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Clothes Encounters In The Congo: How Fashion Can Be Used As A Tool For Social Change

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The power of fashion as a tool for social change is being realized in a tiny town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where suffering is being swapped with style and self-worth.

Deep in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), lies the town of Bukavu, home to a community of women survivors of violence.

Since it first opened its doors, this transformational leadership community called the City of Joy, has graduated 1,380 women leaders. Here, women are healed from their past trauma through therapy and life skills programming and provided with essential ingredients to move forward in life, supported by love and community.

The program welcomes 90 survivors of gender violence aged between 18 and 30 at a time.

Recently, specialist Dutch fabric maker, Vlisco, was asked to create a fashion collection to honor the women of the City of Joy and the surgeon who works with them, 2018’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr Denis Mukwege.

Five international designers worked with 15 City of Joy graduates to create a collection of empowering and personalized garments using new fabrics.

The fabrics consist of five traditionally printed super-wax patterns incorporating 100 different, vivid colors.

The collection was showcased at a gala event in front of a global audience in Kinshasa in November last year to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and all proceeds from the sale of the collection donated to the City of Joy.

David Suddens, CEO of Vlisco, told FORBES WOMAN AFRICA that the five international designers, all African women, were keen to join the company’s efforts to help the women of the eastern Congo.

“They were immediately engaged even though they were not initially aware of the City of Joy and the scale of the rape and brutality. Once they had met the women, they formed a bond of love and respect.”

Suddens continues: “It was a real pleasure to work with the five designers; they not only created and made the garments in a very short period of time, they flew great distances to be with the women (one interrupted her family vacation in the United States to be in the DRC) and they made a huge impact on the women they designed for. The bond was palpable.”

The designers wrote to Suddens and Gabriela Sanchez, a Mexican Dutch designer and head of creative projects at Vlisco: “Thank you so much for changing not only our lives this year with this experience but also thank you for connecting us with these amazing women, with compelling stories and divine souls. You’re both a blessing to us.” The founder of City of Joy, Christine Schuler, told Suddens and Sanchez that many people visit the community, but “nobody has understood us like you have”.

“The beauty of the Congolese landscape is depicted; its river, its forests, its nature. From the dark roots of the forest, slowly flowers start to grow, butterflies appear, birds are in the sky and the sun is glimpsed behind the clouds.

Asked about the impact of the designs and this collaboration on the community, Suddens says: “The designs are related to the lives and suffering and hope and courage of the women in the City of Joy. You needed to see their faces light up when they first saw the designs. They were overjoyed.”

The main stories expressed in the fabric designs are fundamentally about the journey from pain to power.

“The designs, at the bottom, are somber, twisted, even menacing. But, as the eye moves upwards, there is gradually more light and the images symbolize hope and respect and love,” Suddens explains.

“The beauty of the Congolese landscape is depicted; its river, its forests, its nature. From the dark roots of the forest, slowly flowers start to grow, butterflies appear, birds are in the sky and the sun is glimpsed behind the clouds.

“In one design sits a lion, dignified and rather sad, symbolizing Dr Mukwege. In another, sisterhood is portrayed, with intertwined threads joining ‘hands’ as they grow lighter but stronger. And two designs depict the beauty of the vagina, full of flowers against the dark background of the universe.”

FORBES WOMAN AFRICA also spoke to international designer Aisha Ayensu, the founder and creative director of fashion brand Christie Brown known as a player in the rise of contemporary African fashion since its inception 11 years ago.

“This project gave me first-hand insight into how fashion can be used as a tool for social change but most importantly, meeting these remarkable women, sharing in their joy and appreciating where they’ve come from and their journey from pain to power has completely altered the way I view my work and my purpose,” says Ayensu.

She recalls her experience in Kinshasa as magical. “It was important that the gala event highlighted their power and recovery more than the atrocities the women faced, but all the same, raising awareness of what may still be going on and how we can help stop violence against women.”

“I had an experience with one of the ladies in Bukavu, when she did her first fitting… The sheer joy and excitement on her face when she saw her outfit and exclaimed in local language ‘for me?’ In disbelief. When she put it on and saw a picture of herself, she started to cry tears of joy and also started saying ‘is this me, today look at me, I am also somebody’. That reaction was priceless. When fashion and design is deliberate and well thought out, it has the power to elevate a woman in ways you can’t imagine.”

Added Suddens: “Never could they have imagined wearing their own designs made into garments by African designers. To understand, you need to see their faces. You need to see them literally dancing with joy.” 

-Jill De Villiers

Billionaires

Quote Of The Day

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We have grown past the stage of fairy-tale. As women, we have one common front and that is to succeed. We have to take the bull by the horn and make the change happen by ourselves.

– Folorunso Alakija, Billionaire Businesswoman

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Entrepreneurs

From The Arab World To Africa

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Sheikha Hend Faisal Al Qassimi; image supplied

In this exclusive interview with FORBES AFRICA, successful Dubai-based Emirati businesswoman, author and artist, Sheikha Hend Faisal Al Qassimi, shares some interesting insights on fashion, the future, and feminism in a shared world.

Sheikha Hend Faisal Al Qassimi wears many hats, as an artist, architect, author, entrepreneur and philanthropist based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She currently serves as the CEO of Paris London New York Events & Publishing (PLNY), that includes a magazine and a fashion house.

She runs Velvet Magazine, a luxury lifestyle publication in the Gulf founded in 2010 that showcases the diversity of the region home to several nationalities from around the world.

In this recent FORBES AFRICA interview, Hend, as she would want us to call her, speaks about the future of publishing, investing in intelligent content, and learning to be a part of the disruption around you.

As an entrepreneur too and the designer behind House of Hend, a luxury ready-to-wear line that showcases exquisite abayas, evening gowns and contemporary wear, her designs have been showcased in fashion shows across the world.

The Middle East is known for retail, but not typically, as a fashion hub in the same league as Paris, New York or Milan. Yet, she has changed the narrative of fashion in the region. “I have approached the world of fashion with what the customer wants,” says Hend. In this interview, she also extols African fashion talent and dwells on her own sartorial plans for the African continent.

In September, in Downtown Dubai, she is scheduled to open The Flower Café. Also an artist using creative expression meaningfully, she says it’s important to be “a role model of realism”.

She is also the author of The Black Book of Arabia, described as a collection of true stories from the Arab community offering a real glimpse into the lives of men and women across the Gulf Cooperation Council region.

In this interview, she also expounds on her home, Sharjah, one of the seven emirates in the UAE and the region’s educational hub. “A number of successful entrepreneurs have started in this culturally-rich emirate that’s home to 30 museums,” she concludes. 

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Entertainment

Kim Kardashian West Is Worth $900 Million After Agreeing To Sell A Stake In Her Cosmetics Firm To Coty

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In what will be the second major Kardashian cashout in a year, Kim Kardashian West is selling a 20% stake in her cosmetics company KKW Beauty to beauty giant Coty COTY for $200 million. The deal—announced today—values KKW Beauty at $1 billion, making Kardashian West worth about $900 million, according to Forbes’estimates.

The acquisition, which is set to close in early 2021, will leave Kardashian West the majority owner of KKW Beauty, with an estimated 72% stake in the company, which is known for its color cosmetics like contouring creams and highlighters. Forbes estimates that her mother, Kris Jenner, owns 8% of the business. (Neither Kardashian West nor Kris Jenner have responded to a request for comment about their stakes.) According to Coty, she’ll remain responsible for creative efforts while Coty will focus on expanding product development outside the realm of color cosmetics.

Earlier this year, Kardashian West’s half-sister, Kylie Jenner, also inked a big deal with Coty, when she sold it 51% of her Kylie Cosmetics at a valuation of $1.2 billion. The deal left Jenner with a net worth of just under $900 million. Both Kylie Cosmetics and KKW Beauty are among a number of brands, including Anastasia Beverly Hills, Huda Beauty and Glossier, that have received sky-high valuations thanks to their social-media-friendly marketing. 

“Kim is a true modern-day global icon,” said Coty chairman and CEO Peter Harf in a statement. “This influence, combined with Coty’s leadership and deep expertise in prestige beauty will allow us to achieve the full potential of her brands.”

The deal comes just days after Seed Beauty, which develops, manufactures and ships both KKW Beauty and Kylie Cosmetics, won a temporary injunction against KKW Beauty, hoping to prevent it from sharing trade secrets with Coty, which also owns brands like CoverGirl, Sally Hansen and Rimmel. On June 19, Seed filed a lawsuit against KKW Beauty seeking protection of its trade secrets ahead of an expected deal between Coty and KKW Beauty. The temporary order, granted on June 26, lasts until August 21 and forbids KKW Beauty from disclosing details related to the Seed-KKW relationship, including “the terms of those agreements, information about license use, marketing obligations, product launch and distribution, revenue sharing, intellectual property ownership, specifications, ingredients, formulas, plans and other information about Seed products.”

Coty has struggled in recent years, with Wall Street insisting it routinely overpays for acquisitions and has failed to keep up with contemporary beauty trends. The coronavirus pandemic has also hit the 116-year-old company hard. Since the beginning of the year, Coty’s stock price has fallen nearly 60%. The company, which had $8.6 billion in revenues in the year through June 2019, now sports a $3.3 billion market capitalization. By striking deals with companies like KKW Beauty and Kylie Cosmetics, Coty is hoping to refresh its image and appeal to younger consumers.

Kardashian West founded KKW Beauty in 2017, after successfully collaborating with Kylie Cosmetics on a set of lip kits. Like her half-sister, Kardashian West first launched online only, but later moved into Ulta stores in October 2019, helping her generate estimated revenues of $100 million last year. KKW Beauty is one of several business ventures for Kardashian West: She continues to appear on her family’s reality show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, sells her own line of shapewear called Skims and promotes her mobile game, Kim Kardashian Hollywood. Her husband, Kanye West, recently announced a deal to sell a line of his Yeezy apparel in Gap stores.

“This is fun for me. Now I’m coming up with Kimojis and the app and all these other ideas,” Kardashian West told Forbesof her various business ventures in 2016. “I don’t see myself stopping.”

Madeline Berg, Forbes Staff, Hollywood & Entertainment

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