It was a gamble that paid off, 8,500 kilometers away from their comfort zone.
Two 21-year-old fashion students, Inés Mille and Marc Collines, left the hallowed hallways of fashion in Barcelona and with just $9,000 in their pockets, traveled all the way to East Africa to set up shop in little-known Kigali in Rwanda, which at the time was building itself – a fully-fledged fashion industry was not yet on its radar.
“Rwanda. It’s where our heart is. It’s where the soul of this company is. It’s where we were born and where everything happened,” says Mille.
Eight years on, Mille Collines, the brand she built with Collines from Kigali, is a million-dollar fashion line that can spotted on the runways of Lagos and Cape Town. Now 32, Mille looks back at the memory with a smile.
“The obliviousness, the ignorance. We were mad and we were so young and we were so crazy. So we said we can do this.”
Mille sits in her home in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town, among inspiring pictures of fashion models on runways, African sculptures from her travels and intricate bookshelves. Naturally, it is the epitome of one conscious of subtle African style – much like her work.
Her story goes back to a time when she was young and fresh in fashion school in Barcelona. It was 2005 and Mille was traveling in Rwanda with her mother’s NGO looking for outreach programs to sponsor. Here, she met a seamstress named Antoinette, who trained women and kids to sew.
“She said ‘you are a fashion designer. You have no idea of the handcraft skills we have here, if only you can put your brain in design and their handcraft skills together, it would be incredible’,” says Mille.
The idea hit home. A year later, and in her final year of design, Mille thought it would make the perfect thesis. She decided to travel to Kigali and pursue Antoinette’s suggestion. Along with her came Collines, who at the time was at another school and also looking for a project.
“The funny story is when I went [to Kigali], there was huge resistance from my tutors and the board of teachers at my college. They said ‘there was absolutely no ways you are going to Africa to do a collection where there is no infrastructure. How are you going to make garments in Africa, they don’t even dress in clothes’… I was at a progressive design school in Barcelona. They were afraid that just because I went there and worked with poor people, I would come back with a sh***y collection. That was the spark,” says Mille.
A 50% mark prompted Mille to move to the heart of Africa. They took with them $9,000 in savings and set up shop in Kigali where they developed their first collection, in partnership with Antoinette. At the time, Mille recalls there was no infrastructure for fashion in Rwanda whatsoever. They had to start from the ground up looking for people to work with.
“Many people thought, ‘where are they going? Are they going to be able to do anything in Kigali? Is there even fashion there?'”
One of her prized possessions from this time lies on the stone table in front of her – their first designer diary. Kigali springs to life and Mille’s eyes light up as she fingers the pages recalling drawing African masks and collecting slivers of material from the markets.
“There were informal collectives of women around the country, which were amazing and very well organized, they’d been doing handcraftsmanship for a long time… Initially, we tried to think everything is going to be coming from Rwanda. If it was textiles, it was found in the markets with a few wholesalers here and there. Obviously, it was challenging.
“I remember some women were doing baskets and I said ‘do just flat disks’. They said what for? I said we’re going to do necklaces. They went crazy over the idea. They then started doing their own earrings and selling them in the market. They were everywhere from corporate to home. It was the thing to have in Rwanda,” says Mille.
Their ticket to success was blending the creativity, strength and culture of the African spirit with ever-evolving global trends.
“There was a lot of intrigue. Nobody was doing this in Rwanda. No other brand existed that had taken handcrafted skills, redone it and made a contemporary product. We were some of the first ones to do it. It sparked a number of other brands to follow,” says Mille.
The team moved in to Kenya, casting their net in Nairobi. The demand was high and four more stores followed. It wasn’t always easy – a store on the coast of Kenya and a store in South Africa failed because they didn’t catch the right market.
“We were opening the door to the African clothing market… We thought if we sell abroad with all our challenges we already have, in terms of logistics, in terms of quality, we needed to align our market. We are producing in Africa; it makes sense to sell in Africa and make this product African.”
Along with the birth of Mille Collines grew the fully-fledged fashion atelier, which is owned and operated by the Kigali team that helped build Mille Collines.
“It was the hardest moment in the company. We needed to hand over the workshop to the team in Rwanda. They were prepared. We needed to transfer it and move away from production and focus on distribution and design. Otherwise we couldn’t grow further. It took one-and-a-half years. We sold it to the Kigali team for $1. The employees all have a stake. Rwanda is not in our core business, it’s became an actual supplier.”
Now their journey has taken them to Cape Town and the house we sit in. Their team is here to begin the next step of their journey.
Mille wants to see their clothes hang in major retail stores across the continent and hopefully take an even larger chunk of Africa’s dynamic fashion industry.
“I was the first one to land in Cape Town in 2015. We had to start from ground zero. We had participated in fashion weeks, so people kind of knew us. Our main market it still Kenya. But we’ve been building relationships with suppliers in Cape Town.”
As the company expands, Mille has shifted to purchasing textiles because it’s cheaper. They are also looking to the likes of Mauritius and Madagascar for textiles once their orders get larger.
“You need to find who is better for what. When we left Rwanda, that’s what happened, we became more pan-African. We only produce in Africa.”
The company has even expanded in ways they didn’t expect. Without owning a store or being on the shelves of retail outlets, Mille says South Africa is their second largest customer. This is because of online sales and a strong presence on Instagram.
“Instagram is the strongest source for us. We make sales on it. I think it’s because it’s a visual platform. Instagram is my baby. It’s difficult to delegate. How can I explain to someone that an image is not Mille Collines? It’s very tangible, either you feel it or you don’t. We go a lot with how people react when we put images up.”
The brand’s attention to detail and passion for telling beautiful stories continues.
Mille’s clothes have been worn, she says, by the likes of Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, Hollywood actress Lupita Nyong’o and journalist Mélanie Gouby.
It’s a brand for the African woman.
“She is a mother, an entrepreneur, an individual. She is alive with bursts of color and print and grounded in muted tones of Africa’s landscape.
“In a world where differences are increasingly emphasized and where people are divided and separated, it seemed fitting to celebrate the rich beauty that comes from combining many different influences. We wanted to celebrate the fact that, despite parochial thinking in some quarters, the world is becoming more of a mélange every day,” says Mille.
“I never dreamed I’d open a business in Africa. Not a business in fashion, never. My father was a businessman and my mother was passionate about Africa. I said I was going to be a vet. I loved the fact that [fashion] is a business and art. It’s a space where it meets in the middle. It’s very commercial and it’s very challenging and very interesting.”
For Mille, Africa is the muse that keeps on giving.
IN PICTURES | The glass ceiling is what she makes it
One of the most commercially successful artists in Kenya, Nani Croze, has lived a life few could dare to
The journey to the Kitengela Glass estate begins like any other from Nairobi. Traffic is often heavy and there is frustration on the roads. But as you pass through the last of it, a different world unfurls. The road is murram (gravelly) and a new settlement is unfolding around it, overlooked by a new railroad track for the high-speed train to Mombasa, recent signs of development consuming the old Maasai plains.
But no less than a mile away, cushioned by the narrow gorges of the Nairobi National Park, is the entry into a wonderland where the life and work of German-born artist Nani Croze has concentrated for over the last 40 years. It is an eccentric paradise with a lush covering of indigenous trees and shrubs, canopies over stunning and colorfully outrageous architecture that announce the artist in her territory.
However, her life in Kenya was a gift of fate. Croze first came to East Africa with her first husband, the animal behaviourist, Harvey Croze, and their children at the end of the 1960s.
“I came to Africa in 1968 to study elephants in the Serengeti and four years later, the study was finished and we decided to go back across the continent back to Europe. I filled a VW van with my three kids, safely in the back, and we got as far as the Kenyan border. The car broke down and we stayed…and that was that,” she tells me in the aviary area outside her house as birdsong echoes around generous foliage.
Mother Nani, or ‘Mama’ to the community of artisans and their families that also call Kitengela Glass home, is a matriarch in this setting. Her hair is pinned up in a loose bun revealing tanned cheeks and piercing blue eyes.
A formidable painter and muralist, Croze is an artist of many mediums. However, a little-known fact is her life in science. As a young woman, she convinced the Nobel Prize-winning biologist and founding father of the science of animal behavior, Konrad Lorenz, to work under him. Her earlier works depict this scientific knowledge in lively wildlife motifs.
Nonetheless, she is perhaps most known, these days, for her work with glass. Her estate is testament to this; colored glass panels of all shapes and sizes line the structures at the entry of her world. The winding walkway is flanked by sculptures accented with thick glass. The outdoor seating is dalle-de-verre.
The workshop and furnace are open for passersby to see. Its products, ever-present at every corner of the estate, also decorate the balustrades of the estate’s gallery, roof to her personal studio, intentionally constructed around a formidable mogumo (African fig) tree, a souvenir from the early days. She found it growing on the barren plains of what would become estate when she arrived in 1979, a genus local legend claims can never die.
By this then, a single mother of three, Croze stumbled in to the glass arts out of economic necessity. She had purchased the land from the Maasai community of the area and was, at the time, a working muralist.
“My architect [told me] ‘you can’t pay school fees with murals, you better start something new, what about stained glass?’” she recalls.
An influx of Christian missions meant that stained glass windows were crucial for finishing new churches and, as an art, they were more profitable. This has since expanded to a wide-range of recycled glass products from blown glass to beads, mosaics, murals, sculpture and, of course, dalle de verre. However, the stained glass studio, the first on the estate, still remains, busy and peopled, tucked away in a quiet corner of the gallery building.
Croze, perhaps one of the most commercially successful artists in Kenya, is often credited for introducing this new craft to the region. She herself is self-taught and along with her son, Anslem, trained by glass-blowers in the South of France and Holland, built the first furnace in East Africa. He eventually took over the glass-blowing side of the business and now runs his own studio next door along with an eponymous retail brand in Nairobi selling decorative glass vessels, furniture and lighting.
In her own right, Nani is responsible for training the first Kenyan glass artisans, initially in stained glass and then in glass-blowing and mosaics.
“We started together, my first [assistant] was a man called Omondi. We started on stained glass-making and how it works and it’s quite a process but once you’re in it, like all my guys here… you get quite good at it. It’s a traditional and weary process but once you have [the finished window] you have something beautiful that can never be undone,” she says.
Of the things that cannot be undone is Croze’s legacy not only within the community of the estate and the industry she has created around it but in the lives of many in East Africa.
Kitengela Glass is home to more than 50 artisans and their families, many of whom have gone on to build independent careers in and outside of glass art. An example is Edith Nyambura, formerly the resident mosaic artist, who began her career at Kitengela and eventually wrote a book about her work in 2010.
There is also the young Patrick Kibe, colloquially known as ‘Mr. Dudu’ (Mr. Insect in Kiswahili), who arrived as a student at the estate almost a decade ago and is now carving his own niche, creating figures and sculptures of indigenous flora and fauna from recycled materials.
Then there is the school Croze founded, not far from the estate, often billed as the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa. Her motivation was to introduce to the country the creative education she had received as a young girl in Germany, which she regretted that her own children did not have attending local schools.
“We have such terrible schools in Kenya that are so bad for children! A child should grow up free, they should have music, art, new movement and environment,” she laments.
The Rudolf Steiner School started with a class of 10 in Nairobi’s leafy Karen suburb, popularly known as the setting of Out of Africa, Karen Blixen’s pre-colonial odyssey.
“It took its time. We had a very good worldwide sponsorship, especially from Germany. We’ve had our ups and downs but now we have two in Karen and the other one in Kitale [in western Kenya].”
In addition to her contributions in education, she is also a key campaigner for young artists across Kenya. She is the founder of the annual Kenya Arts Diary, a weekly calendar and catalog of up-and-coming contemporary artists in the country.
The ninth edition was released in November with an exuberant exhibition at the Nairobi Museum and since its founding has been produced by a group of passionate volunteers. Every year, she picks up two artists featured in the diary and invites them to a residency at the estate. The inspiration for the project, she says, was her father, the acclaimed German woodcut artist HAP Grieshaber, who also took a similar interest in his students.
“He would always help his students. Art is very expensive most people can’t buy it so you either make it yourself or you make sure it happens. The diary is just a venue to make sure people buy it and see it every week,” she notes.
Although the next issue of the arts diary will be her last, Croze remains ever passionate about her adopted home and community and hopes to continue giving back to it while she is still alive.
“I was the first mzungu [Caucasian] in Maasailand…we had a really good relationship and we still have with the Maasai community but my Ma is still not very good, I must say. I feel very much a part of the community,” she says.
Croze is a focal point at the Nairobi National Museum, from the dalle-de-verre mural that welcomes museum-goers at the main exhibition hall, to her mosaic path that snakes through the museum gardens to the goliath metal and glass sculptures that mark the way through the complex. She remains one of the few living artists in Kenya to have such a permanent and public showing.
Even away from the whimsical glass oasis that she has built, echoes of her are littered across Nairobi. Her commissioned murals on major commercial buildings such as the American Embassy in the city’s diplomatic district. She was the first to color the walls of the newly-established United Nations Environmental Programme, UNEP, in 1972. Her art is also at the Times Tower in the heart of the old city, home to the tax authority. There are also pieces dotted across the region, a recent commission at a call center in Eldoret, in western Kenya, and the windows at the Serena Hotel in Kigali.
“I just want to make sure that it all keeps going. There are always problems here and there, all the time, but I want to keep it going,” she says.
Croze, true to her word, is still going with plans for a vocational school to train a larger population of recycled glass artisans in the nearby township of Tuala. Plans are also underway for a devotional school to replace her personal chapel that was lost in a land dispute and, of course, more commissions while she is still able to work on them.On the future of the world around her, a life’s work, she is surprisingly indifferent. “I leave it to the Gods,” she ruminate
IN PICTURES | The ugly dress that made this designer
Gracia Bampile’s dislike for African print made her turn it around into a full-time obsession.
It all began with a pink dress – a present she received a week before her seventh birthday from her parents. Gracia Bampile put it away excited for the day she would wear it.
She recalls going to school and telling everyone about her new outfit. The enthusiasm, however, was short-lived. She changed her mind about her gift the moment she wore it and took a closer look at it.
“I remember thinking I would rather not celebrate my birthday. I was traumatized… The dress was just horrendous.”
The material felt like plastic, it was ugly, it was not the right fit, and even for a seven-year-old, she knew the design did not make the cut.
“I felt like I was wearing a granny dress. My birthday was just ruined by that dress,” Bampile recollects.
“I got so angry with my parents that I couldn’t let go. That’s how my passion for fashion started. I didn’t want to feel like that again.”
That was her epiphany, the start of a fashion journey, disliking African print as a result of a bitter experience. She thought it was too bright and stayed as far from it as she could.
Today, Bampile is a fashion entrepreneur setting the standard for African print. She is the founder of Haute Afrika, a contemporary brand that prides itself in affordability and class.
She was born in a small town called Goma in the east coast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 1991 – on the border line of the DRC and Rwanda. At the age of six, Bampile and her family left the DRC, leaving her seamstress-grandmother behind. They moved to East Africa and lived in Uganda for about seven years, then Kenya, then arrived in South Africa when she was 19. They left due to the conflict in the DRC that still rages on.
“My granny was a tailor. At some point, she stopped making clothes. My gran didn’t teach me to sew on purpose… [Yet], on holidays, we would go visit her in Rwanda and I would be her assistant,” says Bampile.
Just two years later, her aging grandmother saw her resourcefulness and promoted Bampile to crafting complete garments.
That is how her style evolved, through her grandmother’s experience in sewing. She was big on quality and passed it down to the next generation.
“That is something that is seen in Haute Afrika’s designs today. My garments are not constructed to sell, we are big on quality and our sewing is impeccable,” says Bampile.
Her complicated relationship with African fashion changed, the more she interacted with patterns and the creation of garments.
“When I got to the age of 15, I thought maybe it’s not the African print [that’s the problem], it was probably the way it was presented to me. I went on a journey of rediscovering African print and design. My love for it was revived,” she says.
When she was a teenager, African print was not readily available. Her mind-set then was not to be a designer, she simply wanted to look good and got her clothes made by a tailor.
By 2012, when Bampile was 21, African print was rising in popularity – people started wearing it and it was easily accessible.
This was also a time when Bampile was in varsity and experimenting with African patterns. She says people would stop her and ask about her garments, and the idea of Haute Afrika began simmering in her mind.
“It started as an African fashion blog; I started an Instagram account, opened a Facebook page and reposted other people’s designs because I didn’t have my own stuff. I never saw this as an actual thing, it was just for fun,” she says.
“Clearly, it’s not the material or the tradition or the culture [that’s the problem], it’s just the way it was presented. And that’s what I’m big on – presenting African print as your normal everyday wear.
“I want to you to be able to wear this dress to church, work, a birthday party, a baby-shower or to a wedding.”
In her new collection, she aims to simplify African print as much as possible. There is less extravagance and the ordinary bright colors persist, to attract the everyday person who wants to represent Africa.
The brand was launched in 2016 after she started taking it seriously as a profession. She went back to her grandmother for design advice. She started doing research and did a short course in fashion to enhance her credentials.
Importing material from Nigeria, Congo, Ghana and Turkey, Bampile intends to expand her reach to other parts of the globe.
“The next step for the brand actually scares me. Sometimes I feel like my dreams are crazy. The name haute itself means height/high in French, so in fashion, haute couture means high fashion, but for me it’s Haute Afrika because this is Africa, I want Africa to have a brand that is big on its own and emphasize quality.
“This means taking Africa out of Africa. European brands are coming into Africa, but why aren’t African brands going out?” she says.
Haute Afrika mostly sells online, to clients outside South Africa. She says her biggest clients are in Europe and America. Her most recent buyer was from Indonesia.
Speaking about her progress in the industry, Bampile adds: “I previewed my stuff at the Free State Fashion Week and it was super-awesome.
“The reaction was just unbelievable. Some designers take years to showcase at a fashion week and I took two.
“Last year, I was really surprised. I did 10 weddings – three white and the other seven were traditional. I couldn’t believe people trusted me with their weddings when they haven’t seen [enough of] my work.”
In 2018, she scaled up, doing about 15 weddings.
“I am also proud of myself this year because I have more people buying Haute Afrika for everyday wear,” she says.
The requests from her clients have also diversified.
“A gentleman came in and he wanted a transformation of his wardrobe. We made 10 pants for him. That’s what he’s probably going to wear next year. I’m also proud of the fact that I’m not only attracting people that have events, but also the everyday person, which is what I wanted to do with my collection.”
Bampile employs two full-time and two part-time workers at her studio in Sandton, miles away from that first garment that wrecked her seventh birthday but made her whole life.
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