Ras Kasozi’s road to Vancouver
Winning an award at a big fashion show like the Vancouver Fashion Week can be a daunting task. More so if you are little known at home, barely in your thirties and your siblings think you are nothing more than a tailor. By far, his claim to being known locally as a fashion designer was a small stint at the Bayimba International Festival 2010 where his collection came out as the best.
This is Ras Kasozi’s road to international fame, and it started humbly.
Written by Elizabeth Namakula
His shoulder length dreadlocks and Kitenge pants somehow distinguish him from the office clad men at Top TV, our rendezvous place, and the minute I spot him, my instincts are on cue.
“I picked interest in fashion and tailoring when I was 15-year-old, mainly because my mother was a tailor and she had her machine at home. Nevertheless, I had to use it illegally because her grand ambitions for me didn’t include tailoring,” Ras begins.
More to oblige his mother, he did a university degree in Computer Science, but after looking around for jobs and failing to land any, he reverted to his original passion.
“I started designing clothes for myself and my friends, who in turn praised my work to their friends. By word of mouth, a career in fashion seemed like the most promising thing for me.”
Friends definitely created connections, but for Ras Kasozi, it was his association with Bavubuka Dynasty that proved vital to his success:
“Bavubuka Dynasty is about celebrating talent and being African. It’s a lifestyle. In pursuing our talents, we don’t set our eyes on money, but rather on making an impact on the community. We have rappers like the young MC Flower as well as other artists,” he says.
In a community of fellow artists, Kasozi realized the need to infuse art in his designs and also widen his focus: “I had a dream, a dream of changing the world through fashion. So I had to start thinking globally,” he adds.
With eyes set on changing the world, the Internet became his ally in his ambitions. He created a Facebook page and a blog called KasWear as a platform to display his work.
A call from Five Agency
“Silas Balabyekkubo, the founder of the Luga-flow movement in Uganda, informed me one day that a fashion agency in Canada had called; The Five Agency had picked interest in my work and wanted me to be part of a fashion week that was five months away.
I didn’t pay much attention to it, I thought it was just a joke. It wasn’t until one month before the event, when they actually called to instruct me to arrange a visa from the Canadian consulate in Kenya, that I understood it wasn’t a joke.“
He left for Kenya and it took about two weeks to get the visa. Now, with hardly any time left, he had to use his time in Kenya while he waited for the visa to shop for fabrics: “I had just two weeks to create twenty-four pieces.”
It was on the bus back to Kampala from Nairobi he started to make the sketches for his twenty-four pieces: “It was really hard to make a runway collection as each piece must connect to another. I had to work night and day.”
He tried to get some people to help him, but soon he realized that they were poor at finishing, thereby he ended up doing everything by himself. Uppermost in his mind as he toiled away was to make a name for himself, and while people got to know him, he would dictate what they wore come 2013.
Extending African art
Some of the major concerns when designing the pieces were how to extend African art into outer spaces while letting his identity shine through. And of course style and infusing art in design were also big issues. He had some jackets designed not for warmth but for style, and the same jacket could be rolled into a bag as well.
“I imagined a western-inspired dress with wooded buttons and maybe another outfit accessorized with cow horn earrings—that is what I mean by infusing art in my designs.”
How to compose the show was another struggle for Kasozi: “My collection definitely had to have a story and music to accompany it. Kinobe’s music gave the perfect feel. I wanted my models to appear like Princesses and Princes, and to have the map of the African continent painted on them as body art.”
He had been assigned only ten minutes to showcase four sections, which was casual, office, evening wear and glamour.
At the root of his work is the pride of being an African, and he says African writers and African history have instilled in him the desire to promote who he is: “I can’t change myself into something else. Its easier to promote what you have than to create something new.”
However, it is confidence and believing in himself and God which he credits for his current success.
Fame and fortune
On the Ugandan fashion Industry, he says it’s growing but at the speed of a snail: “Comparing the talent here and in Canada, I would say we have a lot more to give. The problem is lack of motivation, vision and the ability to dream big. We also need to do something new each day about our art. Another issue is of course money. There is need to focus and enjoy what we are doing. It’s sweet when money chases you, instead of you chasing it,” he adds.
Has winning the award had an impact on his career as a fashion designer? It definitely has, if one is to go by the amount of publicity and media buzz he has received.
“Immediately after the show, I received text messages from Germany and New York. Africa TV and The Province, the most read newspaper in British Colombia, carried a story of me, as well as other media outlets,” he smiles in affirmation, but upon being asked how much money his award got him, he declines to mention the amount. Instead, he says that big doors now have opened up for him and is setting his sights high to New York and hopefully the New York Fashion Week.
The one thing he admits to is that he managed to sell all of his runway collection in the hours after the show.
Designers normally survive on opening up outlets to sell their designs, Kasozi says his shop will come but not now:
“The kind of shop I dream of right now is impossible, I don’t have the funds for it. I want it to be more like a source of inspiration for other artists than a mere shop selling my designs. But my future plans include setting fashion trends and launching fashion shows.”
Support and cooperation
For someone whose interest in fashion and tailoring was deemed illegal by his mother, he has come a long way. When I ask Ras Kasozi how his mother feels about him now, a slight shade comes over his face, before replying that his mother died two years ago and she never got to see how his love for fashion could catapult him to international fame.
“I used to tell her that what I was doing was right, but it was hard to convince her. I participated in the Bayimba International Festival in 2010 as a fashion designer. My efforts were aimed at impressing her, my collection was about her, and it turned out to be the best at the festival. Unfortunately, she did not live to see it,” he says sorrowfully.
By far, he says his family has not been supportive, except for one of his brothers who is slowly realizing the importance of his work. “In Uganda, people know about tailoring, not fashion,” he adds.
Finally, we talk a little about his contemporaries in the fashion industry. Gloria Wavamunno is a supportive friend, as well as Anna Claire and Rafael.
“We plan to work together sometime. But generally, people are not cooperative. They prefer individuality and I am against it. I want others to follow my example. Recently, I met a guy who was making bangles out of cow horns. I told him to make me some buttons out of the cow horns. He refused, but I insisted. Later, when he saw the buttons, he was amazed. This is the unity I am talking about.”
The Vancouver Fashion Week took place on 23rd September 2012. Ras Kasozi picked up the Fashion Week’s award for originality and creativity. There were 43 participating designers, Ras Kasozi the only one representing Africa!
Elizabeth Namakula is a freelance writer living in Kampala, Uganda. Her short story “A World of Our Own” was recently published in the Femrite-collection “World of Our Own”.