Katiti Kironde is not your average cover girl. Katiti’s name in fact is not one you would typically recognise on the Ugandan scene. You should, because before fashion magazines in Uganda, before Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Vanessa Williams made the cover of any magazine, there was Katiti Kironde; the first black woman to appear on the cover of a major magazine, a Ugandan.
The year was 1968, the place, America, the magazine, Glamour magazine.
When I received the assignment to interview the first black woman on the cover of a major American Magazine, the significance of the fact that she is Ugandan struck me immediately. I, like you, wanted to know how an 18-year-old, Ugandan Harvard student happened to be on the cover of the August 1968 issue of the magazine titled, “10 Best- Dressed College Girls”. A black girl on a magazine cover in a nation suffering the aftermath of the civil rights and black power movement was an iconic shift in the fashion industry and America as a whole. Katiti was at the centre of it, winner in a contest to select America’s best dressed coeds.
The phone conversation with Katiti to arrange a meeting was dominated by her strong voice which is distinctly American accented with subtle British undertones. I had to speak to her brother, re-knowned food critic, Kaddu Mukasa, to give me directions to where she is staying as she knows little about Uganda’s landmarks considering she only visits occasionally.
In person, Katiti exudes an even stronger personality. In spite of her age, it is easy to see why Ruth Whitney, the then Editor-in-Chief of Glamour magazine, chose to take the risk and put Katiti’s dark beautiful face and bright smile on the cover at a time when blonde hair, blue eyes and white or light skin was all the world considered beautiful. Her personality shines through.
Clad in a simple pink blouse, black sweater and brown cotton lace skirt with black sandals, Katiti approaches me with a bright smile, “You are early.” With an education from five countries, Katiti is well spoken and articulate but refreshingly down to earth. When she picks choice words from Luganda, her mother tongue, the intonation smoothly changes to fit the language in a manner that would make her ancestors proud.
We are getting ready to leave for Mama Ashanti’s Restaurant, her venue of choice, when she introduces me to her business partner, best friend and biggest supporter of more than 20 years, husband Bill Winder. Bill is a practicing architect who draws up the plans in their family business. She describes him as a good architect and the mind behind the Kironde Education and Health Fund, her idea of giving back to her country in spite of the fact that she is based in Cambridge and has lived in the United States most of her life.
As we settle down to start the interview, Katiti takes off her sweater, places it around her neck and proceeds to apply a simple fashionable half-knot. She sits opposite me, her legs crossed elegantly at the ankle, her husband beside her. She asks if I will be recording or taking notes. I say both. Katiti is not new to this. We proceed with the comfortable friendly air of one who is accustomed to having journalists like myself interview her.
The move into fashion
With her debut as a cover girl that early on in life, you would expect that Katiti continued on as a model; after all, the money and fame that comes with the territory can be alluringly hard to resist. After walking a few runways and doing a few photo shoots (from which her husband says he has pictures he can use to black mail her), Katiti quit. She admits that despite her love for fashion, modelling was never her passion. She has always been more interested in the world behind the runway, she says. Her father insisted she have an elite education, sending her to Harvard School where she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in US History. She does not regret the time she spent at university before pursuing her fashion career. “You are a much better designer with a good education under your belt,” she enthuses. Even without submitting her picture to Glamour, Katiti feels that fashion is a dream she would have chased anyway. Her love for fashion and design is not a coincidence. Katiti’s mother attended Fashion school in England.
“It is in my blood,” she says. Her mother died when she was only seven years old, leaving the sewing machine that Katiti adopted as her own. As a fashion-inclined child, Katiti admits, her father, Apollo Kawooya, the first African admitted to the bar, fell short when it came to female fashion. Her sewing machine made all the difference. Bill here speaks of his favourite story about Katiti’s childhood, “She would go up to the attic, tear the lace off her late mother’s old garments, which she would then proceed to sew onto her underwear.” Katiti adds, “I wanted frilly pretty things like everybody else but what did my father know? He just bought me plain underwear; I decided to spruce it up.”
After Harvard, she went on to pursue a full career in fashion, taking on an apprenticeship at a wedding dress factory while studying fashion by night. She later went on to teach the only fashion course at Harvard for two semesters. Katiti now teaches at a design course, Fundamentals of Fashion and Creative Design, at Fisher College in Boston. She recently created a self titled label, Katiti, which glamorizes the white shirt she likes to refer to as “over looked work-horse in the wardrobe”. “I decided to bring fashion to the white shirt, it’s a baby business but it’s growing.” Her label is designed to fit the different seasons in America but she believes it will come to Uganda soon. As we chat she remarks on the beauty of African print, which she believes should be worn more in Uganda instead of the Indian garments she sees a lot of, adding that she wants to go into designing some dresses in African print.
When I ask if philanthropy was always in the plan, she replies in the affirmative. Great granddaughter to Sir Apollo Kaggwa, the first African knighted by the British Court, Katiti feels the need to carry on her fore father’s legacy promoting education in Uganda. To this end, she set up the Kironde Education and Health Fund. Her non-profit organisation partners with Samuel Tusubiira’s Kigalama Children’s Initiative (KiChIn) in Mityana to provide a holistic education for children whose families cannot afford to send them to school. Their approach is one she describes as nimble with the “give a man seeds so he can eat for a lifetime” thesis as opposed to giving him food so he can eat for a day. She believes that with a helping hand, there should be nothing man cannot achieve.
“What is the point of an education if the child is too sick to attend class? Nurture is a big part of our strategy. Uganda’s culture and family organisational structure need not change for this to work,” Katiti says. In Kigalama, for every family willing to take in a child and send him to school, KiChIn is willing to provide clean and safe drinking water facilities. They hope to create leaders from within instead of using the typical NGO band aid approach of bringing in expatriates to solve a local problem. So far, 85 families have signed up. Katiti and Bill are not strangers to children and family structure. Between them, they have five children and six grandchildren, but you would never guess that from looking at her. Katiti’s slim, lithe figure and strong gait are appropriately deceptive.
The phrase “aging gracefully” befits her. But for the sprinkling of gray hair in her shoulder length bob and seemingly wise tones, it is easy to forget how old Katiti is. I am reminded only once during the interview of her age when she mentions that she is not that young anymore. She asks if I have a suitor; I reply in the negative. Immediately, with teenage enthusiasm she asks again if I have seen the gardener who she has recently christened “the Brad Pitt of Africa”.
I reply again, “No,” and she goes on to remark on how dashingly good-looking he is, assuring me that she will be sure to point him out to me as soon as he walks by. Later on, she wonders out loud to Bill if her niece, Eva, would find the gardener attractive.
During their short visit to Uganda, Katiti and Bill have been busy, oscillating between their host’s residence in Kololo and Kigalama, Mityana. She is glad to be taking part in changing the lives of her fellow Ugandans. She is quick to intone that she finds Ugandans very hardworking people. Her husband chimes in to second her saying if Ugandans were bees, the noise would be deafening. On their journeys in and out of the city, she sees a lot of people selling the same vegetables late into the night.
She hopes she can one day start a fashion factory such that the workers can enjoy the economies of scale which arise from pooling resources to attain a bigger market like most farmers need to do. The same journeys reveal to her the plight of the people living in the slums of Kisekka market. It is that sort of abject poverty she hopes organisations like hers can help eradicate.
Her family’s reactions to her career
Katiti speaks of the blessing of a supportive family. Her father was adamant about getting a good bachelor’s degree first before allowing her to venture into fashion so she could always have something to fall back on. She encourages young ladies and gentlemen interested in fashion and design or similar disciplines, to pursue a Bachelor’s degree or an equivalent before writing off school.
“Not everyone can be Calvin Klein or Karl Lagerfield”. She adds that a good education and college is not always only about the classroom but the networks one builds as one’s success is hinged on these.
Persistence is the key. Being true to one’s vision while understanding that not all of it is fun is also very important.