Tina Lobondi’s life and career spans half the globe – well, almost.
Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), she had to leave her troubled African country to be raised in France; she has lived and worked in London, and her fashion career was inspired by India. Her talent has seen her hobnob with A-listers in New York, where she has dressed the likes of Hollywood star Thandie Newton and Grammy winning African Angelique Kidjo.
And now she’s determined to place Africa – her homeland – on the global fashion map.
Lobondi was only eight when the first civil war started in the DRC and her family was forced to leave, in 1997, to Lorraine in France. A home away from home, the country and the French life soon stoked the fashionista in her.
“Inspiration is from everything – movies, places I’ve traveled, shapes from architecture,” says Lobondi.
For the African designer taking Europe by storm, her biggest inspiration though was – surprisingly – the drama, glamor and women of Bollywood, of which she is a huge fan.
“I’m a big fan of India; I watch all the Bollywood movies – not the cheesy ones. Bollywood calms me. My final collection when I was studying was based on Rani Mukherjee [famous mainstream Indian actress] – how I picture her, a strong woman who knows what she wants and goes for it. She was my inspiration for my first project in London.”
Lobondi hasn’t been back to the DRC. The ‘Heart of Darkness’ as the region became known during colonialism after Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel has long held stereotypes of a war-torn region on the brink of destruction. But Lobondi’s memories are a far cry from the words penned by Conrad.
For her, the DRC is a hub of excitement and infinite possibilities.
“I grew up in the Congo until I was eight and had the best childhood. The Congo that I knew was not a poor Congo – we had roads, we had private schools…It can go back to that, we have the resources, we have the mines, we have the forest, we have everything. We just need to structure ourselves to not feel helpless and that we’re in a bubble that relies on the outside. The Congo doesn’t need anything, we have everything, we just need to learn how to use it,” she says.
Her ambition does not stop at dressing the stars – she’s serious about the business of fashion and influencing other artistes in Africa to use it as a lucrative platform. Lobondi is searching for the Coco Chanels and Giorgio Armanis of Africa and growing African fashion weeks on a Parisian scale.
“It’s about showing the rest of the world that African designers have something sustainable here, we have something strong, we have something that will help Africa have a better economy. Fashion and art is not just a joke, it can bring a lot of money to the African continent.”
But Lobondi says that making the DRC the fashion capital of the world needs to begin with teaching designers to transform their ideas into business. The business of fashion might just be the DRC’s most untapped resource.
“Designers in the Congo know how to be tellers but they don’t understand the job of a designer is a process of having a collection, marketing it to shops, not just to individuals, and then doing it all over again six months later,” says Lobondi.
“We need a different structure in Africa based on our own seasons. From Cape Town to Kinshasa to Lagos, the seasons are different and the temperatures are different. You can have a lot of talented people but if they don’t have the knowledge about what’s needed, it’s just lost thoughts.”
Lobondi is a long way from turning tailors into tycoons in the DRC’s aspiring style streets, but the one thing she is determined to prove is that she is her country’s finest fashion export.