Custume design. Edna Namanya’s love for music introduced her to a talent she had never thought about and after a few courses in tailoring, she is now earning a living from it and has designed outfits for a number of performers and video vixens.
In a congested hot room, on the third floor of City Centre Arcade, Edna Namanya sits quietly behind an electric sewing machine, sewing sequins on a short red dress with needle and thread. A half empty mug of tea is on the sewing machine – a sign that she is too busy to take a tea break, although it is mid-morning. The dress will be worn in the evening by a member of a dance company holding a show at the National Theater. A large bag at her feet contains a finished red trouser for a male dancer.
The 26-year-old fashion designer has been designing and sewing clothes for dance companies, celebrities, and video vixens for the last three years. But first, she is a dancer. “I have danced with Latin Flavour Uganda, Utah Convicts and many other dance companies before them. I still dance – when I am not backstage working on the dancer’s costumes.”
As a dancer, Namanya seems out of place in the crowded room. The other three tailors are probably just that; tailors. Probably her grace, easy smile and soft voice are all a result of the strict regimen of a dancer.
Life as a dancer
In 2008, as a young girl, Namanya was watching TV when an African contemporary Dance Programme came on. “I do not remember which TV station it was, but the dancers were led by Jonas Byaruhanga. He is one of the best African contemporary dancers in Uganda. I was interested in their moves and I remember telling my mum that is what I wanted to do, though I did not know where to go or who to talk to.”
Byaruhanga is the founder and artistic director of Keiga Dance Company. The company, created in 2004, has performed in several countries in Africa and Europe on themes, such as, female genital mutilation, the homosexuality bill, the war in Congo, and cultural identity.
The next day, Namanya went to the National Theater and joined a dance class. “Since then, I have danced. It has not been easy, especially with the Latin and Ballroom dancing which require Mathematics and posture, but I keep pushing on. African Contemporary Dance is easier because you are free to express yourself.”
Every evening after 5pm, the dancer goes to the National Theatre for rehearsals and physical yoga classes to remain fit.
Going into sewing
Even as she was dancing, her designing and sewing skills always came to the fore. Every time the dance company had a show she was the one who began the conversation about costumes. “People would be calling to me to rectify some malfunction or tear in their costume as we were dressing up to go on stage. So, one time it occurred to me that I should really be backstage making costumes. In 2009, I enrolled for a Certificate in Garment Construction at Kyambogo University. Unfortunately, I failed to complete the course because my parents could not afford the tuition.”
Choosing not to give up, two years later, she joined Jewels High Fashion Design and Beauty College in Kampala for a diploma in fashion design, but as before, after two terms she could not afford the tuition. “My father had bought me a Singer sewing machine. Every day, I would sit at that sewing machine, lost in thought. I had been helping my friends do their coursework because I knew I would not graduate. Through this I got a little experience. One day, I decided to try out what I had learned. With time, I perfected my skill.”
The rest, as the adage goes, is history. She went professional and formed Nnamanya’s Wearhouse.
Three years after going professional, Namanya cannot remember her first client. In 2014, she exhibited her designs at the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts. “I was given a stall. My clothes were not really on the market but I was encouraged by the people who visited the stall. They said my work was good and that I should keep it up. I began believing in myself.”
Over the years, she has worked with many artists, mostly dancer and choreographers, such as Esther Tebandeke, Kareyce Fotso from Cameroon, Afroman SPICE, Sandy Soul, Richard Valentino Kabenge, Roz Merie Atim, Viccy, Cathy Patra, and the dancers at Sheba’s Nkwatako concert. She also designed costumes for the Gamululu Remix music video and Yoyo’s video vixens. “When an artist contracts me, they usually give me leeway to sketch a design. Then, we sit down and discuss the sketches – if the artiste likes them. But usually, artistes have an idea of what they want.”
Namanya believes the costumes worn at the Nkwatako concert on December 2, 2016, made her. “Sheba did not know much about me, but the choreographers she was working with talked about the costumes I had designed for them. She tried to look for my works but I had not compiled them. But, she decided to trust me, paying before I had touched anything. She did not call to ask for a progress report. On the eve of the concert, when I delivered the costumes, she said, ‘Nze mbadde mbivuddeko. (I had given up). I thought you were like other tailors. I did not know you were going to turn up.’”
Tailors have acquired a nasty reputation of poor client relations because of the lies they tell their clients. However, Namanya distances herself from her peers. “I want my clients to be comfortable. I am handling two genres– dance costumes and fashion – so I also have to be comfortable with my schedule. I do not like being under pressure. What causes the misunderstanding are tailors giving their clients a short time in which to finish the sewing.”
Challenges of the business
As a dancer, Namanya understands the tendency of artistes to contact her a day or two to their concerts because sometimes they get the money for the costumes late. “Sometimes the pressure is so high that I cannot balance my dance and sewing and I am forced to abandon dancing for a while to spend sleepless nights sewing. I have a sewing machine at home and it makes a lot of noise but my family understands. Sometimes, my mum wants to help me but she cannot see clearly at night.”
Another challenge is the dishonesty of some of her clients. They order for clothes and do not pay for them. “Artistes can be very tricky. You make the clothes they asked for but in the end they claim the design did not come out the way they thought it would. They saw someone else wearing it and thought it would look good on them.”
To relax on such stressful days, Namanya attends physical yoga classes at the National Theater every Tuesday, Saturday, and Sunday and does steaming and sauna. “Yoga helps me listen to my body as well as stretch every part of it. It relaxes me.”
The designer does not look up to anyone in particular; only the situations she has gone through and her background keep her strong. “Designing and sewing is what I have always wanted to do. It is not something I am doing by accident or because someone forced me into it. It is my life.”
Through her work, Namanya has met many people. “The sewing machine does not lie. Every day, I have money in my pocket. I advise young designers to ignore the negative energy that sometimes comes off people. Yes, the competition is quite high but do not give up. Just keep pushing yourself.”
Besides working with choreographers, Namanya also designs and sews ordinary clothes. She is in a committed relationship, heading towards marriage. “He proposed and I said yes,” she says, laughing.
Roz Merie Atim
I have known Edna for a long time, so she understands my style and can adapt to it. She is approachable and is always available. If I go to her a day before the video-shoot or concert, she will always find a way to fix me in her schedule. Edna is someone I intend to work with for a long time.
I know Edna as a very determined girl. When she puts her mind to something she will do it. Sometimes, she can be stubborn, but that is part of growing up. Right now, she is a bit busy with the Wearhouse and that has pulled her away from dance. However, she is a strong member of Latin Flavour and has helped it stand over the years. She has a natural gift for dancing; even when she does not know a move well, she will dance it and pull it off. Very few people have that. Edna is honest with her comments – whether good or bad, and is trustworthy. If she cannot make it to dance, she will tell you the truth.
Founder/director of Latin