Dar es Saalam vs. Louis Vuitton: 3 Questions with Ally Rehmtullah

Ally Rehmtullah from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Credit: Danish Photography

Ally Rehmtullah, from Dar es Saalam, has established himself as an important figure in Tanzanian fashion. His designs have been featured on runways from London to Tanzania's Swahili Fashion Week.

The 27-year-old Rehmtullah says there are more and more African designers on the runways, proving that the industry is growing. 

"Before you would not see an African designer on these platforms. There is someone there now to represent: we’re doing something right." 

Nonetheless, African designers are still struggling for international recognition. 

We asked Rehmtullah to answer three questions about his career and the industry in Africa.

How did you get involved with fashion?

I never thought that I would be a fashion designer. I always wanted to be in the creative industry. I love my colors, love my prints and stuff like that. I went to the US in Pennsylvania to study graphics and arts. As a full time student I had to have a few full time credits. In my second semester, I couldn’t schedule enough credits in the graphic and arts departments so my counselor suggested that I take a fashion class. [At first] I was like, "Nah," but then I said, "Why not?" And that was it. The moment I took my first class I started falling in love with it. The fabrics, the patterns, the prints, everything. There was no stopping after that.

How are you, as a designer, influencing Tanzania?

I was born and raised in Tanzania. I’m a fourth generation Tanzanian of Indian origin. Later I went to school in the US and moved back to Tanzania. It’s been 6 years now [since I moved back to Tanzania]. I was actually a teacher, teaching graphics and arts at the creative institution [in Tanzania] for six months and after that I started merging into fashion slowly. Right now, I think I’m impacting Africa through education and training. I teach them what I can teach them.

I also help support people who suffer from drug abuse. I have an NGO in Zanzibar for drug abusers. I’ve been part of this for three years now. We try to create awareness and help people raise funds for this NGO. Right now we have three sober houses in Zanzibar.

What challenges do you face as a Tanzanian designer?

Cotton is actually the second largest exported good in Tanzania. However cotton is not produced in Tanzania, it’s just grown in Tanzania. What happens is they grow [raw] cotton, then they export it to other countries such as China, and then Tanzania buys the produced cotton back. We pay three times more for cotton which makes it difficult to produce clothes.

Also on a social level, being in Tanzania means we’re not exposed to international media. During the Swahili Fashion Week 2009 in Dar es Salaam I had launched a collection using the Maasai fabric. In 2011 Louis Vuitton launched a similar collection. If I had launched a collection like that a couple years after Louis Vuitton, it would have been said that I was inspired by Louis Vuitton. No one says anything and I just feel this is not fair for us and for our industry. More social media and international exposure will put our work out there and change this.  

Editor's note: Portions of this interview were edited and condensed for clarity.

Related Stories