read this interview. So, please for those who need inspiration – how long did it take you to get this breakthrough with Nina?

EO: It took me almost a full year of learning, making the bags, posting photos… Almost the whole year.

GT: Very impressive!

EO: This collaboration with Nina gave me confidence to do more. I started thinking of putting together my own collection of bags. I kept watching videos about different designers, and I noticed that many of them give names to their bags. So, I decided to create several unique designs and name them after people, who inspired and supported me.

For example, the tiny white bag made of large beads is called Kharis. Kharis is the name of my daughter. I grew up the only child in our household; so Kharis, my own daughter, was the first child who I got to know closely. I gave her the first sample of my Kharis bag as a present. She is now 12 years old, and she still has the bag.

GT: What a great story! What about Kate?

EO: Kate was my first client from Tanzania. She wanted a very specific bag, a custom order. I could not make the bag that she wanted, but I came up with a similar design, which I then named after her, because it was originally her idea.

Then, there is Mellisa – my non-biological sister with whom I grew up. Her name is very melodic, so I used it for a bag. Mellisa is a lot of fun, and she is great with money; if you want a good money advice – Mellisa is your girl.

Lovis is another girl that I consider my sister, although, she is the daughter of my uncle. Lovis is very strong and hardworking; she practically raised herself. And her name is so unique – I thought naming a bag after her would be a great way to celebrate my “sister” Lovis.

Nina backpack is very obvious – Nina was my first real client, who gave me an idea of making a backpack. Nina is also my mentor and my partner; she brought my brand to the spotlight. Just like all other women after whom I named my bags, Nina is very strong and hardworking. I think these are the qualities that connect all my ladies, no matter how different they are.

GT: Do you still follow other businesses on YouTube and Instagram as you did at the beginning?

EO: Yes, definitely. But now I look through those pages not for learning and copying but more for inspiration. This is what I learned from Nina – find a piece you like online and make it yours, meaning you have to make it in your style, add your sense of beauty and proportions, your sense of color, and so on. Basically, get inspired by others – don’t copy others. And this is the way I try to go when thinking about my future collections or even some random designs for one-off clients.

GT: Have you defined your unique style?

EO: Yes, I believe so. I think my style is to create bags that are more than just bags – they are pieces of wearable art.

GT: How so?

EO: I play with colors a lot. If you look at my IG page, you can see that I am not into solid colors. I am mostly doing bags in mixed colors, but I do not just mix the beads – I make sure I think through the design, plan, and then reassess the plan as it comes to life. Sometimes I can redo a row because the colors do not look right. Sometimes I have to redo the whole bag. I do follow my intuition and my sense of colors, but sometimes I get it wrong. And I am not the person to sell a product I am not happy with; I put a lot of thinking, planning, and working into each bag I make.

Another important feature of my business and my personal ethics – I try to be very cautious about the materials that I use. I buy beads in pre-packaged amounts, right? So, the number of beads that I actually need is likely to be less than what I bought. So, for a while I would just keep these beads in a hope another client would come and ask for the same color. Then I realized that this would not happen quickly, or ever. So, my choices were to either throw away the left-over beads or do something with them. And that’s how my “Tiny” capsule collection came to be – I made a series of very small bags from leftover beads.

GT: And they turned out so lovely!

EO: Yes, I was very proud of them! And I think they are very timely as well. Right now, the economic situation is not easy in Uganda. COVID-19 has done us a lot of damage. Everything is expensive, and a lot of people are cutting down their luxury expenses. But my tinies are affordable and fun, and they go with any outfit – casual, party, you name it!

GT: That’s really smart business thinking!

EO: I cannot take full credit for the tiny idea – I did notice that a lot of big brands started making really small, tiny bags. So, this is a trend, and I like to hop on interesting trends -- as long as I can keep true to my main principle -- I can make the trend mine, i.e., I can bring my sense of style, colors, and aesthetics to it.

GT: In your business, do you think it is important to follow these global trends?

EO: Yes and no. It is important, because I am running a business – and I need to understand and cater to the interests of the group of clients that I consider “my clients.” And I know my clientele consist of outgoing people – they go out to dinners and lunches, they also go to parties and special events. So, I want their every outing to be a success for them, I want them to stand out and feel great about themselves. But I also want them to brag about my bags, because that would bring me more clients. That’s how I get most of my new clients – through the word of mouth. This is why I have to stick to my strategy – follow the trends, understand the trends, but make them mine. This has been my winning strategy thus far, and I hope it will continue working for me.

GT: I am really, really impressed with your business acumen! So, who are the majority of your clients today?

EO: Well, I started with having mostly international clients. They would see my Instagram and want to have one of my bags. But in 2021, things changed – now I have a growing group of clients among Ugandans, which is really great.

GT: What changed in 2021?

EO: I got invited to a pop-up organized in Kampala by the fashion council of Uganda called Aiduke. The pop-up took place in January-March 2021, and the main goal was to showcase local, Ugandan designers. They asked me to share photos of my bags and picked five; and all five sold out on the opening day.

GT: Incredible!

EO: So, I told the organizers – I have 17 more bags at home, can I restock? They said yes, and I placed all the bags I had a home to the pop-up. And throughout January, I kept making more. This pop-up show was when people in Uganda started noticing me and my bags; and I started learning about their tastes.

GT: Are your Ugandan clients different from international clients?

EO: Yes, I tend to sell bags in solid, calm colors in Uganda – black, brown, green – colors that go well with business and everyday outfits. The colorful ones are more in demand among my international clients. But I do have a good balance of Ugandans and foreigners among my clientele now, which makes me feel really accomplished!

GT: And so you should! So, now that you’ve reached some of your milestones, what are your plans for the future? How do you see your brand growing?

EO: I really want to see more Ugandans among my clients. People just started recognizing me as a designer, as a Ugandan designer. And it makes me really proud and happy that my own people see me differently. But I am still only at the beginning of my journey as a designer. For example, I really want to focus on the client-services side – design a proper logo and the packaging that would make my clients feel that they are buying something valuable and timeless.

I am also thinking about establishing a proper apprenticeship, so I can train people, who want to learn beadwork. I have trained people here and there on an ad hoc basis, mostly when I wanted to help someone in despair to earn a bit. But as I mentioned earlier, to become really good at something, you need to have passion for it. I did not feel my trainees had passion for beadwork. Through a formal apprenticeship, I would be able to identify and select people, who really want to learn. And yes, I want a stable partnership with my apprentices – I would like them to work on their own style and collections, and I would happily help them grow, but I also would like to see them step in and support me, when I get a big order. Reciprocity is important when you all are trying to grow.

Finally, I am thinking about interesting collaborations. I’ve been very lucky to meet Nina, Nina Mirembe. Her specialty is crochet designs; she makes everything from swimsuits to dresses and cardigans. We’ve been collaborating since 2020 on various projects. I’ve been also recently talking to a group of young men in their early 20s, who are thinking of making a men’s collection: bracelets and small sling bags. I liked their concept; they were thinking of a really small sling bag – to fit, maybe, just car keys. I made several samples for a photoshoot. I know they are working on launching their campaign, so I cannot tell you their names just yet. But you see, such collaborations are fun and invigorating, but they are also challenging and help me learn new techniques, which I truly appreciate.

GT: You have big plans and definitely the passion to match them. So, what do you want to see your business become?

EO: Well, what I really want is a balance of life and work. I really want to be a stay-home mom; my children and their wellbeing are really important to me. At the same time, I really want my brand to be known in Uganda and abroad, and I want to have a showroom of sorts, where I can bring people to show my collections. Maybe the way to grow for me would be to stay small and focus on unique collections and collaborations, not mass production. I want people to know that each bag they are getting from me is really special; that it’s a piece of art made with love and creativity.

GT: It all already sound very special and unique! I love how thoughtful you are about everything. My last questions – I just totally forgot to ask you at the beginning about the name of your business.

EO: Hawa’z Gallery? Well, this is my name – Hawa, this is a Muslim version of my name Evalyne. My husband is Muslim, so I also converted when I married him – I always wanted to have a united family, a family that raises kids in one religion. But I also kept my name Evalyne because this is how I grew up. So I use Evalyne for the English-speaking side of my life, and I use Hawa for my Muslim side. So, when I was thinking about the name for my business, I wanted it to be nice and simple and reflect, who I am today. And one day, I met a lady, who had a clothing boutique – it was called Maya’s Gallery. I really liked it. And that’s how Hawa’z Gallery came to be.

GT: I really wish you all the best! With your creativity, wisdom and determination, there is nothing you will not be able to achieve! Best of luck!

EO: Thank you!