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.