Founder of the brand Vanhu Vamwe (one people), Pamela Samasuwo is bringing people together through their collective love of fashion, art and music regardless of race or cultural differences.
Can you share some of your background with us?
I am originally from Zimbabwe and now live between the United Kingdom and Canada. I grew up in a household where my mother and grandmother collected these bizarre objects and fabrics. Our outside buildings where like a junkyard! Looking back, I see that my creativity was born in the midst of these “mystical, magical narratives (I now call them)”. I was really like a fairy growing up in the woods.
How did you get into designing accessories? Was it by chance or something you had been working on for a while?
I studied journalism back in the 90s. Writing has always been a big passion of mine, and while I wrote well, I really had a craving to do something creatively hands-on. At this stage I had a makeshift studio in my house, where I made earrings and knitted some really awesome scarfs. A few years ago while working for the BBC, two fashion students came into the studio for an interview and at that point I had a ‘light bulb’ moment. Two months later I enrolled myself for a degree in fashion accessories – coincidently it was a new degree that had just been introduced. I could have happily continued making accessories in my studio and looking up YouTube videos for the ‘how-tos’, but credibility is very important to me. Age has put me on the trajectory towards self-confidence. One has to have passion, it does not matter what passion you have. I was taught that I either do something all the way, or not do it at all. My brand Vanhu Vamwe was born in 2012.
What accessories are in your range?
My range is mostly leather handbags. You will find that it is not your typical handbag, and one has to understand the story behind it first. While I use leather, I use it responsibly. Some of the materials I use for my bespoke collection have been found in abandoned skips and redefined into clean, contemporary pieces which have great energy and reference my African heritage. I have recently gone and stuck my fingers into a pie called 'dresses’, which introduces the question: “What is an accessory?” I am rebelling against the concept of what a fashion accessory should look like, and creating the idea that a dress can be categorised as an accessory.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I have no interest in fashion as a means to fall in line with the latest trends. The goal of my conceptions is to engage in a way that incites questions, and perhaps cultivate a communal discussion about fashion. I always say I sell dreams and storytelling, not handbags. I look to the globe for my inspiration, and take on research on colonialism, primitive cultures, wars and a variety of concepts. My last collection was inspired by sleep paralysis, a condition I had suffered from a long time. I wanted to reflect something positive from a nightmare that had terrified the hell out of me.
If you could, how would you define your style?
Style is innate and unconscious. Every year I feel like I am becoming more like my mother. As a teenager my mother was a bad-ass who wore leather pants and owned a motorbike. On the other hand my grandmother was a nurse and was very clinical in her ways. I am really a cross between bad-ass and clinical in my style. I have this ferocious appetite for craftsmanship and articulation of classic, contemporary, avant garde minimalistic luxury (a mouthful). My specialty is leather luxury goods, which is really broad, however my collections explore the recurring theme of the contrast between masculine and feminine.
You were recently nominated for the Vogue and Muuse Talents Young Vision Accessories Award for ‘The Best Emerging International Fashion Accessories Designer’. What does this mean to you?
Oh, wow. I still pinch myself. It was a dream come true; not only did I receive the nomination, but I was the first African designer to receive the nomination ever. Firstly, this was a big stride for me as an individual; many designers would kill for the association with Vogue. Let’s face it: Vogue houses the most powerful people in fashion. That aside, it was a revelation that what I had set out to do those few years ago in terms of African designers being recognised on an international platform, was coming to fruition. I am a serious advocate for African fashion. I believe that in the very near future, many of us will be flooding the global fashion industry. The opportunities that have come as a result of the nomination, even though I did not eventually get the overall award, are mind-blowing. I feel that I did not need to fetch the award, but needed the platform to make a representation of what I am fighting for.
Can you tell us a bit about 54faces, and how it started?
54faces is a project that is so close to my heart, which has been moving on progressively for the last 18 months. Last year, while I gave a talk on the Crushing Capitalism of African Fashion Weeks, I was approached by Nottingham Trent University, who thought my presentation was very powerful and it would be a shame to just write about it and not pursue it. Having carried out some research I found that a transparent structure was much needed for the African fashion industry. 54faces launches a couple of months later.
What is the vision for the organisation?
54faces will be the first creative resources platform providing essential tools for African designers by showcasing Africa as a source of inspiration in the design process. We aim to follow an international structure that will place African fashion in a balanced process, and begin to compete on the same level as the rest of the world.
What are the challenges of being an African designer abroad?
There are so many challenges. Being an African itself creates boundaries. In this day and age there are still some shocking misconceptions of Africa. The Western world, while using Africa as inspiration, has no understanding of the culture or aesthetics which they reference. When an African who understands it uses African inspiration, it becomes primitive or too tribal. The issue of quality control and mass production is not only an African dilemma; it exists in the Western world too. Many designers lack funds to start off good quality collections, leaving them no choice but to hire back street manufacturers. This has been seen on some platforms at African fashion weeks, where clothing is literally falling apart. This is a place where the world media, buyers and big fashion players are present, automatically dismissing the potential of African designers at home and abroad.
What advice would you give young African designers looking to make their mark in the industry?
Fashion is a brutal industry. You have to live to create in honest abandon. Everything I do serves as a beacon to inspire others and illuminate new ideas. I do this by following the natural flow of creativity and bringing together those who share my vision. My advice would be to create strong personal relationships with everyone you work with. Attend fashion events, network and meet people to enable you to get on people’s radars. As a designer, listening to your ideas being questioned and your hard work being ripped apart is not pleasant but constructive criticism of your design work is the most effective way to grow. You can actually be anything you want to be.
Where are your pieces retailing at the moment?
For the last few years, my work has been commissioned for art galleries and high fashion magazines. However since the Vogue nomination, the demand for my work has been higher. I am currently working on my first commercial collection which is due at the beginning of October 2014. I am also in negotiations with some very exciting retailers in New York, Toronto, London and New Zealand. I am looking to bring a limited edition collection to Africa. I am hoping this comes through, as it would be a shame to sell everywhere else in the world except my motherland.
Can international customers order your accessories online?
Yes, we are revamping the whole website (www.vanhuvamwe.com), which will showcase a limited collection of handbags and beautiful dresses. This is also launching in October 2014.
Pam Samasuwo-Nyawiri was always inspired by fashion and consequently went back to university to study fashion accessory design. She is a woman with many feathers to her cap: designer, journalist, stylist, columnist, author, philanthropist and fashion activist. Her passion and creativity only seem to be matched by insatiable curiosity.