In an era where the world has endless opportunities and kids can aspire to become whoever they want to be, choosing the right career path to follow when leaving school can be quite tricky. But fortunately for fashion designer and entrepreneur, Gracia Bampile, her path found her at the tender age of 10.
Speaking to TRUELOVE, the founder of Haute Afrika, a contemporary African clothing brand, says that she had her aha moment when her parents bought her what she describes as an “ugly African print dress” to celebrate her eighth birthday.
Gracia then went on to spend hours watching her seamstress grandmother make clothes until she mastered the art. As she grew older, she became concerned about how people didn’t like to wear African print designs especially as day-to-day wear. She says people had a perception that they can only wear African print clothes when attending events. So, she took it upon herself to disrupt the norm.
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In 2015, she founded Haute Afrika, the home of her ready-to-wear African print designs intended to change the narrative around African fashion. Her company employs seven people who all share Gracia’s vision. She travels the continent on the hunt for high quality materials to create designs inspired by Africa’s rich history and heritage.
Now, the 29-year-old entrepreneur has become a formidable force in the African fashion space. She has dressed some of the country’s biggest A-listers including Boity Thulo, Natasha Thahane, Maps Maponyane as well as Kwesta - to name a few. Gracia won the 2019 SABC Trailblazer Award and was also nominated for the Online Retail Platform of the Year award at the African Fashion Industry Awards.
We caught up with her to find out more about it and about her passion for African passion.
Who is Gracia Bampile?
I'm a creative individual and the creative director of Haute Afrika. I started designing clothes when I was 10 years old and I have an International Relations degree. I am a self-taught fashion designer who has managed to master the art of creating one of a kind African print fashion pieces.
Where did you grow up and how would you describe your childhood self?
I grew up in multiple countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya - which is amazing because I got to pick up different African fashion cultures and different styles of making clothes. As a child, I hated this because I had to keep making friends in different countries and adapting to new environments. Right now, I'm so grateful for that because it has had a major influence on my creativity and my craft.
What does Haute Afrika mean and what inspired the name?
I chose the name 'Haute Afrika' because Haute means high-class and I wanted to make things that made people feel elevated by wearing something that represents our beautiful continent.
Please take us through your journey of starting Haute Afrika?
I knew I was doing something right when I would wear the clothes I designed and people would want to buy them off my back. This was shocking to me because I had never really thought about going into the fashion business. I loved making clothes but I didn’t think people would pay good money to buy my designs until I saw their genuine interest. So in my third year at university, I decided to start.
What are some of the challenges you faced as a budding designer?
Definitely finances! Coming into the fashion industry wasn’t a long term plan of mine; it kind of chose me. In the beginning I didn’t know certain tricks of the trade and that cost me a lot of time and money, but I quickly learnt that some things I had to learn through trial and error. I think my main challenge was allowing myself to fail at certain things. Initially, the financial issues would stress me out but I soon realised that resilience and perseverance were key, and that all I had to do was continue pushing through.
What are some of the challenges you face currently?
I think the main challenge is trying to stay motivated amidst all the negativity in the world including the recession we are currently facing
How difficult was it breaking into the fashion industry as a designer with no formal training?
Financial limitations, knowledge limitations, and a lack of connections were some of my biggest issues. But like I said, experience is the best teacher. As I've grown in the industry, I've found ways to push past these limitations.
What do you think should be done to promote the daily wear of African print?
I think the main challenge for me was switching perceptions here in SA and the rest of the world and making people realise that African print clothing isn't just for special occasions. We even have a corporate collection! Our overall mission is to celebrate our African heritage daily. I think it goes back to encouraging people to feel comfortable in our clothes in whatever space they find themselves in.
How has the fashion industry evolved from when you founded Haute Afrika in 2015 as compared to now?
I think I've seen a lot of change in how people approach African print but I also think it stems from a deeper understanding of our clients as we grow as a business. Before, people wanted an item for a wedding or a themed event but there is more acceptance when clothing can be multidimensional. I've also seen growth in the South African fashion industry as a whole which is amazing and inspiring for the younger generation of designers.
What are your thoughts on 'fashion trends'?
To be honest, I don't focus on trends, I create clothes that are timeless which is really part of our brand identity.
Please tell us about your latest collection and what inspired it?
I'm so proud of this summer collection because something really beautiful came out of a very difficult time for all of us. The inspiration behind this collection was to celebrate everything and everyone around us!
As an entrepreneur, how have you managed to keep your business afloat during these tough lockdown times?
It's been rough! very rough! but I think I'm just grateful to still have a business, staff members and loyal customers who want to see us win. I don't think there's a formula to this. it's just been grace and faith.
With the summer/spring season coming up, which five items do you think are essential for women to have in their wardrobe?
It depends on your style but for me, I would say: a classic jumpsuit, a pair of shorts, a cute dress, a head wrap for those bad hair days and loads of sunscreen!!!
What would you say to a person who finds African print as a risky fashion choice and would rather stay ‘safe’ in neutral/plain colours?
I understand that African print can command attention but as Africans, that's part of who we are, we walk into a room and people stop and stare (greatness, right?). But at Haute Afrika, we also understand that there is a place and there is a time, that's why we create pieces that are suitable for whatever space you find yourself in so you feel comfortable and proud of who you are.
What advice would you give to upcoming fashion designers with a specific niche such as African print?
My main tip would be self-belief! You need to believe in whatever idea you have. Don’t get swayed by what’s happening out there! I’ve heard a lot of people say “oh the market is too saturated” but it's important to remember that no one else can do it the way you would do it. Your superpower is You! Never forget that.