Once, I read that Sylvia Owori said everything she put her mind to she succeeded at. “A pompous profession of oneself,” I remember thinking. That could have been more than 10 years ago, about the time she was only beginning to feature in the media for her quite outstanding stance on fashion and design. She has since made me glad I didn’t once voice my opinion of her profession, or I’d have had to swallow my words right back. Sylvie Owori has not only become a force to reckon with on the international fashion scene as a designer, but also surely succeeded at every business she has been known to start.
Venturing into the unacceptable
Owori erupted onto the social scene way back in the 1990s, at a time when modelling was considered, you could say, slutty and the Ugandan locals interpreted wearing a mini skirt as desiring to be naked. She nonetheless graced newspapers and magazine covers in “extravagant” skimpy cloths, daring to express her passion for fancy fashion, and was received with mixed feelings of admiration and, for the larger part, dismay.
Unfazed by the consternation, she stubbornly persisted with her passion for fashion and in 1999, opened up a fashion shop at Ivory Plaza with worldwide designs previously unavailable to Ugandans. The shop was followed by “The Ziper Models”, later renamed Zipa Modelling Agency, the first of its kind in Uganda. To date, they scout for and select female and male models to provide professional modelling services on the Ugandan market.
In 2001, Owori took on and revitalised the Miss Uganda pageant, making it one of the most significant events on Uganda’s social calendar. Her exit from the pageant in 2004 marked the flop of the event as it has since been marred with scandal and sub standard organisation.
In November 2005, she launched her glossy African Woman magazine, again swearing to the public in another media interview that it would be a success. “The way I contribute to the empowerment of women is through African Woman. It’s a glossy magazine, but it’s also a voice for women in Africa,” she explained. Sold in five different African countries today, African Woman ranks highly as one of the region’s high quality women’s magazine. She also created costumes for the main characters of the film The Last King of Scotland in 2005.
That she was on her way to tremendous success and had the potential to bloom into a force to reckon with could no longer be ignored even by her previously judgmental countrymen. By 2006, the small defiant girl from Tororo had blossomed into a nationally acknowledged businesswoman and an internationally recognised fashion icon, with some of the most prestigious achievements in the industry.
In June 2006, she received the Presidential Transformers Award for her contribution to societal development; she had significantly impacted Uganda’s fashion industry by encouraging other fashion designers to step out and young fashion models to proudly venture into their passion. And in October of the same year, she was appointed to design the Nokia Face of Africa Ugandan finalist’s outfit, becoming the second designer after Dolce & Gabbana to work with the world renowned Motorola phone company in a fashion codenamed “Motocouture with Sylvia Owori”.
Without a doubt, this self-assured African success of a woman has lived up to her promise to succeed against a background of rare determination to shoot through any obstacles and achieve overwhelmingly.
A story of hard work and perseverance
Owori has been reported as saying that the desire to freely express herself and persevere amidst whatever circumstances, especially criticism, was born from watching her father beat her mother as a child. When he died, leaving her and seven siblings to their mother’s care, they survived from a small business of selling imported cloths and accessories.
Assisted by her grandmother, who was married to a Briton, Owori opted to go to London to pursue fashion after completing secondary education at Nsambya S.S.S. In London, at 19, she enrolled into Newham College to study Fashion Design.
It was after this that she returned to Uganda to kick off her dream career with a fashion shop, selling imported cloths otherwise unavailable to Ugandans. She used her spare time to create unique designs for just herself and friends, but soon her extravagant outfits saw her demand base grow and but with it criticism, which she ignored and persisted with her work.
Soon, her big break came in 2004 at the Kenyan Fashion Week, where she became the star of the show and was rewarded by the audience with a standing ovation. This event served as an eye opener for her countrymen at home, who finally realised that what they’d rejected had impressed the Kenyans. Her confidence soared and it’s since been a success story after another for Owori.
Hers has not been a spotless life though, as ridicule and criticism of her fashion sense, right to her personal style (especially now that she’s a mother), has continued. There was talk of her pimping naive youth desperate to shine in the modelling world at a said Kabalagala based-bar, but this has never been proven. She has been engaged to Per Neilson, a Danish gentleman, for over a decade, but there’s controversy over who the father of her sons is, though she insists it’s her private business. It is impressive how she ferociously protects her sons, who have become the centre of her world, from media coverage.
Owori has repeatedly publicly expressed her admiration of Nelson Mandela for his 27-year-long sacrifice to achieve the freedom he envisioned. She’s professed her liking for self-help books, Celine Dion and shoes, of which she has over 200 pairs at a time. She insists it’s nice to have trendy items and lives up to this rule, as she always has the trendiest gadgets and clothing each time she steps out. She meanwhile continues to soar above the clouds, proving that nothing is out of reach for the determined woman.