TALKING FASHION: Joe Malaika is a Ugandan fashion designer based in the US but working on breaking into the local market. He shared his fashion journey with Esther Oluka.
In 2016, Malaika was recognised by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for using fashion to support the Jimmy Fund and Dana Farber Cancer Research. He has showcased his designs in the US, Dubai (Arab Fashion Week) London and Paris (Paris Fashion Week). Despite the exposure, Malaika reveals that it is not always easy to compete with big names.
Who is Joe Malaika?
My real name is Joe Mutebi Malaika. I was born in Uganda 32 years ago but spent most of my time in Massachusetts, US. This is where my parents live as well. I am a fashion designer and stylist, not married and do not have children yet.
Where does your fashion inspiration come from?
One of the people who inspired me was my grandmother, who was fond of sewing outfits. Over time, I developed a passion for sewing too. Then during my school years, there was a girl I liked who used to dress really well. I made her a dress, she took a picture of it and posted it on Facebook, a thing that opened doors for me.
What is your fashion specialty?
I specialise in making outfits from mostly prints (patterns) and colours for both men and women. Some of the celebrities I have dressed include MP Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine), TV personality Douglas Lwanga, singer A Pass, Judith Heard (model), among others.
How do you get hold of your clients?
Social media, mostly Facebook. There was a time they were looking for me on Facebook, and it is how I have got some of these clients.
Have you held any local fashion shows?
Not yet. I am, however, looking forward to showcasing my first show soon, dubbed “Joe Malaika Rush Hour”. I am also open to the idea of collaborating with local designers.
How about attending any of the local fashion shows?
I have only watched last year’s Abryanz Style and Fashion Awards.
Take us through the process of making your outfits…
I buy my fabric in Manhattan, New York City. I do the sketching and stitching from the United States before finally bringing them here in Uganda for sale. I also look for Vogue patterns for inspiration. The prices depend on the type of outfit.
What challenges have you encountered so far as a foreign designer working here?
I am still struggling with pricing the outfits in shillings. The other challenge is that clients are always asking for the last price of the outfits. Imagine telling someone that an outfit costs $400 (about Shs1.5m) and they will ask you for the last price. In the US on the other hand, if you told a client that an outfit costs $400, they do not negotiate. People forget that we put a lot of hard work and time into making these clothes.
What have you noticed about the Ugandan fashion industry so far?
Majority of Ugandans dress to have a suitable appearance. You find a person dressed in a winter jacket yet the weather is too hot outside. I was perturbed until someone mentioned that in Uganda people do not really consider the weather when they dress up, but rather smartness. In the US though, weather plays a crucial role in determining how one dresses during the day.
Are you familiar with any Ugandan designers?
I am not acquainted with many of the local designers. However, I do know some stylists like Kim Swagga and Brian Ahumuza of the ASFAs.
What advice do you have for anyone planning to venture into a similar industry?
Take a risk and deal with the outcomes or results. You can never tell a business’ worth if you do not take a risk.
Plans for the future
I hope to get my outfits into huge fashion stores in the US.