APPROXIMATELY 9,000 miles separate Portland from Kigali. But in a workshop among the rapidly modernizing Rwandancapital’s high-rises, seamstresses now make colorful bow ties,bold circular scarves, and other accoutrements inspired as much by Portlandian sensibilities as by African aesthetics.
The bow ties and “infinity scarves” are products of House of Tayo, a Portland-developed, Kigali-based fashion line created by Matthew “Tayo” Rugamba. Fusing African wax-print fabrics with Western accessories in a vein the 24-year-old calls “Afro-Dandyism,” the line has already generated considerable online buzz and been featured at Africa Fashion Week London. It launches into the retail world this spring.
Rugamba, who was born in the UK and spent time in Uganda, Kenya, and his mother’s native Rwanda, came to Portland in 2009 to attend Lewis & Clark College. He soon grew frustrated with perceptions of his family’s homeland that had been shaped by the Rwandan genocide of the ’90s. “I hated that look of pity,” he says.
Sipping an espresso at downtown’s Case Study Coffee on a recent Portland visit, Rugamba says that living away from home allowed him to see Rwanda afresh. On trips back, he recalls, “I was looking at the country through a tourist’s eyes. I’d go to places I never used to go.” Places such as tailors’ workshops, where he got the idea to design clothing to showcase the economically booming nation’s brighter present.
As he developed House of Tayo, Rugamba absorbed an education in heritage branding from Oregon outfitters like Pendleton and Will Leather Goods. He also drew inspiration from restaurants like Pok Pok and Salt & Straw that “create a rich and unique customer experience” through distinctive brand identities.
“I picked up so many different things from so many different industries from being in Portland,” he says. “It made House of Tayo what it is now.”
Rugamba notes that in 2012, the year he started work on his line, Burberry, Louis Vuitton, and Vivienne Westwood debuted Africa-inspired designs. “Some people complain that they’re bastardizing our culture, but I think this is the window African designers needed,” he says. “While the world’s paying attention, put your best foot forward.”