PIONEER: When you mention fashion and Uganda in the same sentence, the name Sylvia Owori will most likely pop up there too. She has been at it for 10 years with milestones and a few downs. She talks to Edgar R. Batte about re-inventing herself.
So what have you been up to, of late?
I have just been like a wild wind. I have been up to so much. It is something that I have called a world fashion tour. I started off with London where I was for the Africa Fashion Week in August. I presented one of the best collections and got good reviews from bloggers from all over the world. It has been one of my best collections to-date. We had a stall there as well and we sold a lot of clothes.
What makes your work unique to particularly get you recognition at showcases like the African Fashion Week?
Attention to detail. I am a perfectionist. Something that I do and throw out there has to be perfect. If I am not ready, I will not showcase. I have not been in the limelight and showcasing for the last three years, so I had enough time to reflect and think of everything that I have been going through. I had enough time to sit down and come up with the best collection and all in all, my stuff is always awesome.
Do you tailor your designs?
I don’t sit there and tailor myself, but I have a workshop and a small factory now because we are producing the Africa-My Heritage T-shirts, which we recently launched and this T-shirt line has symbols that have meaning from West Africa but are representative of also Uganda.
In your view as a fashion designer, what design statements represent Uganda?
I think the statement that represents Uganda in fashion is probably the kikoyi, so we are trying to use that a lot on the T-shirt line and on some of our clothes. We have just returned from San Diego where we had been for the Uganda Convention and while there, the T-shirts that sold out first were the ones with Uganda because there are obviously Ugandans in the diaspora and they were all asking for the kikoyi. At the moment, we are trying to produce over 1,000 pieces, which we have to send to them.
Apart from the kikoyi, which other Ugandan materials do you use in your designs?
We use a lot of cotton we get from Nytil in Jinja but the quality is not very good. We need to work on our cotton. Uganda has the second best cotton in the world next to Egypt but we still have to import some of the fabrics and yet we have the resources here.
Why isn’t our cotton high grade quality?
It is not processed properly. The cotton industry needs to be supported to improve the quality.
You have hinted that in the last three years a lot was going on in your life and you used that time to reflect, what was going on?
I went through a lot of challenges as a person, some of them financial.
But you have been in business for 10 years, what went wrong with your finances?
As an artist, I kept my eye only on the production and on events and shows. I did not look so much into the finances and little by little, people were stealing from me. Eventually, after a while, money started to go but I have realised what my weaknesses are.
And precisely what are your weaknesses?
That I was not looking in the books and not checking with the staff. One of my biggest problems have been thefts by my staff. I trusted them and I travel a lot. My advice to anyone out there starting a business is just make sure you look at the books and the numbers. Don’t neglect that because it affected me in a big way, but again I am glad to say I am back with African Woman.
You suddenly stopped printing African Woman, what had happened?
We stopped printing because of challenges. We were printing in Dubai and then the dollar was going up. It became very expensive to produce the magazine and it was not making financial sense to continue printing abroad and yet we wanted to keep the quality and we could not get the quality locally. So, instead of taking the level of the magazine down, we decided to stop, restructure and re-invent ourselves. We have continued to have supporters, like we have just re-launched African Woman online and within a month we have half a million hits. That tells you how big everything we do is.
Was your fiancé Pier Munk involved in bankrolling your projects that when you separated the businesses got affected?
Yes, my husband as I call him, has always been involved in a way, supporting me but I also had to sell a lot of my properties to be able to restructure my businesses.
Was your property on Bulago Island part of the properties that went?
Oh yeah, but we are getting that back.
Was it thefts that took the businesses down or was there something that fundamentally went wrong?
I think the longevity. If something happens over and over, it fails somewhere, but I will blame myself for not keeping a keen eye on everything. It has been the biggest lesson. If I had not gone through the lessons I have gone through I would not be here today because I had never had any issues ever. Straight from school I have always had my business. I had never faced so many challenges at the same time so it was a good lesson.
We have talked about business relationships, talk to us about your intimate relationships…
I don’t discuss my personal life, you know.
I am already a public figure and now I have a family and I don’t know if they want their mother to be throwing them out there. You have never seen my children out there in public. If they grow up and they want to be in newspapers so be it, but I don’t want to make that decision for them because it is a very tough industry to be popular and it comes with a lot of things.
Former Kampala Mayor Hajji Nasser Ntege Ssebagala is the father of one one your children and you were recently locked in a custody battle. How is your relationship with Seya …
I have no comment about any of that because I told you I don’t discuss my personal life.
You had broken up with your fiancé but we recently found you at a party walking hand in hand…
Yes we basically had a separation for a couple of years but it had to do with a baby. When I had a baby…you know when you have a baby and get depressed. I was depressed when I had my second baby. I went through a lot of stuff. But now I am with my husband.
What was depressing you?
It is called antenatal depression (you check that out). When you are pregnant you start to feel things but when you have the child you don’t like the baby and all that. So yeah, I was kind of depressed.
What does it feel like being back with your husband?
Hahaha … it is like I never left. When you separate, you then start to appreciate or not to appreciate the person. That person has been there. We have been together for 16 years, so it is difficult for me to get into another relationship. It is not easy.
It is not cool to ask a lady for her age but I can say you still look hot at your age and suppose men still hit on you big time.
Yeah, of course men still hit on me but when I am committed, I am committed.
How do you handle them?
I am always as nice. I just say hi.
What if the “hi” is interpreted as leeway for them to advance their cause to win your heart or get closer?
I know how to handle that. I get stalkers all the time. I have people sending me gifts, I have people sending me money and all kind of stuff.
If they send you mobile money, do you send it back?
I don’t take it. I am not on mobile money. If they send it, I will send it back. They would rather spend it in my shop or donate it to my charity.
Tell me about your charity…
It is called the Sylvia Owori Foundation and it empowers women through job creation. The T-shirt line that we are doing now, is done by women, some of them from Mukono and others from Luzira.
How did you get in touch with them?
Some of them come to me and others I have met through women I have worked with for some time like Patricia Namuddu, who recommends others.
What exactly do these women do in your design process?
They make clothes. They tailor and stitch. But I train them. My charity is going to fundraise and actually get a tutorial institution where I can empower women with skills to make clothes, shoes and bags. I have always wanted to start a charity that is directly related to what I do as opposed to going into something that I am not passionate about.
You have recently opened another shop downtown, what informed that decision?
It is for clients that cannot come to Garden City and for people that cannot afford that much, but the quality there is still the same the one at Garden City.
What are the price differences between your shop at Garden City and the one downtown?
I am not telling you that … I would say the prices are fair. By the way our products are also available in San Diego, LA and will be available New York in February. You can also buy our products online at www.sylviaowori.co.ug.
So many young ladies are joining the fashion and design industry, what advise can you offer them?
Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up on your dreams no matter how things get. Just persevere and stick to your beliefs. You can be anything you want to be as long as you set your mind to it.
Owori the person away from the business
Who is Sylvia Owori away from the business lady and fashion designer?
She is just a simple very hardworking, very passionate, very kind hearted person. I love music too.
Tell us about your love for music…
I love Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Toni Braxton.
And back home?
Radio & Weasel of course.
You are also a football fan…
Yeah, I love Chelsea, I love Drogba. I was very happy when he came back to Chelsea. I love José Mourinho.
Doesn’t football put you under pressure?
It doesn’t because what I have learnt is that anything can put you under pressure. I get pressure with family. I get pressure from everywhere, so I can handle football pressure. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose.
How many siblings do you have?
I have one sister, Susan Owori and four brothers. Two of them are here and the other two are in England.
And your parents?
My father is deceased. He died when I was nine years old. I had to change my name because of him. He is my inspiration. I am what I am today because of him. He was killed in cold blood. He was shot. I promised him that I would make his name shine.
What is your birth name?
Hahaha…my birth name is Sylvia Damalie Abonyo.
Walk us through your education journey?
But you guys have this info.
We have new readers every day…
I started school at Tororo Primary School. My father was shot and I then joined Matare Primary School from P.3 to P.7. For my Senior One, I was at Nsambya Senior Secondary School, to Namugongo SSS where I sat my A-Level. I then went to UK and studies fashion at Newham College and then the London College of Fashion.