In Kinshasa, building a fashion industry one stitch at a time
By Stephanie Bakker & Yvonne Brandwijk
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Born here 33 years ago, Gloria Mteyu went abroad to find her way in the fashion industry. Mteyu studied in New York and at the fashion academy in Milan, and worked in Paris for the designer John Galliano.
But in 2012, she swapped the world’s fashion capital for Kinshasa, returning home to a city she believes is on its way to becoming a global fashion hub. “Everyone is saying it: ‘Africa is the future’, she says. “Why should I stay in Paris if it’s all happening in the place I am from?”
Dressed all in black and wearing a golden tiger earring, Mteyu says Africa has been looking to Kinshasa for the latest fashion trends for decades. During the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, when Western fashions were banned, many people wore them anyway as a form of quiet protest. Even in the poorest parts of the city today, you’ll find people dressed to impress. Now, with the Congolese economy growing fast and the political situation the most stable it’s been in decades, the Kinois are poised to show the world their instinctive sense of style, inventiveness and creativity.
Since returning home, Mteyu has made it her mission to not only unleash this flair but also to help build a new industry that can help create jobs for Kinshasa’s rising middle class. She’s organized Kinshasa Fashion Week, the city’s first international fashion event, to show the world that Congo is home to designers and not just rebels. In the shows, local designers seem to be saying that Kinshasa is not all about politics and poverty but a city of stylish people who work hard to get ahead. “There is enough talent here,” Mteyu says. “What they need is exposure.”
After decades of civil war, Kinshasa is now experiencing a sort of “coming out” period. The national economy has been growing by 6.9 percent or more annually since 2010, making the Democratic Republic of the Congo one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. A recent report on cities of the future by the McKinsey Global Institute placed Kinshasa among 20 “hotspots for growth.”
Kinshasa’s small but growing fashion industry is just one part of the economic story here, which is still dominated by mining, manufacturing and telecommunications. But it’s important to understand because it’s entirely organic and driven from the bottom-up by people like Mteyu. There is no government policy stimulating the fashion sector, no city marketing guru who dreamed up the concept of Kinshasa as the next Paris. The DRC is a weak state whose government is not able to protect its citizens, let alone invent a new economic cluster.
City of contradictions
Kinshasa is a city of abounding energy and stark contrasts. A growing skyline of glass office towers testifies to the capital’s growing economic might. At the same time, there are ever-expanding informal settlements, known collectively as the Cité. About 40 percent of Kinshasa’s people have no access to clean drinking water and live on less than US$1.25 a day.
Nobody illustrates this complex reality more than Louison Mbeya. We met him at a fashion show put on by students at the Institut Supérieure des Arts et Métiers — it’s the only public fashion academy in Central Africa, educating 2,500 students mostly from Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and Angola. Mbeya immediately stands out, wearing a canary yellow jacket studded with hundreds of colorful beads and Ray-Ban sunglasses, which he keeps on throughout the show.
During a break, the 33-year-old designer tells us he has taken part in 60 such shows in the past 10 years. He was a stylist for the late Papa Wemba, one of Africa’s biggest musicians; popular singer Werrason is also a regular customer. There’s not much time to chat between all the shaking of hands and kissing of ladies in high heels. If you didn’t know otherwise, you could be forgiven for thinking it was Mbeya’s show.
The next day, he takes us to see the other side of his business in Bandal, a poor but lively district packed with pavement cafes with plastic garden-chair seating. Everyone is busy and on the move, selling mobile phone credits or avocados or tissues. Mbeye leads us into an alleyway, where we must walk carefully on shaky concrete slabs covering the sewer. He is wearing a black shirt and trousers in a bright African print.
“Welcome to my studio,” he says as he pushes open a metal door. By candlelight — the electricity is out — we see two sewing machines, a stove on the floor and clothes hung up like artworks on the drab walls. The room is exactly wide enough for the seven pairs of designer sneakers lined up along it. This talented designer to the stars lives and works in a studio smaller than a prison cell.
To work your way up in Kinshasa, you have to be like Mbeye. At the age of 17, he ended up on the streets after both his father and mother died of AIDS; you have to accept that the state mostly takes, and gives very little in return. You have to improvise, modifying your brother’s shoes because you don’t have money for a pair of your own. This is how you discover your sense of style.
Someone with Mbeye’s creativity and networking skills can make a modest living in Kinshasa. But the fashion industry here still has a long way to develop. The Congolese traditionally make their own clothing, helped by one of the tailors that seem to have shops on every street corner here. There are no factories mass producing clothing, no Zara or H&M or other far-reaching Western brands.
There is, however, a flourishing trade that has grown around people visiting Europe and China to buy clothes. Back in Kinshasa, they then sell these items at clothing parties or rent them out for a few Congolese francs a time.
Thanks to its blossoming economy and potential sales market, more and more international companies and investors are starting to believe in the strength of Kinshasa. Six years ago, Dutch company Vlisco — renowned for producing vivid two-sided print fabrics popular in this part of Africa — was the first European fashion business to open an office and flagship store in Kinshasa. “The opportunities are enormous,” says group manager Monique Gieskes. “Ten million people live in Kinshasa, and they are all looking for their own, unique dress code.”
For now, the air-conditioned flagship store is the exception among the street vendors with plastic bags of water piled high on their heads. But that won’t be the case for long. In 2014, a Lebanese investment company opened the first shopping mall. A second shopping center is under construction; every unit was taken before the first brick was laid. “In ten years’ time, it will be full of galleries, shops and malls,” Gieskes predicts. “Just like Mandela Square in Johannesburg.”
What happens when an international company settles in Kinshasa and invests in a sector is apparent when Gieskes walks across the central market. “Mama Monique!” the market women call out from behind their stalls selling brightly colored fabrics. “Madame Vlisco!” The women embrace her like the personification of a better life.
They talk about how, under Mobutu’s regime, they smuggled these fabrics into the country. After the regime fell in the late 1990s, they had to travel to intermediaries in Togo, Benin or Europe to purchase them. Now that they can trade with the fabric manufacturer right here, life is easier and the income bigger. They can order colors and designs tailored to their customers’ wishes. Vlisco also has made upgrades at the market such as widening the pathways and providing a roof to keep the sun and tropical rainfall out — not out of a desire to do development work, but because this boosts sales.
Later, in a leafy suburb, Madame Sera Ruhimbasa tells me a similar success story. She worked making haute couture for 30 years. Vlisco’s arrival transformed her modest sewing workshop into a serious business that counts the president’s wife among its customers. When ladies order a dress in the Vlisco flagship store, Vlisco recommends Sera to do the tailoring. She also makes clothing for the fashion shows and sells her designs in the store. Five years ago, she employed five people — but now she has 30 employees who transform raw fabrics into made-to-measure dresses.
The promise of a Kinshasa fashion boom is also bringing members of the Congolese diaspora, like Gloria Mteyu, back home. Because they can add international experience to local perspectives, they are an important driver of progress. “They add something to what we have locally,” says Mteyu, who likes to work with designers from the diaspora for her fashion shows.
“Congo is a big country — each province has its own tribes, traditions and customs, and this is always in the back of our minds when we design,” Mteyu says. “At the same time, we are modern people who watch American films and listen to European music.” The moment Congolese designers dare to mix their own cultural heritage with international ideas, Mteyu expects Congo to really take off. “In our minds, we have been the Paris of Africa for a while now. Give us another ten years and the rest of the world will realize it too.”