How Kampala’s tailors are taking over women’s fashion

Saturday November 2 2019

At work. Shadia Rwakataka shows the reporter

At work. Shadia Rwakataka shows the reporter what she does during the interview at Ham Towers last month. Photos by Tony Mushoborozi 

By Tony Mushoborozi

There is a trendy new clothing line in Kampala known as ‘Ham’. You will not find a label under the collar reading ‘Ham’ or any such words printed on the chest.
There is no genius designer named Ham running the show, neither is there a company called Ham Garments Ltd.

Nonetheless, if you go looking for Ham, you will discover an endless choice of women’s wear. Ham is fast becoming a household name. The designs are as dainty as they are fashionable. Chances are you already have a few of these in your wardrobe without knowing it.

The tag Ham comes from Ham Towers in downtown Kampala. This is where these new clothes originate from. The new building that encircles Nakivubo Stadium stands in a place that has historically been known for a clothes market (park yard). So, attracting customers is easy and guaranteed.

While the market that stood there formerly sold second-hand clothes from Europe and North America, or brand new copies from China and other Asian countries, the traders are selling brand new trendy clothes that are designed and handmade by themselves.

It is, however, the quantities that are eye-catching. An army of tailors and designers have colonised the new building and by chance or design, they seem to be at the cusp of taking over the mass garment market; at least the women’s section, which is the most lucrative, anyway.

These tailors are moving with the times. They are mass-producing women’s wear, whose designs are up-to-date with the fashion trends. They work at such speed and efficiency that their creations are churned out at an industrial scale. It is possible they have captured the imagination of the masses. The dresses they sew can now easily be found in shops across the country and the region.

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“Congolese and South Sudanese who used to come and buy brand new clothes from China now prefer Ham designs. They are not only cheaper than Chinese ones, they are handmade, which means no one dress looks exactly like the other,” Shadia Rwakataka, a tailor in Ham Towers, says.

“We sell our designs to traders from all across the country for the same reason. Our dresses are the exact quality as the imported ones, yet ours are a lot cheaper. This is not only attractive to the traders, it is desirable to the final consumers,” Rwakataka, without looking up from her electric sewing machine, says.

The chat with the bubbly 24-year-old Rwakataka takes about 30 minutes, yet in that time, she finishes three dresses and puts them up on display. She says during busy days like Christmas and Ramathan when she has too many orders, she can finish up to 50 dresses in a day. An average dress goes for Shs20,000.

Lining the glass walls outside her shop are mannequins modelling dainty dresses she and her friends are busy rolling out. In fact, the whole Ham Towers is teeming with mannequins donning dresses of all colours, textures and patterns.

Most of the shops here are wholesalers that supply to traders from across the country. The tailors are so busy working at their machines, they have salesmen to take care of the customers as they work. The buzz from the hundreds of electric sewing machines is dizzying.
The best part of it is that customers have the choice to walk into the workshops and have their original ideas custom-made in a few minutes.

Every once in a while, a customer stops to scrutinise a dress. Some enter and pay for their picks while others engage the tailors about the kind of design material and colour they prefer a certain design to come in.
Prior to this new trend, the place of Kampala’s tailor in contemporary fashion has tended to be allotted to strictly tribal outfits such as gomesi, busuuti, kanzu, kiteenge and so on.

Because these are single-occasion garments, they can only be made in small quantities. Such is the way the Ugandan tailor has always missed out on the fortunes that come with mass market. Those days seem to be coming to an end.

Designing
While some of the Ham designs are original, most of the designs are copied from imported dresses, according to Doreen Nabasa, an importer in Kikuubo. She says sneaky traders have a tendency of getting an imported dress and making copies of it with minor alterations or additions.
“Some of the Ham copies of imported dresses can be very good indeed,” Nabosa says, adding: “It is not easy to tell the difference, especially for someone who is not actively involved in the industry. So most people will buy a dress made in Uganda thinking it is imported. Traders make more profit selling Ham dresses disguised as imported dresses.”

The implication here is that companies (mostly Chinese) that have been exporting dresses to Kampala are destined to feel the pinch.
Ironically, the Chinese have always been accused of flouting copyright in many sectors, including this one. It seems Uganda is serving them their own medicine.

The material
From as far back as colonial times, there has always been material for sale in Kampala. That material was mostly for men’s suits, school uniforms and gomesi. The historic place to buy this kind of thing was Kiyembe Lane near Nakasero Market.

However, since the Ham trend started, a whole new world of materials opened up. Whether you are looking for silky or spongy or stretchy or rough-cast, you will find it in plenty in Ham Towers.
Bales and bales of these are to be seen in many shops at every corner. They are as spread out among the tailors across the building.

The prices

The prices rage from as low as Shs10,000 to as high as Shs250,000. According to Ivan Kikawa, a Ham salesman, there are several variables that determine the price of a dress.

He says: “The amount of material needed to make a dress is the first variable. That is why a mini dress is usually the cheapest. Some mini dresses need only one meter to make while a long flowing dress can take up to 6 meters of more. The other variable is the cost of the cloth. Some materials cost as much as Shs60,000 a meter while others are as cheap as less than Shs10,000 a meter.”

He adds: “It also matters where you buy the dress. Some dresses bought from here at Shs80,000 can be sold for Shs200,000 in a fancy mall.”

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