Anna-Clare Lukoma has seen her star rising on the Ugandan fashion scene. She’s just won the Most Outstanding and Supportive Designer award at the International Women’s Day Festival with her bespoke collection, Sweet Phina. We catch up with her and her passion for fashion.

Where did you grow up? Was your family interested in fashion?

I was born in Kenya and moved to Botswana when I was 5. I went to school in Swaziland, Botswana, USA and Japan. My sister studied tailoring and was an excellent seamstress but just did it as a hobby. My mum also made clothes for my sister and I when we were young. I have aunties and Jajjas who are excellent seamstresses or involved in fashion retailing. Definitely my family was, and still is interested in fashion. My parents have always been stylish in the classic sense and attended many formal events when I was young. My earliest fashion memories come from watching my parents getting ready for gala dinners. My dad even had the frilly attachments added to shirts worn under tuxedo suits. My mum always matched her shoes, dress and bag.

There is a strong artistic streak in my family especially from my mother’s side. One of my uncles is an artist. All my brothers are excellent artists but only do it as a hobby now. My mum and dad have very elegant taste in clothes and interior decor. So all these factors have also influenced and inspired me.

When did you first become interested in fashion and design?

I used to play with dolls and just loved the outfits they wore. Once I went into a toy store and saw a gorgeous Barbie with an outfit designed by Oscar de la Renta. I visited that store every chance I had to stare and admire the Oscar de la Renta dresses. I remember even then thinking that the ball gown was gorgeous but where would a girl like me wear it to? Even today I design clothes to be wearable and accessible. Ball gowns inspire me but an awesome pair of pants that fits just right is timeless.

Who helped you along the way – fostered your interest?

In my early days I tried to focus on getting a ‘sensible degree’ in Economics and then I started studying Japanese. I spent a year abroad in Tokyo and fell in love with Japan. I was so inspired by the eclectic city with its bright lights and fearless fashionistas. Also my host family were in the fashion business. My host brother hired me as floor staff in his boutique selling vintage American clothes. I was very good at that job and felt that I had finally found what I really wanted to do with my life- fashion. I also started modelling and doing TV commercials in Tokyo. My whole life in Africa and even in USA my dark skin had been something I had a complex about. It was in Japan where I finally saw how awesome it is to be a dark-skinned African. My Japanese host family really took me in and made me feel like their daughter. They encouraged me to return to Japan after my senior year in college. When I did I enrolled in night school for fashion design while working during the day. My teachers were very classic and focussed on details. To this day I still appreciate details such as buttons, embroidery and zipper placements on minimalist silhouettes. I credit this to the 8 years I spent in Japan and the Japanese meticulous attention to every last detail.

In Kampala my greatest source of inspiration is a fellow designer Ras Kasozi (http://www.inkampala.com/ras-kasozi-fashions-rising-star/). What I admire about Ras Kasozi is that he is an all-round excellent designer from the creative process right up to stitching and producing the final garment. He is also a very community based Africanist who has a great love for his country Uganda.

Did you receive any formal training?

Yes, I studied Fashion Design with a focus on illustration at the Yokohama Fashion Design College in Japan. I also studied Pattern-Making at Tiner International in Kampala. But I taught myself how to sketch when I was in primary school. I used to look at fashion magazines and study the models poses then sketch and sketch until I had recreated the exact stance of the model’s body. School is good but hours and hours of practice is what honed my skills.

How do you describe your design style?

Afro-Asian Urban Wear. My design ethos is that clothes should be wearable. I also love bold prints, colour and classic silhouettes. I have showcased in Tokyo and Yokohama Japan, New York, and Kampala.

What products do you like to design the most?

I really enjoy making Kimonos and kimono inspired clothing. I also love traditional menswear tailoring and adapting it to flatter a woman’s body.

Where would you like to go with it? What’s your dream?

My dream is to revolutionize the Ugandan fashion industry and put it on the map internationally. I also believe in conscious fashion- that means thinking about how sustainably my clothes are being produced and what impact I can have on the community around me. A percentage of my sales go towards charity. Every year I choose a new focus. I have worked with women tailors who are HIV positive in Kampala, Hands for Hope (a school for underprivileged kids in Namuwongo) and GrassRoots Reconciliation Group in Gulu. This year my focus is still early education for underprivileged kids but I would also like to do more work that directly fuses fashion and charity.

Last year I made graduation gowns for the children at Hands for Hope. I wanted to give these children an opportunity to experience a normal graduation and not feel left out because they could not afford gowns. I witnessed a graduation at another school where the poor children who couldn’t rent gowns were standing next to their wealthier classmates and not wearing gowns. It broke my heart and challenged me to make a difference using my skills as a designer.

Lulu’s motto is Fashion with Heart. I want to use fashion to make a change in Uganda.

What types of things/people inspire you?

I am inspired by resilience and personal stories. I love reading and tend to get many ideas from reading biographies of people I admire such as Nelson Mandela, Miriam Makeba. I also love celebrating the unsung heroes. Last year I dedicated a collection to the Hip Hop Youth in Gulu who were using Hip Hop culture to rebuild their confidence and heal their damaged psyches. I called the collection, Gulu Loves Hip Hop. This year I dedicated my collection to my sister who passed away last February. She was a humanitarian working with Oxfam Boston. She quietly and confidently revolutionized the way Oxfam thought about aid and support to Africa and for that I wanted to pay homage and show the worked that every small action makes a difference – “be the change you want to see in the world”.

What’s your favourite motto or quote?

Nobody else knows your reason for being. You do. Your bliss guides you to it, when you follow your bliss, when you follow your path to joy, your conversation is joy, your feelings are of joy, you’re right on the path of that which you intended when you came forth into this physical body.

What advice would you have for any aspiring designers?

You have got to love fashion. This is a very challenging career and only the fierce and resilient survive. You should be open to constructive criticism and feedback from your clients and colleagues but never lose track of your vision and who you are as a designer. Finally, I strongly suggest doing an internship with a successful designer and learning the entire eco-system of fashion. It is more than glamour and fashion shows.

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