STARTING OFF IN THE ARTS INDUSTRY, Stella Atal who has made her clothes since she was a child later ventured into fashion. It is now more than 10 years and she has brought to life many memorable pieces on the runway. She spoke to Edgar R. Batte about her journey
How and when did you start your journey into fashion design?
I grew up with a passion for fashion. I realised I could create and sew something when I was very young. I knew that at some point in my life, I would incorporate fashion in whichever career I would have. I am more than 10 years in the fashion business and have no regrets at all.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on my evening collection that I will launching on April 25, 2015 at the Paris Events Centre, in France, courtesy of Brussels Airlines Uganda and Afrique Uni, the organisers of the biggest Afro Caribbean exposition in Europe.
How do you land such opportunities?
Fashion industry is like the music industry. It is the style of your music and uniqueness that lands you big opportunities.
How original are your designs?
Being a painter, I love to see people wear my art. My identity is the way I finish my outfit with a piece of my art that makes each individual creation a master piece. I like to make special and unique outfits for my clients.
What inspires your designs?
The fabrics, colours and thought of creating unique pieces for the future that can outshine the present style inspires me a lot.
What materials do you work with?
I combine traditional and Western materials to create outfits that respond to the modern lifestyles influences.
Who are your main clients?
I make clothes for any person that truly loves my style not just because they have money to spend on clothes. It could be even a person from the village but who has a taste for fashion.
How do you price your items?
I would like to see many Ugandans support our own fashion industry so they are not that expensive. However, I have some priceless pieces that I created for my private collection that I am so attached to. I can never sell any of them just like a painter dying of hunger but has that special piece in the house that is work worth more than US$10 (about Shs30m) but just cannot part with it.
What was your first milestone?
My first milestone was working with Franca Sozzane of vogue Italia. She introduced me to potential clients in Italy. Since then, I have been able to open up outlets in England, France and USA.
What is your opinion of Ugandan designers?
All original designers are unique in their own ways and I do respect them except those who call themselves designers by copying designs from the internet, take them to tailors and put their labels. I call them followers of fashion not designers and they are harming our virgin industry that we are trying to nurture.
Where did your journey start as a fashion designer?
Commercially, I started designing in 2004 with a small group of friends supporting me by buying and marketing my clothes to their other friends, but since childhood, I have been making my own clothes.
You needed money to start making clothes. Where did you get your start-up capital?
I didn’t start from scratch. I borrowed money from my Art business to start the fashion business. When my friends saw the kind of clothes I was making they assured, pushed and encouraged me saying I would make it in the fashion industry with my style.
Did you pursue Art at university?
Yes, coming from an artistic family, I couldn’t escape pursuing it. I have a Post-graduate Degree in Art.
Tell me about how you began your art business.
I started by making illustration cartoon for a magazine called Youth Alive. I had American missionary friends and whenever they would be going back home, I used to give them small artwork to sell to their friends at church. Whenever they had groups of visitors, they would tell me a month before they arrived so I prepared artwork to show them. When I finished studies, I first worked with Peter Otim at his Cassava Republic, now the Iguana Bar. It is from there that I started my own Art and fashion studio.
What was the name of your first and how were you able to start your own art and fashion studio?
Great African Art and Fashion Studio. I got money from my artwork sales. It’s still my company name to date. It deals in art, interior designing and fashion. Atal Stella is the brand name.
With how much did you start with?
About Shs500,000. With that, I paid rent, bought paints and canvas
How were you able to build on that Shs500,000?
I use to do interior designing for people’s homes. I would make sure that for each home I worked on, I left my artwork somewhere.
I showed some of my artworks to the owner of Banana Boat Art shops and she asked me to start supplying her. Every week, she would order for artwork worth between Shs,400,000 and Shs700,000.
At that time, the American missionaries introduced me to other missionary groups from Finland and Canada who first bought artwork for their homes and then started bringing their visitors at my studio all the time.
As your income improved, what was your bigger picture or outlook?
Banana Boat was and still is my main outlet. Before, they had one shop but now they have many shops at Kisementi, Lugogo, Garden City and Village Mall in Bugolobi, so she makes big orders to share among all the shops. I also still travel for international exhibitions
By how much has your income grown over the years?
Ekyo tukileke (translated to mean let us leave that at that)I don’t want URA to come for me ssebo (translated to mean sir).
Are you not a keen tax payer?
I am, but had problems with them last year
In 2008, I became the first Ugandan artist to win a copyright case in Uganda but it took me four years in court. If you Google my name you will find info about it. It was Stella Atal Vs Ann Abel Kiruta.
Tell me more about the case…
I sued a company that copied and used my designs without my permission. It was a Ugandan lady married to a diplomat and they had a shop here and thought they were untouchable. They are still living here.
How much did they pay in damages?
Shs50m and Shs1m for each time we went to court for those four years but by the time I won the case, they were doing badly and the man was very sick and almost dying so they asked for exemption from Shs1m for the days in court for four years.
Did you give in to do away with the Shs1m?
No, court ordered them to pay 1m for everyday day we were in court because that was during my productive hours. It was compensation for work I would have done doing that day at my studio
In your opinion, how effective or ineffective is the copyright law in Uganda?
It’s effective now. My case was more like a study one. That is why it took so long. Both the judge and my lawyer spent sleepless nights trying to read and research about it. These days you don’t mess with artists. Many have sued companies and they have been paid.
Have you encountered any other people infringing on the copyright of your creative works?
Yes some small boys in craft markets but not worth suing, you just take them to police and threaten them.
What lessons have you drawn from growing and maintaining a business?
I have become very aggressive because in business, it is very hard to trust people. Being self-employed in our industry means all production relies on me so the moment I blink it will just drop down. I do production and marketing. I hired someone to control my finances
Take me through your production process…
I don’t have a lot of clothes on display as I mostly work on orders from clients and these keep me busy all the time. If I have a show, I ask my clients to give me a week to concentrate on it. I sit with clients and choose the design depending on their figure, pattern in fabric and function to which she or he will wear the outfit.
I do the cutting and sometimes I sew. I have tailors at my workshop who help me when I have a big order. We work as a team. Sometimes we spend nights working just to beat the deadline.
What is your average day like?
During weekdays, I wake up at 5am, prepare children for school. We get to school at 7:40am and I am back at work by 8am. I check my emails, go to the bank. If I have meetings they are held outside my studio in morning. I stay with tailors and we work until 3pm when I pick up the children from school. I drop them home, return to work for about three hours and rush back home to put children to bed by 8:30pm, and I continue with work till about 1am.
On Saturdays, I work between 9am and 1pm, rest and then spend time with my children. I take a break when the children do so and take them on vacation
You run outlets in USA, France and UK, when did you open them?
In USA, it was in 2003 and in UK and France, it was last year
How much investment did you out into these outlets?
Just reproduction and creativity because the shops take commission from sales .I just produce for all seasons except summer and whenever they are changing stock to new season at least I have stock for it
Do you use Ugandan materials for the stock out there?
Yes, I use bark cloth as Ugandan material then the rest are Chinese materials like kitenge. I use a lot of plain material with a little bit of African print to guide me with colours while painting on outfit
Have you achieved some material or physical things out of your passion?
I have been a collector of materials for the last 10 years. With the new technology, I am in the process of starting to produce my own printed fabrics with digital printing so that I have my exclusive printed materials.
Have you tried to mentor or use your talent to benefit others?
Oh yeah. I am on the committee of the Fashion Society of Uganda “ as their global liaison representative. It’s trying to unite Ugandan designers and people contributing to fashion like make-up artists, jewellery designers, models and shoe and bag designers. We are working on a mentorship programmes in universities and other fashion institutions inspiring the young designers. We started our mentorship programme at Kyamboggo University last week.
What is Stella Atal’s life away from work and family?
I love being fit so I go to the gym often. I am a hasher so hash on Mondays and run on my own for 10km at least three times a week.
How is your love life?
Who is the lucky dude?
The father of my children
Come on…tell us the details about him, how you met and what you love about him…
We are more than lovers now. We are super friends who never accuse each other for meeting with people of the opposite sex or coming a back home late because we are equally busy. We advise each other about business. He is supportive, encouraging and loving.
What’s your favourite kind of music?
While at work, I play classical music but I love old school music when it is time to dance.
Who are your favourite artistes?
Locally I like Juliana Kanyomozi, Lillian Mbabazi, Maurice Kirya and Isaiah Katumwa. internationally, I am fan of Brandy and Whitney Houston
Are you spiritual person?
Yes. I am 100 per cent catholic
What makes you a proud Catholic?
It’s my religion and I don’t see any reasons for moving to another.
How Catholic are you?
Praying every day, fasting, forgiving and I love all my enemies.
How do you understand God?
I don’t understand Him but I believe in Him and know He exists andI always ask for his guidance in everything I do.
What kind of family do you hail from?
A family of staunch Catholics, everyone home is an artist right from my mum. I am the third born out of six children.
Best African designer of 2010, awarded by Afric collection Cameroon
Controversial Art 2011, awarded by the Dutch Embassy and Afriart Gallery
African fashion designer of 2008, London ethical fashion awards.
International Women Museum in California, in 2007.
Pioneer designer Africa Fashion Week, New York 2010
Official designer Miss Africa USA 2010 in Washington DC.