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Birungi, merchant of African fashion

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By Nathan Kiwere

Christian Dior, erstwhile French fashion designer, once said: “In a machine age, dressmaking is one of the last refuges of the human, the personal, and the inimitable.” Years after his departure, his words live on. Carolyn Birungi is one local designer who has taken refuge in fashion to her own level. She has seen and done it in her 13 years of fashion art.

Launching into depth of style

A graduate of a Bachelor of Industrial and Fine Art at the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Art, Makerere University, Birungi’s design journey was quite predictable from the outset. While still a third-year student, she mounted a fashion design exhibition at the now defunct Design Agenda on Jubilee House in the heart of Kampala, which was headlined by Gen Elly Tumwine, a fellow artist and graduate of the same school. So impressed was the Army General that he immediately offered her a job as an in-house designer at his Creations Ltd, Nommo Gallery in Nakasero. The exhibition formally launched Birungi onto the fashion design scene with some flattering electronic and print media reviews. After a short stint at Creations, Birungi spread her wings and carved her career path. Now founder and director of Carolyn-K Design House, Birungi operates under her own label.

Inspiration from African motifs

It is widely known that Africa remains an exciting source of inspiration for designers as there is such a wealth of print and ornamentation. Since most African communities have always placed great value on the decoration of architecture, artifacts, textiles and utility items, it means there is a vast source of starting points to work from. Sometimes African motifs and ornamentation are combined with strong graphics, photo prints and vibrant colour combinations to create a dynamic and original fashion statement. During her formative years of fashion design, Birungi was inspired by African themes that were quite ubiquitous in her creations. But she soon realised she was cut for customized designs as opposed to production for the mass market. A smaller number of regular patrons who demanded outfits that were very specific to their tastes and preferences meant Birungi had to adapt to a form haute couture of her own. This has since defined her ambitions. Birungi has dressed customers from smart casual, party wear, corporate outfits, and royal gowns for local kings and more ambitiously, she has dressed various bridal entourages – from making wedding gowns to men’s suits. Her customers have been more than generous to spread her works through word of mouth as well as acting as her billboards over the years. This has drawn droves to her workshop. “My African creative smart casuals have been at the core of my style career,” she says, possibly alluding to what makes her chic before her clientele.

Haute couture experiments

Haute Couture is a French phrase for ‘high fashion’. Couture means dressmaking, sewing, or needlework; whereas haute means elegant or high. So the two combined imply excellent artistry with the fashioning of garments. A model haute couture garment is made specifically for the wearer’s measurements and body stance. In addition, the client would get a perfection of fit only achieved by painstaking methods of cutting and fitting to the client’s body. The manual labour needed to produce a garment this way takes between 100 and 150 hours for a suit and up to 1,000 hours for an embellished evening dress. Whereas raising Birungi to the station of haute couture would be rather an overstatement, it is fair to say she has lived as an experiment of the same. She has worked her way into the hearts and tastes of particular patrons and style freaks who ensure they adorn single edition outfits. “There is no shortage of people that simply want to look different,” she says. Some are happy to pay through the nose so they don’t bump into a soul at a party or on the street sharing their design.

Dealing with challenges 

There have been more than a few huddles to surmount on her journey to the high echelons of fashion design. “It’s been a bumpy road in more ways than one,” Birungi says. “Sometimes you are asked to do a corporate job using an LPO as the only guarantee. You borrow money with interest in order to pull off the job, only for the client to take months, even years before paying, after accumulating interest.” Birungi has maintained her identity of African themes albeit in more controlled manner and in consonance with Western accents. Lately, she is making inroads into the making of corporate wear for major corporations and multinationals without significantly deviating from her signature African style.

 

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