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LEAP YEAR: The RTW Clothing Lovingly Made In Uganda

Launched in 2013, Leap Year is a clothing brand made and based in Uganda. It is the premier product from Asali Designs; a company formed by Pamela Kahwa to manifest her dreams and aspirations within the fashion industry. Although Pamela has had no formal training in the craft, she is fully committed and invested in supporting Ugandan fashion and design. Not only by working with locally-sourced materials and skills, but also striving to provide a platform to mentor upcoming talent. In addition, the label aims to explore the diversity of ethnic heritageand femininity, as well as, celebrate individuality. We spoke to Pamela – the Founder and Creative Director of Leap Year – to find out more:

[Image: Courtesy of Leap Year | Photography: Muhammed Kanchu | Model: Nicolette Ebyau]
What is the story behind Leap Year’s name?

My mum was born in a leap year and she pretty much inspired me to do this. When she was working in West Africa, she would bring me pieces of fabric and I was also inspired by how she would work with tailors there to make her own creations. So, I figured that I should name it after her.

How did Leap Year begin?

It really started out as a hobby, working with local tailors and the pieces of fabric my mum would bring. At the time, there weren’t that many local clothing brands making Ready To Wear (RTW). Most designers had specialised in bespoke clothing, which I tried for a while. I won’t lie, bespoke clothing has got the money and guaranteed customers. But I found it a bit frustrating because you eventually have to give up on your own designs and bend towards what the customer needs. It suffocated my creative process.

As an industry, we really need to close all those loops and try working together – sharing our resources and information. You never know what can come out of it.

PAMELA KAHWA ~ LEAP YEAR FOUNDER

So I stuck with RTW, even though there really wasn’t any market for it. For a while, it was more of an expensive hobby and a learning process before it turned into a proper business. Nonetheless, I’ve found that it helps you evolve as a designer. You can have your own aesthetic and stay true to your brand identity.  At the same time, you stay in touch with what people understand and relate to in fashion and style, design and art.

How would you describe Leap Year?

Contemporary, timeless, and functional style. While we do incorporate some elements of prevailing trends, we don’t align the brand to them. Our focus is making timeless and unique pieces. Quality is a very big deal because we want our products to last.

First came Tropical Charm, then Equilibrium and AfroNova. What were these collections about?

Tropical charm and AfroNova were really about celebrating femininity, the female physique and being brave enough to wear a piece that makes you stand out in a crowd. Equilibrium was more about finding balance in your style and expression. Overall, all collections embrace comfort and functionality. However, I’m not trying to keep up with the traditional seasons in fashion. It doesn’t make business sense for a small handmade brand.

It’s about trying to promote Ugandan fabrics and showing what we can do with them other than making school uniforms and bed sheets.

PAMELA KAHWA ~ LEAP YEAR FOUNDER

I also feel like that I need time in between collections for people to really absorb the styles. In Kampala, you sort of have to take your time with production. See how one piece is received by the public before you move on to the next one. There’s also the chance of creating brand fatigue by constantly releasing products into the market. That is why we’ve made the decision to try and make a collection a year. Even with that, there are pieces from older collections that will always be in production for some consistency.

You’ve began to share pieces from the Serenity 2019 collection. what is the inspiration behind it.

I created it in a space where I was feeling a little calm and at peace with a lot of things. It draws a lot from nostalgia and from some style details from the nineties. This will be the first collection with menswear as well. Out of the 20 pieces in this collection, there are three pieces for men; two shirts and one trouser.

Another thing that excites me about this collection is that I’m trying to work with Ugandan cotton. There’s this misconception that it isn’t the best quality. So we did our research on what products we could use and we actually found one that works really well. It’s about trying to promote Ugandan fabrics and showing what we can do with them other than making school uniforms and bed sheets. We’re trying to let people know that ‘hey, you can actually wear this.’

Stylistic wise, what are some of the lessons you’ve learnt from the collections you’ve put out?

People are not as in to print as you think they are. And on the flip side, they get disappointed when you don’t create things in print. Even when you do use print, they have certain expectations of creating in print. You find that a lot of people look for prints when they’re going for special events like weddings or tourists looking for souvenirs. So it’s very difficult to create progressive unique pieces that are not the basic maxi skirts or traditional dresses for weddings. We’re trying to break that perception and show that you can do a lot more with print than the norm.

How do you select your prints?

We try to stick to what we call the ‘traditional’ prints. You know, the ones that locals consider ‘old school’. They may not be the most exciting print but I know where it comes from a good quality. We avoid the popular prints because they do get counterfeited and you can end up with very poor quality. That’s another reason why we decided to go back to Ugandan cotton. Because we know where it comes from.

And the visuals, like in the womanLY collection in 2017

I worked with a visual artist to create three images about female empowerment, her perseverance and freedom. It was showing that as a woman or as human beings, you can come from a place where you feel trapped and then you find the strength to arise and break free. This collection was more about the images than the pieces we made out of it.

I am now working on series called Opposites. It’s a simplistic project about co-existing, taking elements we take for granted and juxtaposing them. We are in a space where a lot of people are struggling with their identity. Whereas we should be able to acknowledge and accept our differences, living in harmony.  They are to go on some tote bags. It’s something that I really love and I hope to get it done after the Serenity collection.

Challenges?

I literally have one good tailor. While I do have a couple of backs ups, that’s just what they are – backup tailors. And I don’t want to be in the position where I’m completely helpless if my tailor decides to pull a disappearing act. That’s the reason I’m trying to run this internship program, trying to identify talent out there. Maybe someone just needs training or they don’t even know that there opportunities likes this that exist in the industry. As an industry, we really need to close all those loops and try working together – sharing our resources and information. You never know what can come out of it.

Quite a few brands we’ve interviewed seem to have challenges with their tailors as well.

It’s so bad! It’s frustrating and I’m trying to find ways around it. I do have something in mind, a project that trains to retain, such as a small production house. A platform that gives designers the opportunity to see their ideas come to life. I know the challenges, I face them on a daily basis and I wish I had something like that. Someone I can take my designs to, rely on and trust them to bring my vision to life. It would be more of a long-term project, leveraging some of these organisations out there that are willing to donate their time and resources to artistic projects in Africa.

Leap Year is the first product from ASALI Designs. What else do you hope to use the platform to achieve?

I hope to make it a production house, creating prints and printing different fabrics, as well as, weaving fabrics and developing skills around textiles. Essentially, Leap Year was supposed to be using its own custom printed fabrics but it’s been a challenge to find someone who prints in the region. So, I’m hoping to one day do it myself. To shift from working with what you find to working with the exact fabrics you had in mind.

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by NATALIE KIMANI

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