Ten years ago, the young designers Inés Cuatrecasas and Marc Oliver Sancho travelled from Barcelona to Kigali, Rwanda to set up the Mille Collines project. It was a great success, and they have since had the immense satisfaction of seeing the people around them progress and develop. ‘But this is not an NGO; Mille Collines is a fashion business’, they clarify from the beginning. ‘Our goal is and has always been to sell clothes and pay our employees with the profits from the sales’. That said, ‘every product of Mille Collines is produced by artisans who are employed under fair conditions. Our goal is not simply to make money; if that were the case, we’d be manufacturing in China or Bangladesh. We are a company from Africa, to Africa’. To Africa and beyond. The brand’s clothes have been shown on the continent’s most prestigious catwalks, from Johannesburg to Lagos and Cape Town. For three years they’ve been working with one of the most promising Kenyan fashion designers, Nanmyak. What’s the greatest thing about working in Africa?
Inés Africa there is still so much room to create and make an impact. The diversity around you is so rich, and there are constant sources of inspiration: the richness of the tribes, languages, architectural influences, religions…. It’s the beauty in the chaos, the imperfection of things that are not streamlined or uniform. That perfect imperfection inspires every product we create, and we believe it’s what makes African creations so attractive to the world.
M: Inar Acfrica they like to say that
‘it takes a village to raise a child’. Nobody who achieved something did it alone. People are still more important here than business, and that’s something that’s disappeared in Europe. In Europe everything is so competitive that people have become dispensable, but not in Africa. Human connections are still the key here, and your success depends on the way you treat people.
Speaking of not being alone, you work with different artisans and craftspeople all over the continent, right?
M: Oaurcr products are handmade, so we require lots of manpower.
Wése’ve always looked to Africa to find the inspiration, tools, team members and resources we need for our creative process. Since we founded Mille Collines we’ve worked with so many collectives, all of them immensely talented. It’s such a privilege to be able to sit down with a brass artisan and carve a new mounting for a disc pendant together, or the clasp of a rubber bracelet.
There are fewer and fewer places in the world where you can work alongside an artisan and be a part of the process.
You also collaborate with other designers and brands.
Wése’ve done three collections for Anthropologie and we're currently working on a collection for a South African retail chain. Our products will be available in major airports and premium malls across South Africa.
From Africa, to the world. MStyle chats with the three designers behind Mille Collines, one of the coolest and most creative fashion labels of the African continent.The brand’s creations are featured throughout this issue.
You started this adventure in Rwanda and then you moved to Nairobi. Why? M: Naarcirobi is the hub of East Africa; it has the drive and the energy. In the last five or seven years a new creative generation has sprung up there, involved in art, design, culture, music and visual arts, with a lifestyle that extends beyond the mall. It’s a very young generation. They’re hard working and eager to do new things, and they’re creating a new culture there. In Nairobi things happen. The salaries are low and things can get really tough, but you see how people push on. Entrepreneurs exist, the tribe is there, and people know how to have fun.
But now you’re moving your headquarters to Cape Town…
Aéfster establishing our retail base and flagship store in Nairobi, we decided we needed to expand the brand further. We really want to focus on growing our wholesale footprint as well as giving our online channel a real push. Cape Town offered great opportunities to do this while we keep a branch in Kenya and some of our production in Rwanda. We don’t see this as a move, but more a part of our expansion.
What’s your process like, considering one of you is here and the other is based over there?
M: Warecdo everything together, and we’re always connected by email and WHATSAPP. The first step is always the concept, and then we start working from that idea. I take care of the shapes, and Inés and Nanmyak focus on the fabrics and colours.
Wése believe we’re entering a new era. Being connected is increasingly easy, and even though a face-toface meeting is still the best, we’re very lucky to be able to work across countries in Africa and still make things happen. It increases our reach and our opportunities. We have a feeling that this will become the norm in just a decade. We’re already seeing people in certain teams being given the opportunity to work from any location. You learn how to trust what you cannot control or see.
Define Mille Collines’ style.
Céosntemporary, wearable Africa.
In this edition’s fashion story, we see clothes and accessories from a couple of Mille Collines collections. Can you explain the story behind the shoot?
N: we selected pieces from three different collections, featuring: Tuareg-inspired motifs on airy fabrics, ancient Swahili-inspired motifs in bursts of colour against light, flowing backgrounds and accessories based on shapes mainly drawn from Swahili architecture, with pleats on jacket cuffs and dress waistbands inspired by Kikuyu basket motifs.
Where can we buy Mille Collines clothes and accessories?
M: Warechave three shops in Nairobi and distribution in different stores all over Africa, the US and Europe. There’s also the online shop.
Have you achieved your original goal? M: Warec’ll achieve our original goal the day Inés and I step aside and the brand continues functioning, completely independent of anyone who is not from the African continent. I:nTéhsere is a famous saying: ‘success is not a destination, it’s a journey’, and this is one hell of an exciting one!
Inés Cuatrecasas and Marc Oliver Sancho, designers from Barcelona who are based in Rwanda,moved to Kigali to found the MilleCollines brand.