Africa Fashion Week London is one of the biggest, most bustling fashion events across Europe. It’s attended by at least 20,000 people and filled with back-to-back runway shows, colorful exhibitor stalls, and lavish food from hip restaurants. Over two days, 50 of the world’s best emerging and established designers showcase their African-inspired designs.
Last summer, 23-year-old Matthew Rugamba was one of them.
At the finale of the fashion show for his label, House of Tayo, Rugamba walked down the runway to applause and cheers.
It was a surreal moment. How had he gotten here? he wondered. He was going into his senior year at Lewis & Clark, where he was majoring in international affairs. Yet here he was, in London, during the Olympics, displaying colorful bow ties and snoods (circular scarves) he’d made from traditional African fabrics.
He gazed at the approving crowd. More than 1,000 attendees—including London fashionistas, style bloggers, and Financial Times and BBC reporters—watched the young entrepreneur expectantly.
He’d prepped for this moment by studying YouTube videos of famous designers closing their fashion shows. Now, at his own, he stood overwhelmed, forgetting what to do.
“I think I bowed,” he says.
It was a rare moment of indecision for Rugamba, whose resolve, style, and drive has already captured the attention of the fashion world.
Born in west London, Rugamba moved to Uganda, his father’s homeland, before he was six years old. After attending primary school in Uganda for several years, Rugamba and his family relocated to his mother’s homeland of Rwanda. From there, he moved on to boarding school in Kenya, where he was active in sports and music. He later enrolled in Swaziland’s prestigious Waterford United World College as a Davis United World College Scholar.
While researching U.S. colleges and universities, Rugamba happened on Lewis & Clark and was particularly impressed with its small class sizes. “I didn’t want to go somewhere and be a statistic,” he says. “It was important to me to interact in the classroom.”
His high school friends in Africa told him to get used to being in a classroom where his race would put him in the minority. Rugamba was undeterred. He looked forward to interacting with his Lewis & Clark peers and creating opportunities for mutual growth.For Rugamba, being away from home was nothing new; he was already a world traveler. But his classes at Lewis & Clark challenged his thinking—in terms of both what he learned and how he learned it. Courses like Introduction to International Affairs, taught by Professor Bob Mandel, taught him not to take information at face value. He quickly learned that it was okay—and, in fact, encouraged—to ask questions and challenge professors.
While the small classes allowed him to put up his hand, his accent made people look up from their laptops. If the subject of Africa arose, all heads turned toward him. Prior to Lewis & Clark, he’d always been surrounded by people from his country. In Oregon, he picked up a new role: Africa ambassador.
“People didn’t know much about the country I consider home, Rwanda—especially in terms of its everyday life,” he says. At one point, he considered claiming he was from Uganda instead of Rwanda due to its troubled history of genocide, but he reconsidered. “I had to stand up for where I’m from. I wanted to show people the amazing things coming out of Africa.”
This led Rugamba, always a dapper presence on campus, to a decision. He’d combine his eye for fashion with his desire to share the stories of Africa.
Wax print fabrics originated in Indonesia. The Dutch brought them to Africa’s Gold Coast, and the bold geometric prints spread throughout the continent. In Africa, Rugamba explains, prints tell a story beyond looking beautiful. Their colors contain meanings that vary by country. In Ghana, yellow represents gold, but in Uganda it symbolizes sunshine. Green might stand for culture or prosperity. “If there’s a new king or president, you will see it expressed in the fabric,” he says.
Matthew is always engaged, innovative, and very ‘there’ in whatever he is doing. He’s got this laser focus that’s going to make him very successful. George Austinadjunct instructor in Rhetoric and Media Studies
In the summer of 2011, after his sophomore year, his friend Hope Seery CAS ’13 visited Rugamba in Rwanda. One afternoon, they flagged down motorcycle taxis and headed to a bustling marketplace in Kigali.
“Matthew asked if we could stop by a tailor’s, so off we went,” remembers Seery. “As we waded through piles of African wax prints, neatly stacked from floor to ceiling, Matthew explained his idea for a fashion line. Until that point, I thought we were there to get his suit hemmed!”
Rugamba chose a few prints and took them to a local seamstress—“a woman in an alleyway with a single sewing machine,” says Seely. “Matthew and the seamstress discussed design plans, and she told us to come back in three days. When we returned, she revealed House of Tayo’s first set of snoods and bowties. They were beautiful!”
While bow ties may seem old-fashioned, Rugamba begs to differ. During his junior year, he interned at the National Endowment for Democracy as part of Lewis & Clark’s Off-Campus Study Program in Washington, D.C. While there, he eschewed the conventional intern dress code of white shirts and blue ties and instead wore his colorful bow ties. “I’m drawn to bow ties,” he says. “They say ‘prestige.’ You think of professors, special occasions. There’s an element of respect.”
Rugamba refers to his style as “Afro-Dandyism,” a nod to an elegant style he developed during his years in boarding school. “Wearing uniforms tests your individuality—you’re supposed to look the same, but you can still develop ways to express your style subtly,” he says. “Some students would knot their ties thinner or thicker. Others would change their shoelaces. Those details make you pay attention.”
Tradition inspires Rugamba. “I like things that look good, but my ability to embrace fashion comes out of linking it to art, history, and culture. Take British tailoring. People go to the same Savile Row tailor for 50 years. When fashion becomes linked to tradition and history, it becomes a lot more than just looking good,” Rugamba says. “I look at old pictures of my grandfather and father and think, ‘If I wore those clothes today, they would still be cool.’”
Inspiration also came from his family in naming the company. “My grandfather and uncle’s names were both Matthew, but my uncle went by ‘Matayo.’ When I was born, they called me ‘Tayo.’”
During his junior year at Lewis & Clark, Rugamba designed a logo and started dedicating himself to developing the House of Tayo brand—all while maintaining a full course load. He set up Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook accounts for his business. And while he was interning in Washington, D.C., he had one of his friends take photos for the line. Rugamba didn’t have any models, so he was in all the pictures.
A fashion blogger saw his Tumblr site and asked to interview him. During the interview, the blogger asked what advice Rugamba had for emerging designers. Rugamba burst out laughing: he was one of them, too.
Lewis & Clark has given me the confidence to push forward with an idea, no matter how abstract or crazy it may have first seemed. Matthew Rugamba CAS ‘13
But not for long.
Online traffic brought him more followers, feedback, requests, and publicity. Northwestern University flew Rugamba to Chicago for a fashion show. Then, in the spring of 2012, Africa Fashion Week London tweeted him: Was he interested in doing a show over the summer
The strong response to House of Tayo comes as no surprise to those who know Rugamba. “Matthew is always engaged, innovative, and very ‘there’ in whatever he is doing,” says George Austin, an adjunct instructor in Rhetoric and Media Studies who led Rugamba’s Washington, D.C., program. “He’s got this laser focus that’s going to make him very successful.”
Rugamba is quick to credit Lewis & Clark for his liberal arts education and encouraging his development of the House of Tayo. “I’ve been able to explore different interests and aspects of my personality that I wouldn’t have been able to do elsewhere,” he says. “Lewis & Clark has given me the confidence to push forward with an idea, no matter how abstract or crazy it may have first seemed.”
Things at House of Tayo do get crazy. Any money Rugamba makes from selling his items goes toward making the next ones. His current priority is getting the word out about the brand, as well as juggling school, meeting social responsibilities, and teaching himself design. He is also participating in Lewis & Clark’s new entrepreneurship venture competition with teammates Wade Higgins CAS ‘13 and Anthony Ruiz CAS ‘13. All that can be physically draining, especially when people focus only on the industry’s glamour. “It’s not like, ‘Champagne!’ ‘Models!’” he says. “It’s hard work.”
After graduation, Rugamba plans to return to Rwanda to expand his accessories line. His products have always been made in Rwanda, and he wants to continue to support local artisans and businesses in his home country.
It took time to believe in himself. “In the beginning, I didn’t think I had credibility,” he says. “It took me a while to call myself a designer. I hadn’t paid my dues or been to fashion school. But the show in London … that was validation.”
Rugamba says he started the House of Tayo “to share the best of Africa.” But it’s also about something more personal: “Having appreciation of where I come from and pride in my heritage.”
Carin Moonin is a writer living in Portland, Oregon.