When Stella Nantumbwe, Miss Uganda 2014, stepped onto the stage at this year’s Big Brother Hotshots premiere, it was not only the show’s host IK (Ikponmwosa Osokioduwa) who paused to catch his breath upon beholding one of Uganda’s representatives.
Social media too was ablaze with pictures and screenshots of Nantumbwe’s black yellow and red outfit. Unknown to many, the guy behind the dress was backstage making sure the other two contestants he had dressed for the opening night of Africa’s biggest reality TV show were up to mark.
The brand behind Nantumbwe’s stunning look on that night is the same one behind the recent revolution on Uganda’s fashion scene.
There are now more people here than ever before strutting in urban wear made out of vibrant African prints. If you look closely or ask around the fashion circles about the brand name behind them, one will stand out – Renzioni Hill.
Lawrence Eli Okoronkwo, a Ghanaian currently based in Kampala, is the man behind the brand and the revolution. He is the CEO and co-founder of Renzioni Hill. Almost everybody calls him Renzioni because he has become the face of hippy African wear on Kampala’s social scene.
Class attracts class; so, people who love the urban African print look hit ‘Bold’ at Acacia mall and Emin Pasha stores that stock Renzioni Hill for the latest from the designer line. Artistes Ekky, Exodus and rapper Gasuza, TV presenters Jaylor Birungi (WBS) and Sheila Gashumba (NTV) are some of the known personalities who have lapped up his creations.
Renzioni first arrived here in 2010, as his parents were working here. Since then, he has been on and off, travelling the world and back to his home country, Nigeria, where he grew up. Getting Renzioni to speak about his background and family is like squeezing the proverbial rock for water. He is quite reticent when it comes down to particular detail.
Born of a Ghanaian father and a Nigerian mother, he is the ninth of 14 children that he knows of.
He does not remember all of them living together under one roof, although, he says, they are quite close. His mum brought him up in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. The strict Christian upbringing did not stop him from being the naughtiest of the lot.
“I never really did things according to the rules. I felt like rules were meant to be broken,” he says, laughing out loudly. All he can say is that he had a great childhood, went to the best schools and went on trips to places most children only dream of.
He later left his home for the UK where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Diplomacy at 19. He eventually got a job with an airline that he declines to mention for personal reasons.
It was during this time that he enrolled for a master’s degree in Human Resource Management at Kampala International University, graduating in 2012.
Mum is best friend
During the interview, Renzioni mentions his mother countless times. “No,” he answers when asked if he was mummy’s boy, but goes on to add: “I love my mum. She is like my best friend. Basically, she is the only person who understands me. She is my number one.”
Living the dream
After his UK degree, he decided to start chasing his dream in fashion alongside his job at the airline. He had done modelling in Nigeria with Rouge Models and was one of the contestants for Top Models of Colour [an international modelling competition for models of colour held in a number of countries around the world]UK, in 2010.
In 2011, he was one of the instructors at Modelling School Uganda. Using his experience from Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and UK, five of the Miss Uganda finalists that year were his trainees. He found himself spending lots of money buying the latest designs from top labels.
The biggest motivation to start a fashion line and create something that stands out came from the fact that he comes from a background where people are proud of what they wear. The idea was to take that fashion sense from the traditional and turn it into retro-urban. The whole concept took him three years to bring to fruition. It was all about making designs that make a statement.
Renzioni is a self-confessed lover of shopping. When he is sad, he says, he eats a lot, goes out a lot or shops a lot. There was a time he used to buy four pairs of shoes a week, he confesses. Then he thought it was time he diverted all that energy and cash flow into producing shoes.
He describes the first pair of shoes as “amazingly disgusting” because it looked good to the team after the struggle, but it was not something a client would want to wear. But it was a start, a step in the right direction. It was in 2012 when Renzioni Hill was officially registered and launched its shoes and bags line on the market, and the clothes came in a little later.
All this was done with the help of a partner called Clare Acom, a Ugandan, whom he describes as his best friend and the brain child the entire project. Looking back now, he is happy that Ugandans are now thinking out of the box, a change from way back when he would meet girls at an event who did not even know each other but wearing the same clothes.
Traveling the world
While dispensing business advice, Renzioni says clients should never keep coming to your shop and finding the same shoes they saw a month or so ago. A lot has to be done in Uganda, according to him. People need to understand that fashion should not be copied.
Initially, people here thought it was a gay thing for guys to wear African prints. For Renzioni Hill, he says, the journey has not been easy. He is glad that his team has made leaps and bounds in Uganda’s fashion industry.
He admits that he cannot live in Uganda for a full year without moving out because he is used to being on the move and keeping business in other parts of the world moving. Renzioni Hill products are also sold in West Africa, South Africa, South Sudan, Australia and Finland with further market expansion in the pipeline. His work in the airline industry has enabled him travel widely but he considers it as ‘just work.’
Having made its impact on the fashion scene, Renzioni Hill is focusing its energy on something new, though still making clothes for stylish people who want to stand out on their wedding day. They have been doing a lot of wedding recently.
“If it is your 21st birthday, you can plan to look better on your 22nd but you can’t get married every year,” he says. So, brides who want to look different are being helped by Renzioni Hill to create that wow factor using the best quality fabrics.
He has also ventured into beauty and skin care. He thinks everyone should take time to care for the largest organ on the body – the skin. He uses organic ingredients, mainly from Egypt and West Africa, at the Woods, a beauty spa in Muyenga. He also does personal shopping for people who cannot easily access things in other parts of the world.
Joram Muzira, who runs a modelling agency and is a model scout close to Renzioni, describes him as a go-getter who is taking Africa fashion by storm. Muzira believes Renzioni has popularized the African prints here because he has strong roots in the fashion and modelling world and knows how to market his brand extensively. Muzira describes him as being “very congenial and supportive and at the same time a good entrepreneur.”
His philosophy on life is that anybody can achieve what he or she wants. He also believes in not judging anybody. Everybody’s dream is valid and they have to pursue it, no matter how many times they fall as long as they get up and still run.