|Stella with one of her bark cloth pieces|
Stella Atal is a Ugandan artist specializing in artwork inspired by both ancient and contemporary African designs. Her work depicts the typical lifestyle of people living on the shore of lake Victoria, East Africa: the daily activities of those people from sunrise to sunset and also their social, economic, and political life. About 5 years ago Stella started her own fashion label Atal Stella and has participated in a number of shows including Africa Fashion Week (NY), Ethco Fashion Week (London), AfriCollection (Cameroon) among others, and styled the Miss Africa USA pageant in 2010. I sat down with the talented Stella at the Great African Art Studio in Kampala to find out more about her experience with the African Fashion Industry and her art.
SM: What does fashion mean to you?
SA: Fashion is passion to me. I have always had a passion for fashion, and because I am an artist, I strive to create wearable art. I am inspired by every day life, and color inspires me.
SM: In the past, African parents have not been very supportive of their children pursuing careers in the arts, what was it like for you as a child? What is the level of your professional training?
SA: I come from an artistic family, and my mother being an artist herself did not have a problem with us being who we were as long as we were not getting into any type of trouble. There are musicians, teachers and many other creatives in my family. I studied fashion and art in various institutions locally and also abroad. My daughter (7) wants to be a designer and I will encourage her to pursue that, she already knows how to sew and she does a lot of sketches.
SM: What is the inspiration for your designs?
SA: I try to focus more on afrocentric styles, delivering both ready to wear and hot couture. I try to keep it simple and not too trendy and I like to use local and often even recycled materials. Patterns in fabric also inspire me, I may look at a fabric for two weeks, trying to come up with how best to bring out what I see in it. I also travel a lot and try to look for unique fabric.
SM: Who are some of your favorite designers?
SA: Alexander McQueen. I also like Burberry because they create a lot of simple styles and some of the fabrics they use look inspired by African Print.
SM: Do you find that they give credit for being inspired by African fabrics?
SA: I'm actually flattered by it. As African designers we have to learn how to compete with international fashion designers. We have to find out what they are doing that they can use African print and still appeal to international market. They do have the advantage however of having access to the international market. Of course having said this we also have to penetrate the market by participating in shows to get noticed. I was recently featured in Vogue Italia so we are making some headway, but it just takes persistence.
SM: What are you doing to establish your brand internationally? Are you on Social Media?
SA: I am on facebook but I am not on twitter. I will get on there eventually.
SM: I heard you have dressed some high profile celebrities? How does this happen?
SA: Yes I have dressed Bono, Kelly Washington, Hugh Masekela, Aisha Sese Seko to mention a few. When these celebrities come into the country to perform or otherwise, they often want a local designer to provide them with a unique local piece to wear at the shows. My style appeals to people and sets me apart from the other Ugandan designers, and they will often look for me.
SM: Who are your major clients?
SA: Ugandans in the Diaspora. When I have shows abroad many will attend and then ask me about pieces they are interested in after the show. I also get a lot of orders through facebook, people send me their measurements and I customize pieces for them. I end up either mailing them the complete pieces or sending them with people travelling to those destinations.
SM: What about your local clients?
SA: I find that the local Ugandans often do not want to spend for the more pricier pieces. So I just use a variety of materials and try to price match with local retailers. I find that locals want lighter materials because of the warm weather so I use a lot of linen and woodin. There is also a growing interest in African inspired office wear so I design that as well.
SM: What would you say are some of the challenges you have faced as a designer in Africa?
SA: Access to quality material has to be the biggest one. When you try to import good quality materials, you get taxed very heavily which means by the time you have a finished product the profit margin is very low. There are nice fabrics in West Africa and Turkey for example but buy the time you have paid the taxes you have paid almost 3 times the price you bought the fabric. I would say that the government needs to step in and consider tax cuts on fabrics for designers to promote local fashion industry. Kenya which is closer to home has pretty good fabrics, and we thought we would gain from the open market that the East African Community provides for, but we are yet to see the benefits. Also nowadays there are so many wives of expats who are trying to penetrate the local fashion scene, and they get privileges that are not available to us because of their expat status
SM: What are your thoughts on the current African Fashion Industry? What would you like to see happen?
SA: I think we have come a long way, our fashions are being appreciated on international runways. African designers just need to be more aggressive to get the publicity and exposure we need so that we can share the same success as international designers. If you look at Europe right now, the materials they are using for their summer collections, are more African fabrics, pretty soon we will not be able to afford out own materials as international demand rises.
SM: What are your thoughts on the current influx of second hand clothes?
SA: Well at first it was a problem, but we have had to accept that they are not going anywhere. Instead of looking at it as a problem, I have decided to find an innovative way to use them. I am working on a collection that will use second hand clothes and recycle the material. You will find that the quality of these clothes is pretty good so why not put it to use. I would make this collection very affordable and focus on fighting the influx of the cheap Chinese imports instead.
SM: What is your relationship like with local designers ?
SA: Many local designers do not collaborate or support each other very often which I think stifles our progress as designers. Some designers think if they invite you to their shows you might steal their clients. In fact there was a Uganda Fashion week in 2008, but myself and other local designers were not invited to participate, its bizarre really.
SM: If you could dress or style anyone who would it be?
SA: I would like to dress people who appreciate my work. I would prefer to style the person who saves money in order to buy one of my pieces than the person who buys 6/7 pieces at a time but who does it only to please me.
SM: Apart from the fashion design, you paint as well as do a little interior design. Which do you enjoy the most?
SA: I love them all. I enjoy fashion a lot but I make more money in my art. Interior design is a little frustrating because I don’t have access to the materials I would like to use. I end up having to do a lot of running around which takes a lot of time, so I don’t do it as often.
SM: You have been painting since you were a little girl, what are some of your influences?
SA: I learned how to paint from my brothers who would have workshops at home. As a child, I would do illustrations and all my teachers recognized my talent and would always encourage me to keep going. I am mostly influenced by social, political and economic situations. In my paintings, I try to tackle issues in a positive way. I have done some pieces on Dakar, and Savimbi for example but I try to bring light to issues in a positive way. In my travels I also visit museums and look at different artistic styles to understand what different people appreciate.
SM: What materials do you use?
SA: I like to use barkcloth, but it is often difficult to work with, I therefore use Canvas and Acrylics.
SM: Who are some of your favorite artists?
SA: I would say Picasso, but I also like many local artists like Taga who paints a lot of wildlife, and Maria Naita who is a sculptor just to name a few.
SM: Who typically buys your pieces?
SA: Expats, word of mouth, but I also supply Banana Boat. I do some custom pieces upon request, but I hate it because it takes a lot of time.
SM: What is your painting environment usually like?
SA: I like to work in an open place, sometimes I have music playing and sometimes I like to work in silence.
SM: What advice would you give to emerging Designers/Artists?
SA: They always think we make a lot of money. It has taken many years to make it. People should not come into the business, thinking that the money is quick or that fame is immediate. They have to be polite patient as it is not always easy to deal with clients.
SM: I read that you are passionate about giving back to society. Can you elaborate?
SA: I do a lot of shows for charity, and have raised funds for polio eradication, and also for the first open heart surgery in Uganda. I am also an activist for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and I am looking at starting an NGO to fight against it.
SM: What would you like your legacy to be?
SA: I want to be remembered as someone who was innovative and creative.
|At the Great African Art Studio|
|Dress made from Bark Cloth (Stella Atal)|
|Ankara Short Suit (Stella Atal)|
To find out more about Stella Atal check out:
Great African Art Studios
SArt & Fashion Studio
P.O. Box 12259 Kampala (Uganda)
Plot 474 Old Kiira Rd Kamwokya