Every personal shoe collection needs sandals. On a continent that receives its fair share of sunny days and heat waves, these chic alternates to flip-flops are a necessity. However, just because you need them doesn’t mean that they should be any less gorgeous or devoid of personality. There are several African brands that have perfected the art of the sandal, one being Uzuri K&Y in Rwanda. This hand-made shoe brand, with a unique Rwandan aesthetic was officially started in 2013 by Ysolde Shimwe and Kevine Kagirimpundu. With two shops in Kigali and four years in the shoe industry, Here’s a little about their journey thus far:
Friendship based on Sketches
Asking for help can be difficult for many. Even though we all know the benefits we can derive from that one act. For this duo, seeking assistance set them on the path towards Uzuri K&Y. Ysolde and Kevine met at the University of Rwanda where they studied Creative Design at the School of Environmental Design and Architecture. Doing sketches is an inevitable practice within the course and while it came naturally to Kevine, Ysolde struggled with sketching-oriented assignments. When she noticed Kevine’s ability to draw in a more organized fashion than her own, Ysolde asked for help to improve her technique. What started out as a need to survive class assignments turned into a formidable friendship and a nascent entrepreneurial venture.
They started with Savings
Believe it or not, no loans were taken to start Uzuri K&Y. With their combined savings they took a leap of faith and registered their brand. But luck, in the form of Kigali Fashion Week, was on their side. Just two months after they registered, they were showcasing in the country’s biggest annual fashion show. Their big break came when Former Miss France and fashion designer, Sonia Rolland, decided to model for them. People took notice of their style and immediately Uzuri K&Y was receiving orders. From there, they purchased some equipment and machines to set up their workshop. Again, they decided not to rely on loans and opted to work with the little capital that they had. Before long, their headquarters in Gikondo was up and running. A self-contained place where their entire production process and training could be contentedly implemented.
Design Discipline is their Core
When Uzuri K&Y was starting out, the Rwandan fashion industry was relatively new. Sure, shoes were being made in the country long before that. There was a single location in the 80s designated for that purpose however the quality was wanting. These ladies had the opportunity to set the tone by creating affordable quality footwear while creating employment. Nonetheless, they don’t look at empowerment of their artists as just providing a steady paycheque. It involves the progression of skills and knowledge to enhance their craft. In fact, the brand only plans on embarking on a bigger factory once they have trained skilled labour.
Skill in this sense is a combination of inspiration from the past and learning from the present strides in the fashion industry. It’s taking old techniques such as traditional weaving and using local materials such as Agaseke patterns, as well as, incorporating new techniques and application methods they’ve learnt from the various trade fairs they’ve attended. With the technical changes to get the product made well and on time, came the mental alterations as well. By instilling good work ethics, they aim to teach their artists to think about the product in terms of the client and how it will impact them. Uzuri means ‘Goodness, excellence, beauty’ in Kiswahili and those are the kind of attributes they want each of their handmade pairs to emulate.
According to Shetrades, they have so far ‘trained 25 local women and men to become shoemakers’, with plans of employing 100 more women shoemakers by the close of year 2020. Since 2014, they’ve added an internship program that sees them take on three interns every three months. These candidates get to learns shoe-making skills and could be hired upon the completion of their internship based on their performance.
Uzuri K&Y is Highly Team-oriented
They may be in charge of the creative department, which researches trends, makes sketches and prototypes, and sources suitable materials, but there are 25 people in total that work together in different stages to get the product ready for sale. For Ysolde and Kevine, it was important that customers should know the people who make Uzuri K&Y happen. There’s Jean Marie Iradukunda who is in charge of daily operations while production process is overseen by a self-taught shoe-maker called Ntacogora Francois. Jeanine Ufitinema does the assembling and finishing while Alice Tuyishimire is the quality assurance expert that makes sure the shoes that leave the ‘factory’ are top-notch. There are more individuals involved in the cutting, sewing, weaving, outsoles and insoles, and sales departments which they’ve taken the time to highlight here. Being a handmade enterprise, they only have the capability of producing 650 pairs a month. However, by trying to realise their dream they’ve helped with the high unemployment situation as well as involved Rwandans in the creative process.
Uzuri K&Y aspires to one day be an affordable footwear band with an international presence. They keep their heritage alive by choosing to design and produce in Rwanda, telling their story through their aesthetic. More importantly, it’s a brand that continues to learn and grow; ensuring that other shoe makers grow along with them. It’s putting their best foot forward and helping others do the same for the good of the country.