#MadeinRwandaBy Ruth Keyso, Director of Alumni Relations & Giving
In her boutique-office on the first floor of a two-floor flat located 15 minutes from downtown Kigali, Rwandan fashion designer Sonia Mugabo ‘08 is thinking up ways to make people feel beautiful.
Two years ago, Sonia started her eponymous fashion line. Working alongside an assistant and a tailor, the trio surround themselves with samples of Sonia’s clothes and sketchbooks, working to create a line of clothing that fits and flatters both women and men.
“I design everyday-dress that’s boho and comfortable,” says Sonia, describing her garments. “I use primarily chiffon and crepe. They’re flowy and fold easily.”
Sonia knew from a young age that she wanted to work in design. As a child, she cut up anything she could get her hands on—tablecloths, colorful Rwandan paper money—to make dresses for her Barbie dolls. During her year as a student at LFA, she took courses in drawing and photography and 3-D design, even enrolling in an architecture class in Chicago to learn more about that discipline. She ultimately earned her degree in visual communications and graphic design from Buena Vista University in Iowa in 2013.
Three years ago Sonia returned to her native Rwanda to make a name for herself as an entrepreneur. Despite worries from her pragmatic parents—both lawyers—who encouraged her to do fashion “on the side” while working a more stable job, Sonia followed her heart. These days she is a pioneer in the young, but burgeoning, fashion industry in Rwanda, a place where opportunity abounds for young entrepreneurs, especially females, like 26-year-old Sonia, who considers herself “privileged” to be among the vanguard during this exciting time in her country’s history.
She finds inspiration everywhere: through websites such as Refinery29 and Pinterest; magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar; and designers she admires, especially Diane Von Furstenberg. Sonia’s designs, colors, and fits also reflect her surroundings. “It’s always spring in Rwanda,” she says. “So I like to create comfortable, loose clothes. Resort-wear.”
Sonia hopes to make her brand a global, household name and to be a role model for other Rwandan girls who dream about careers in the fashion industry. So far, she specializes in clothing for women and men, but hopes to branch out into accessories once she grows more comfortable with her business.
Being an entrepreneur and a fashion designer has had its challenges, Sonia admits. It’s hard to be a creative, while also running the business side of an enterprise. But, while learning to do things on her own, she has gained great knowledge and now understands how to manage her finances more effectively. “I feel like I’ve been to business school,” she says, laughing.
Sonia’s advice for aspiring designers is simple: Start small and have a vision.
“It’s easy to give up. But every day I [envision] where I want my brand reaching. This motivates me to keep going, to set goals for myself,” Sonia says.
And just how far does she see her brand reaching?
“I want to walk down Michigan Avenue or Fashion Avenue and see my store,” she says.
Sonia Mugabo ’08, owner of the Sonia Mugabo (SM) label, lives and works in Kigali, Rwanda. Her work has been covered in a variety of publications, including The Guardian and Forbes. Visit her website at: www.soniamugabo.com
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