When Stella Atal decided to relocate to Paris, France, in 2016, she was already a household name in Uganda’s fashion industry. But she wasn’t satisfied just yet. Stella pushed the envelope further along, making a bold move to work in one of the world’s leading fashion centres.
“I saw the industry (in Uganda) was growing, but we needed to advance it – to put it to another level. Yes, there are many designers now, but we are still doing things the African way,” Stella told Nnyonyi.
She said, “I wanted to go to Paris, being the fashion capital, to work with different designers and people in different cultural departments – to see how fashion is done there, what they do that we can borrow to improve our industry, in terms of mainly education, the way they teach.”
Having settled in, she embarked on registering her company, Atal Stella Fashion House, with the Chamber of Trade and Crafts (Chambre de Métier et de l’Artisanat). The following year (2017), the Chambre granted her a license that allows her to manufacture and sell her branded clothes and copyrighted art pieces in France and the rest of the European Union.
That was a turning point for her. That year, she showcased at the UNESCO Africa Week in Paris before heading to the UK for the Kitenge Festival. Then she did an American tour to San Diego and Las Vegas before holding more shows in Paris, Prague and Amsterdam. Since then, she has also showcased at Africollection in Cameroon, FIMA Fashion Show in Niger, Malabo Fashion Week in Equatorial Guinea, Angola Fashion Week, and Futuristic Past Fashion Show in Uganda.
Stella’s designs can be best described as ‘wearable art”. Why? Whereas ‘fashion is passion’ to her, having inherited it from her mum, who owned a sewing machine at home, you could say she ended up in fashion by accident. This is because, Stella had trained as a fine artist. In fact, she had set up a small workshop in Kamwokya, a Kampala suburb, where she also offered services in interior designing. However, with some tailoring skills flowing in her blood, she would occasionally design clothes for her friends.
“I would just do it for free. But when they went out for events (in my clothes), people would appreciate. They would then inquire about the designer, and that is how they started bringing me clients, one by one,” Stella said. “It is the same now: I don’t have a shop, but I am sold by word of mouth through people I have worked for,” she added.
In 2007, she started her own label, Atal Stella – where she focused on using what is locally available, including eco-friendly, natural and re-cycled material. From painting on paper/board, she began painting and printing on fabrics. According to her, when painting and fashion meet, they create an incredible mix. Stella is one of Africa’s prominent designers whose pieces feature bright colours, bold prints and modern silhouettes.
Her designs are for those who want to stand out! She said, “I decided to make my art wearable and that is how the fashion designer in me was born,” she says. At the time, there were only two local designers: Santa Anzo and Sylvia Owori.
“We are some of the fashion pioneers in Uganda and when we started, the industry was dead. With the aggressiveness of Owori with her African Woman Magazine and Santa with her Uganda Fashion Week, people started paying attention to local fashion,” she recalls. “This time they started slowly buying clothes made by local designers and they found them unique, especially my hand painted pieces which my clients still own in their wardrobes since 2007.”
Corporate companies joined the support by placing orders for uniforms and other clothes for their corporate events. Television fashion shows started coming up to help and promote the sector, and nighclubs started fashion nights.
“With time, young people got inspired and started joining fashion schools to be like us. This time it was no longer considered as work for school dropouts but rather an income generating venture,” Stella said. Born in the northern region of Uganda, along the northern shores of Lake Kyoga, Stella started her schooling in Kampala, Uganda’s Capital. She relocated to Kenya and continued her educatio; Later completed her studies in the United Kingdom. She has a bachelors and master’s degree in Fine Art.
But how easy was it for her moving from a small city to one of the world’s biggest fashion hotspot?
“Actually, it wasn’t that hard, because I had worked with most of the journalists there. I knew some of the designers. It wasn’t my first time to go to France. I had been traveling there to showcase my work for five years. So, I knew the place, I knew my way around and I knew the people in my industry. I knew who to contact,” she said.
Since then, she has registered Atal Fashion Camp, an association registered in Paris, which offers exchange programmes for students between European countries and African countries. This Camp works hand-in-hand with Atal Foundation, an NGO under the process of registration in Uganda.
She said, “I take fashion students, say from Paris, to any African country, and in return, we take some African students to Paris to do internships. This has improved students’ exposure. Students who have been to Paris are doing so well. For students from Paris, it is a whole new experience.
Some of them had never been to Africa before. Imagine doing the same course but you come here and you can’t use a peddling machine.
It is like stoneage, but for them it’s interesting. They have a story to tell. And of course, they love the fabrics.”
The European students get to visit Masaka where they work with barkcloth with the locals. The students come in March during the French-Uganda partnership week. During this week, there are a lot of activities, from theatre, art, fashion, exhibitions, sports, education, etc.
This is climaxed with a fashion show evening, with collections comprising of a fusion of French and African fabrics.
With this, she is bringing the continent’s talented fashion and textile designers and designs to the attention of the global markets and buyers. Stella also lectures, holding master classes in different fashion schools in Paris with a focus on African fashion and heritage.