Glitter Trotter: Welcome, Olivia! You have a beautiful brand! I am really happy we were able to include you in our first round of interviews with Ugandan designers. Let’s start with some basics if you don’t mind. Tell me a little bit about yourself – anything you would like to share.
Olivia Birabi: My name is Olivia Birabi, and my fashion brand is called AfriOliv Creations. I like to think of myself as being born into fashion, because I learned to draw before I even learned to write. Since I was a little kid, I always dreamt of being a fashion designer – and I always knew this dream would come true one day.
GT: How did you know that fashion was truly what you were meant to do? You said you were just a little girl, right?
OB: You know this strange feeling that we call a “craving”? There is this strong energy driving you somewhere or to something , but you don’t really know where or to what exactly until you see or taste it.
GT: I know the feeling!
OB: So, that was me as a young girl – my energy was driving me towards something creative, some sort of activity I did not know about just yet. And then one day, I got a pencil in my hands and I started scribbling – and I was like, “Ah! This is it!”
When I was a child, our next-door neighbor was an artist; she spent a lot of time drawing. She was the one, who gave me a pencil and said, “Try drawing something in my book.” So, I gradually learned how to draw – first, simple things; then a person. I still remember all the sketches I did at the time. There was my very first dress sketch – a simple summer sleeveless dress in black, white, and wine-red.
GT: What a beautiful memory! Yet still – a long journey to becoming the designer that you are today.
OB: Trust me, it has been a very long journey! Just like many young people in today’s Uganda, I studied something unrelated to my passion, because we all hope that education will lead us to a stable job. And then there would be time for something you are truly passionate about. At the time I started my schooling, creatives were not earning much; and a creative occupation would not be your primary job. It's only today that people in the creative industry in Uganda are getting noticed and appreciated.
GT: This is a common journey. You have to try a few occupations to truly understand what you like – and very importantly, what you don’t like.
OB: Very true! When choosing an occupation, you have to consider a million things – you have to ensure the job will pay enough for you to have food on the table, you have to address the family pressure... But survival is the main consideration – you keep asking yourself if this occupation can lead you to a stable job that pays enough.
So, I started with a course that had nothing to do with fashion, but it got me a good job. For several years I worked as a customer-service agent at a pay-TV company. Aside from dealing with customers, I was also involved in operations. My work, from morning till evening, was all about solving people’s problems. You probably know about jobs like this – high tensions, mentally and emotionally tasking. At the end of the day, you are drained of all energy, and you spend your single day off trying to recover and prepare for the next busy week. So, you never get to think about your dreams, aspirations and passions – that “hobby” you always wanted to do on the side.
GT: Sounds very familiar!
OB: So, one day I reached a point where I couldn’t do it anymore. Life has a way of catching up with you.
GT: Of course!
OB: Yeah, I woke up one day and realized that my job was not my calling, that the world of fashion was still out there and waiting for me. I quit my job and went on to become a fashion model. My goal at the time was to not just fulfill my dream to be a model, but also to understand the fashion industry as an insider, to understand where and with whom I should be working to achieve my dream and become a fashion designer.
GT: That’s an interesting turn of events! So, you did not start as a designer?
OB: Well, I did not know how to be a designer at that point. Nobody told me what I needed to do to become a designer; I did not know anyone connected to the fashion world. Of course, I did some research before launching on my fashion journey -- and I learned a lot about the world of international fashion with its big, mostly Western, brands. But I could not find much written about my country -- Uganda -- where I intended to live and work as a fashion creative. So, I decided to become a model to have an opportunity to “observe” from the inside, so to speak. I had to put my foot in the door and start learning a completely new occupation from scratch.
GT: That must have been scary.
OB: Yes and no. Yes, I was scared to start something completely new; but at the same time, I was driven by my big dreams and aspirations; and I was finally following my passion.
But I have to say, the world of fashion modeling is definitely addictive. I loved being on the runway, I loved the fun part of it. Modeling was always on my bucket list – I had to try it, and once I did -- it became my life. I was able to walk some of the big runways in the country. I learned which people to work with, which people to avoid, how to get to international fashion shows...
Being a part of the fashion industry helped me establish relationships with people I liked and respected. It also energized my creativity, giving me new ideas and inspirations -- that I was later able to bring to life.
The tuxedo collection. Photo courtesy AfriOliv Creations.
GT: As a model, did you mostly work with local/Ugandan designers?
OB: Yes, because my goal was still the same – to learn how the local fashion world worked, so I could become a part of it as a designer.
GT: Out of curiosity, who is your favorite Ugandan designer?
OB: There is a Ugandan designer, who now lives in the UK – her name is Jose Hendo.
GT: I know her! She uses barkcloth to make her outfits.
OB: Yes, she is the one. I am inspired by her work, because she uses authentically Ugandan fabrics and design elements in her outfits.
Another Ugandan creative that I really like is Xenson Nzija. He is very unique in his creative expressions. Xenson has multiple talents, and fashion is just one of the sectors, where he has excelled.
GT: Now, let’s step back a bit. How did you find yourself at Records Fashion School? We ended up with you telling me about your exciting life as a fashion model.
OB: As I mentioned earlier, I always looked at modeling as a way of learning more about the fashion world in Uganda. While observing the work of fashion designers for whom I was modeling, I realized that I could never be a self-taught fashion designer. You need professional education, specialized training and good technical skills; creativity is good – but is not enough. So, in 2017 I enrolled in Records Fashion school and studied for 2.5 years. And just before I was to graduate – COVID-19 happened, and the School closed for almost 2 years.
GT: I remember, Uganda was hit really hard.
OB: It was quite difficult. The transport was not working; all events were cancelled; most businesses closed their doors. There were short periods of stability, when things were looking up. During those periods we would take a chance to reconnect with people, jobs, and schooling. But then a new wave of COVID-9 would hit, and everything would close down again. I am not sure how we survived, but we did. Yet, all of the delays meant that I was only able to graduate in 2022 – two years later than originally planned.
GT: But you managed to graduate, you did not quit. This is definitely something to be proud of! What was your graduate project about?
OB: My graduation outfit was about recycling. I turned agroshade net, beads and glass into wearable pieces of art.
GT: I like the sound of it! Where did you get the agroshade net?
OB: I used leftovers remaining from plant grafting. In Uganda, aside from the intended use of agroshade net to protect plants from the direct sunlight, people find other ways of employing this plastic net, for example, to prevent construction debris from falling into the street. Regardless of its use, agroshade net is one of the biggest pollutants in our country. The same goes for glass containers of all sorts, which are often just dumped in the street once people are done with them. Yet, there is a lot we can do with the agroshade net, broken glass and beads.
So, this project is my way of talking about these pollutants and calling on people to find ways to reuse them instead of just dumping them. It was also a part of my ongoing project about sustainable development, recycling and up-cycling. I created six outfits for my collection -- all refelecting the same theme of sustainability.
I have done a lot of research for this project and found ways to fuse materials together to create an outfit. It’s just so unfortunate that COVID-19 caused us to lose almost 2 years of our lives. But during this time, I learned how to be patient. And now we are back to work -- growing our brands and pursuing our passions.
GT: A quick one – did you already have your brand when you enrolled in Records Fashion School?
OB: I did; AfriOliv Creations was already born by then. I also started producing garments and building my business using the same model as many other aspiring designers – I was working with a tailor. I would design an outfit, and a tailor would make it. And all seemed well, until one day I got an order – and the tailor let me down. He did not complete the outfit by the time it was due to the client, and I lost a lot of money. That accident actually pushed me to enroll in Records Fashion School – I was like, why don’t I learn how to do it and then just do everything myself – design as well as make my outfits. I can work with a team later -- once I can afford a skilled and dedicated team.
GT: That must have been a hard lesson to learn but look where it got you! Tell me more about your brand.
OB: AfriOliv Creations is a fashion brand, which strives to design unique and authentic garments that reflect Ugandan cultural heritage. I use fashion to celebrate my roots. I also like creating a fusion of different cultures in Uganda, which results in unique outfits. My goal is to inspire trends, not follow them. I try to diversify the range of products my brand offers to the customers. AfriOliv Creations is not limited to one fashion category -- because every season and every theme have their own appeal. When it comes to designing made-to-order constumes and fashion, I design pieces that inspire trends. When producing ready-to-wear lines, I focus on simplicity with a touch of sophistication.
AfriOliv pieces are also known for references to the Ugandan cultural heritage and a creative integration of unique elements and high-fashion details and trends.
Among other features, a slight aura of vintage gives our brand clothes a unique, recognizable look. I like research, I am very curious about how trends and fashion concepts start, and how they are rooted in the Ugandan, African and global cultures. But I don’t want to get stuck on the vintage trends – I want to give them a new life by mixing up vintage and modernity. It is not easy to find a balance between traditional and modern, but such a balance brings about a new perspective on fashion as the art of expressing yourself. AfriOliv strives to use this new perspective to become one of Africa's best fashion brands, representing and nurturing fashion in Africa and beyond.
GT: So, it’s about the heritage and the vintage for you. Or should I say, the heritage in vintage?
OB: No, it's not just about the mix of vintage and modernity, but about a balanced mix of the two. It is also about being playful and cheeky while doing it. And that’s why the balance is so difficult – whenever you use vintage trends for inspiration, it is very easy to over-emphasize vintage and get outdated, or over-emphasize modern and limit yourself to a certain category or style. The fun in fashion comes, when you are walking this fine line between the two styles and never put both of your feet on either side of the line.
GT: This is a very colorful metaphor, thank you! I really want to see how your philosophy, or the vision for the brand play out in the outfits that you make.
The tuxedo collection. Photo courtesy AfriOliv Creations.
OB: Well, a good example would be my Tuxedo Collection, which I made for the French Embassy during the France-Uganda friendship week. The task for us was to design tuxedos with reference to the Saint Laurent style but fusing the Ugandan and French fashion elements and heritage. I sketched several designs for women tuxedos, and one of them was selected for production. The final design was simple, yet sophisticated -- a very classic shape with playful details on the sleeves and pockets made of Ugandan kikoy.
GT: You are right, the tuxedos look both very classy yet very modern and sophisticated.
OB: French people are known to have an eye for details and unique designs. The tuxedo definitely caught the attention of the Embassy staff. I received a lot of orders after the show; it also helped that my tuxedo was selected for the auction at the event. Even the staff, who were leaving Uganda at the time, kept my tuxedos as a reminder of their time here. I have a full collection in mind – and I plan on releasing it soon.
Another example of this balance between vintage and modernity is my Scorpion Dress. There are so many interesting themes in this dress. First, the red color is an exceptional color – it’s very bright and daring, but I loved working with it. Second, there are still those unique vintage elements – in the dress, you can see lines of lace, which opens just enough skin to make the dress intriguing without bringing it to the beat-up domain of boring cut-outs. I made a matching black-lace purse for this dress. This outfit was really an adventure-- a lot of delicate materials, thoughtful placement of details. I even added several cowry shells to the dress as another vintage reference.
The Scorpion Dress. Photo courtesy AfriOliv Creations.
GT: Sounds like your creative process is a lot of fun. How do you come up with the outfits?
OB: In short, I do my research and find a theme that fits perfectly with what I am working on. But what happens in reality is a much longer process. I start with my research and dig as deep as I could. Then I create mood boards; I rearrange elements on them, add new elements, modify, replace... And finally, I arrive at the final mood board that becomes the central point of my collection.
And I know that you like examples, so here is one. I was recently working on two outfits for Mrs. Uganda. The outfits were to showcase Uganda and our culture in a modern way. And Mrs. Uganda was going to a global contest to represent our country. My thought was, to dress a queen I need to be inspired by a queen’s dress.
GT: Hey! That’s so true!
OB: So, I went to a few museums, found good books about the royal history of Uganda. Eventually, I ran across a story of Queen Nakayima, who was a medium married to Ndahura, the king. I took Queen Nakayima’s outfits as my inspiration and added elements from other royal cultures, for example Egyptian.
I also thought about this aura of a goddess that surrounds a queen, this cloud of purity and beauty. And what color is better to represent this purity and beauty if not white. And that’s how the outfits came together – white, red, yellow and black – both pieces carried our country colors and a blend of heritage and modernity.
Mrs. Uganda Outfits. Photo courtesy AfriOliv Creations.
GT: The outfits look beautiful, but I love the story even more.
OB: Me too. I have a story for each outfit I create, it’s part of the creative process – but also part of what you are sharing with the client, not just a well-stitched garment – but a garment that means something.
GT: So, tell me – what is your story as Olivia and as a creative mind behind AfriOliv?
OB: I am an ambitious person, and I am using the gifts that the God gave me to express myself. I think with the entire world in my mind because I am sharing my life and my gifts with the whole world. I am looking forward to showcasing my work on international runways -- I will be very proud to share my Ugandan heritage globally. I also want to create friendships and exprience the adventures of fusing somebody else's culture into my fashion designs. I believe, every creative deserves a chance to share their uniqueness with the world… No, let me put it this way – every creative deserves a chance to share their ideas, their stories, their creative vision, and their uniqueness with the world.
GT: I am looking forward to seeing AfriOliv exploding on the global runways!
OB: Thank you!