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Olubunmi Ishola/Medill

From left, Silvia Kariuki, 25, and Kumneger "Kim" Emiru, 21, get excited about potential designs Kahindo Mateene can make for them as she shows a piece of fabric she has been holding onto for more than two years.


African designer sews together tradition and trend

by Olubunmi Ishola
June 03, 2008


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Olubunmi Ishola/Medill

Kahindo Mateene, 29, plans to start her own clothing line using African prints to create trendy and sophisticated designs.

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Olubunmi Ishola/Medill

Kahindo Mateene, 29, wore this dress to a friend's wedding, stirring interest in her sewing and designing skills and reigniting her desire to start her own line.

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Olubunmi Ishola/Medill

Silvia Kariuki, 25, (left) and Michelle Lugalia, 22, wear matching outfits Mateene designed and had sewn back in her home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Why have you not been making dresses?”

That was the incredulous question a friend asked Kahindo Mateene.

Three of her friends were standing in the middle of Mateene’s Edgewater apartment, looking at and trying on an assortment of clothes designed by Mateene.

“I’m wearing Kahindo,” Silvia Kariuki said, coining the designer’s first name as the label for the orange and green halter dress she had been reluctant to take off.

And while Mateene has chosen a different name – Modahnik – her own line is exactly what she has planned for the near future.

Already making good on her aspirations, Mateene, 29, hopes to break out of traditional silhouettes and create more stylish wear for women – using African prints and a design aesthetic strongly influenced by her African roots.

“Africa is hot right now,” she said. “Everyone is just ‘Africa, Africa, Africa.’ There’s like this light on Africa … let me take that and run with it.”
 
Born in Uganda, but of Congolese descent, Kahindo has traveled all over Africa and considers the continent as a whole her home.

Her dad was a diplomat who worked for the Organization of African Unity, now known as the African Union, giving her the opportunity to live in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Ethiopia, Niger and Nigeria. Mateene has also traveled to Ivory Coast and Rwanda.

“That opened my mind to different cultures,” Mateene said. When people ask her where she’s from, she simply says “Africa.” Since she has lived in many different countries, she said she sees the whole continent as her home.

As far back as she can remember, Mateene always  has been what she calls a fashion junkie. She remembers flipping through catalogs with her younger sister and playfully fighting over the clothes they liked.

“We’d be like, ‘Mine! Mine!’ she said. “It belonged to whomever pointed to it first.”

Mateene also remembers playing with paper dolls and making her own clothes to fold onto them. This, she said, was her first foray into fashion.

“I should have known then to go straight into fashion design,” she said. “I found it somewhere, somehow. But those dolls …”

A long way from paper dolls

While those paper dolls continued to be a strong memory for Mateene, fashion design was the last path she thought of pursuing when she came to the United States in 1995. Attending Blackburn College in Carlinville, Ill., Mateene majored in international business and economics, with a minor in Spanish.

After graduating in 1999, she got a nice job in corporate America. Feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled with the work, Mateene said the idea that she could actually be a fashion designer became real for her.

“I’m a business woman at heart,” Mateene said, “so I wanted to combine that with my love of shopping and my love of traveling. So, I went back to school. And I had never sewn or anything.”

In fact, the most experience Mateene had ever had with a sewing machine was memories of her mother, who died when Mateene was 7, sewing clothes on her Singer. 

“I also have loads of pictures and video of her in fabulous fashion in the ’70s and ’80s,” Mateene said. “She was definitely very stylish and ahead of her time fashion-wise.”

She began studying fashion design at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago in 2002, graduating in 2004. Afterwards Mateene worked at H&M for a while, and later she interned with local designer Beth Lambert of Scarlet Designs.

 “I remember Kahindo very specifically because she was very mature and brought an intellectual perspective to how she designed clothing,” Lambert said. 

Lambert said fashion schools usually don’t teach anything other than fashion, but that running a business and starting your own line is more than just the design. Mateene, she said, has those other elements to make her successful.

“With her work experience and other degree she has a much stronger platform to build a business,” she said. “She has, No. 1, a tie to that community and, No. 2, the background to market that line.”

Mateene also auditioned for the Bravo hit show “Project Runway” three times, once making it all the way in to meet former contestant Michael Knight and fashion guru Tim Gunn.

“They said they liked what I had, but that they wanted to see a more recent collection,” Mateene said. She had brought the collection she made for her senior project in 2004. “So that motivated me to try again last year, but I never even made it through to see them. After waiting in line for nearly seven hours I was dismissed at the door.”

With that dismissal, Mateene’s drive to start her own fashion line was dismissed as well.

But when she wore one of her recent designs to a friend’s wedding, Mateene suddenly had some very eager customers.

“Finding these prints here [in the U.S.],” Michelle Lugalia said excitedly of the African prints Mateene uses. “It’s not accessible. You want to be able to wear something that is so beautiful and so unique.”

Lugalia, Kariku and Kumneger “Kim” Emiru were all in awe of Mateene’s designs, which are contemporary and stylish with an African twist.

The three friends quickly made their choices, and also began discussing ideas for the custom pieces they wanted Mateene to sew for them.

“You’ve been sitting on yourself,” Lugalia said, half admonishing Mateene and half praising her work. “This is amazing.”

Big plans ahead

Her friends’ interest in her work has renewed Mateene’s drive to start her own line, and she has begun relooking at many of the plans she had already mapped out.

“If I do it, I want to do it good,” she said. One of the main aspects of her plan is to create a co-op of African designers to help build a strong platform for them in the Western world. “No one has touched that. Even in Africa, people don’t know about each other’s fashion designers.”

Another aspect is to have everything manufactured in Africa. Mateene’s family is from a village in Congo named Goma, which borders Rwanda. After the Rwanda genocide in 1994, the former resort town had become a place of refuge for many Rwandans.

As an educational trip, Mateene said her father took her and her siblings to one of the refugee camps. She said she was inspired to try and do something for the women who had lost their families and were left with illegitimate children, many the result of rape.

“That’s another one of my reasons,” Mateene said. “I think of those women, I think that I can help them. With this company I can help them. … I always think that could have been me.”

Her line will make use of African tailors, and work like a fair-trade company to give people like those women a better life. She said she doesn’t want her line to specifically target Africans, but instead use it to share the beauty of Africa with the rest of the world. 

Just like the prints Mateene uses, Africa is vibrant and full of life – regardless of the political, economic or social conditions on the continent.

“And that’s why we love Africa,” Mateene said. “It’s a whole different culture. It’s a blessing.”

For now, Mateene is working on custom designs for her friends and hoping to build her clientele, doing this until she has enough money to pursue her idea full force. The name she has chosen for her line, Modahnik (pronounced mode-ah-nique), is an anagram composed of her first name and the first initial of her last, and a play on the French and Italian words “mode” or “moda,” which mean “fashion.” 

And if Mateene’s friends have any say about it, Modahnik will be a huge success.

“If I had all the money in the world,” Lugalia began, pausing to contemplate a good price, “[I’d pay] $300 apiece. The clothes that are being sold high-end [in boutiques now] aren’t even special. My brain is like on overload … all the great things that can come from Kahindo.”