Future heritage and fashion design: Rwandan traditional culture in the global market

14:15 by Annalisa Bolin

Heritage studies might be forgiven for ignoring fashion shows in favor of museums and historic sites, but there’s something to be learned from the runway, too. Recently, the Rwandan fashion house Moshions launched a new ad campaign:

Moshions, based in Kigali, was founded in 2015 by Moses Turahirwa. On the company’s website, you can find contemporary men’s and women’s wear alongside bespoke and traditional clothing, including the iconic imishanana. Even on ready-to-wear, everyday fashions, details echo Rwanda’s traditional art and cultural forms, such as black and white geometric patterns also found in imigongo artwork or in basket weaving, an inspiration to the company’s designers. Moshions is a “culturally inspired fashion brand [which] uses traditional culture motifs with roots in Rwanda,” business manager Dany Rugamba told me.

Moshions isn’t unique in adapting traditional culture to contemporary fashion. But their “Future Heritage” campaign is interesting, and not just because it seems specifically tailored to catch the eye of the UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures. Moshions aims, as the campaign says, to “bridge the past with the future”: to bring traditional culture into conversation with what is happening today in Rwanda, and what might happen there—and elsewhere—in the years to come. When I spoke with Dany, our conversation showed the tension between specificity and vagueness, in both time and space, that must be negotiated in mobilizing traditional culture for a global market.

Imigongo patterns.

Dany told me that Moshions is pursuing a strategy of “timelessness”: “50 or 100 years from now,” he said, they hope that “our pieces would still feel relevant at that time.” The idea of timelessness in fashion, common to designers who seek a continuing appeal, echoes ways in which “traditional culture” has also been framed. As the anthropologist Johannes Fabian famously argued, anthropology’s object—historically, this meant non-Western, allegedly “primitive” societies—was once cast as a “timeless other.” Instead of recognizing all cultures to be continually changing and adapting, those viewed as traditional were also seen as trapped in the past. Stripped of their history, these cultures were “timeless.”

But in reality, no culture is timeless, and neither is the traditional culture that Moshions uses in its designs. We can learn about the deeper past of what is now Rwanda through disciplines like archaeology, but this deeper past somewhat predates what is generally thought of as “precolonial Rwanda,” whose material traditional culture is preserved in places like the Ethnographic Museum. As the historian Jan Vansina points out in Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom, the Rwanda that we know today “is the product of the expansion of the culture of the Nyiginya court that began in the eighteenth but occurred mainly during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (p. 198). “Pre-colonial Rwanda” and its associated traditional culture, as used in the heritage sector and in popular interpretations, usually indicate life as dated to this period—when Rwanda was coming together as the nation whose descendants live there today—right up through the early years of colonization, which began with the arrival of German colonizers in the 1890s.

So Rwandan traditional culture as it’s widely understood, and as it’s adapted through fashion design, is time-bound itself. But the illusion of timelessness is the illusion of an enduring appeal: a promise of persistent relevance. And, even if the traditional culture that Moshions draws on has a specific temporality, the company is trying to mobilize it in the interest not of a return to the past, but of a move into a future grounded in historical legacies while not limited by them.

Moshions’ Mwimba dress.

This attempt to avoid being trapped in a highly specific vision of “traditional culture” is paralleled by how Moshions handles its geographic context. While the cultural motifs that they draw on for inspiration are frequently Rwandan, Moshions deliberately markets its products to both a Rwandan and a global audience. Who, I asked, constitutes its target market? “Anyone who is a fashion enthusiast,” Dany told me: anyone from young, hip Rwandans, to members of the diaspora interested in connecting with their roots, to the broader pan-African market and the rest of the world. With the possible exception of Moshions’ explicitly Rwandan traditional wear, the market is geographically and culturally inclusive, but the price points—108€ and up for a men’s shirt—clearly indicate that it is largely internationalized.

Selling to this market puts pressure on the extent to which Moshions can utilize or rely on noticeably Rwandan motifs, especially if, as Dany said, they want customers who buy things “because they’re beautiful, not just because they have a story.” As a company, Moshions doesn’t want its designs to be tokenized as “Rwandan,” in other words, or to appeal mainly to foreigners who are looking for the exotic. Instead, they hope to contribute to a global conversation about fashion by developing designs which are rooted in an interpretation, or a transformation, of a specific culture. “We want to represent Rwanda, absolutely, and [get people to] know about Rwanda one way or another,” Dany said, but “we don’t want to make it feel very limited or very exclusive,” either. “Without feeling very nationalist,” he said, he hoped that Moshions could “position Rwanda on an international level and for a global image.”

Moshions’ Umwitero shirt.

This attempt to avoid being pigeonholed as limitedly Rwandan illuminates the bind for African designers. “We don’t usually like to say [we are] ‘African’ fashion designers, because at the end of the day we are all fashion designers irrespective of where we come from,” Dany commented; “we are part of the world. We are part of exploring what’s happening intercontinentally.” As a result, he said, Moshions’ designs preferred subtler visual references to Rwandan culture over the use of styles like the iconic wax prints which sometimes stand as a visual shorthand for Africa. These choices and the pressures which inform them illustrate how easy it is for African designers and artists to be trapped by tokenism and stereotyping into a narrow space, rather than fully participating in a global conversation, and how strategic their artistic and marketing responses are forced to be in response.

A wax print.

Operating in an international market, Moshions is walking a fine line. They aim to not be limited by being perceived as exclusively Rwandan, while also not allowing that Rwandanness to be diffused to the point of becoming invisible. Their orientation toward the years to come is a vision of continued relevance achieved by evoking the “timelessness” of traditional styles but adapting them for an unbounded, global future.

This measured level of specificity in both time and place is perhaps what allows Moshions’ clothes to appeal to a wider market: they are intended to be unique enough to be interesting, but not so particular as to be alienating. The conversation Moshions is having about heritage is not just a discussion of fashion and design, but also an engagement with the possibilities and the difficulties of using traditional culture in a globalizing world.

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Annalisa Bolin
Annalisa Bolin is a postdoctoral fellow in the UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures, Linnaeus University.

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