From a young age, Co-founder and Director of Mille Collines Inés Cuatrecasas, was already very attracted to business and the creative process behind product design. Her first “business venture” was with a best friend from school, when the 8-year old Inés would sell handmade, scented hand towels on the school premises. Although successful, their business was quickly shut down.
A few years later, hard work and persistence have led Inés to create a fashion business inspired by her love for the African continent. In this interview, Inés tells us more…
Growing up, what did you think you were going to be, and what changed?
During my early years, my sisters and I always shared a dream: we would become veterinarians and we would start a clinic together. We even designed the space with my father. It was going to be a true revolution (laughs)! Funny enough, only my older sister attended vet school and today she is a medical doctor. My two last years at high school were quite a rollercoaster. That was the time I started pushing myself away from veterinary science and into a world of possibilities – I could become a judge, a psychiatrist, an economist – finally I decided on fashion designer. I never knew that the career existed. There was a strong creative side awakening within me. I got accepted into one of Spain’s top veterinary schools but declined and turned in by application for fashion school instead.
During your studies in Barcelona you decided to base your final project in Rwanda. What is it about Rwanda that inspired you?
My family and I travelled extensively to Africa when I was young. It was a love that we all shared, inspired initially by my grandfather who used to watch every documentary on Africa. Later on, my mother founded a small NGO named “Africa Digna” which took us to Rwanda in the summer of 2005 to meet some potential local partners.
During that trip, I met a dressmaker who would change the course of my life forever. Her name was Antoinette. I was tremendously inspired by her passion and determination to develop clothing and accessories of international quality and design standards, made specifically for the African market. I decided to base my final career project on that with the help of Antoinette. I had to convince the panel of judges to let me do a collection based in Rwanda. Even though they would not accept it, we pushed on. We believe that is what truly fuelled the birth of the Mille Collines brand. Contributing to change the perception the world has of Africa. There is so much ignorance.
Meanwhile, my best friend Marc was back home in Spain creating his own imaginary world through shapes, proportions, pen and paper and an insatiable desire to reimagine the world he saw before him. The idea of becoming a fashion designer seemed to be the answer he was looking for. In 2009, Marc and I travelled back to Rwanda to develop the first collection with Antoinette. Together we toiled, each believing we were on the cusp of something truly magnificent. A year later, Mille Collines was born.
You’ve worked with Marc since you were both students. In your opinion, what impact has the partnership had on the brand?
We always have a joke internally with the rest of the team that this company has one director with two heads and that is very much how we lead together. Marc brings a burst of ideas to the table and I am really good at selecting and identifying what works. We argue a lot, especially when we start a new collection, but one of us always ends up convincing the other and it is that passion that drives the concepts and makes them powerful. We are very different people, but we have very similar views on what we want for the brand and how we want it. We often laugh when we think that if we were to split up or were to leave Mille Collines behind, we would not be able to pull things together on our own, it’s like a package deal.
How did the name Mille Collines come about?
We created the first collection with a team of five tailors in Antoinette’s workshop in one of the most buzzing neighbourhoods of the city. We had to come up with a name for the brand, so we asked the whole team to write a name on a piece of paper and bring it back the following week. They all came back with one single paper that they all agreed on. Rwanda is known by its people as the “land of a thousand hills” which in French translated to “mille collines.” So that’s what we were named.
What do you love most about working as a fashion designer?
I will try to make this brief (laughs)! I love the speed of this industry. You can never slow down and there is never a dull moment. That is both exhausting and also makes you feel completely alive. It’s such a demanding and changing world that you need to give your 120%. It makes always makes you search and read about the newest trends, the existing project and the individual stories. You can’t build a fashion brand alone. It’s one of those industries where you need people involved in every step of the way – and that makes it so human, which we love. It’s about connecting with people and building a tree of trust as well as beautiful work. I also love the combination of art and business. It’s a true romance that we have with fashion.
How do you find a balance between the fashion and commerce?
Commerce gives you the perfect framework to develop creativity. It sets up the boundaries of what you can and you can’t do. That combined with a deep understanding of who the Mille Collines woman is - how much does she want to spend on a basic? How does she want to dress for an event? What is she excited about? etc. The Mille Collines woman who is proud to be African. She is in our mind in everything we do and that’s a constant work in progress for us.
During the course of your career, what are some of the challenges you’ve been faced with, and how have you dealt with them?
Mille Collines’s first preview collection and the final career thesis at ESDI University of Design in Barcelona. I had to convince the panel of judges to let me do a collection based in Rwanda, they would not accept it, stating that it would have to be approved just because it was done in a third world country. They tried to persuade me to do a textile décor collection, they were sure that Africans did not dress up with more than loin cloths. That is what fuelled Mille Collines: contributing to change the perception the world has of Africa. There is so much ignorance. I presented the collection and even then the panel would not believe that it was made in Africa – there was even a video! They gave me a 5/10 and encouraged me to “call it a day.”
In 2015, you introduced Namnyak Odupoy to Mille Collines. How has working with her contributed to the brand?
Namnyak is a person who shares all of Mille Collines’s values and above that she also shares our aesthetic sensibility. It is a dream to work with her. She understands the hard work behind fashion and she shares a true vocation for it. She has worked in so many different niches of the industry that she understands what this world is about and how hard you need to work to achieve something. She has contributed immensely to the understanding and connection with the Mille Collines woman and we believe we make a great team of three. As with any great junior designer, she entered the company and was anxious to put her talent to work and get results for that very quickly. In a short period of time, and especially being a part of this new collection, she has learnt how to select and choose the things that will likely succeed and learnt from our past mistakes too. We can’t wait to see what we come up with for the next collection!
What advice would you give to young people hoping to pursue a career in fashion design?
Work hard, be focused and be patient. It’s a long road. There are no shortcuts. Learn that you will need to sacrifice time spent with family, partners, friends, etc.
So the best advice I can give to you is that it’s not about the time, it’s about the quality of the time spent. Find a balance that works. Make sure you understand your passion and the dedication you will need to give to it.
Which South African fashion designers would you like to work with?
Drew Henry – his collection for Central Saint Martin truly moved something inside me. I love the deep connection with the origin and roots of African love created in such a contemporary way. So powerful! Another designer that stole my heart years ago was Stiaan Louw’s collection for Joburg Fashion Week where he explored a contemporary nomad aesthetic like it had never been done before. I’d love to see this coming back.
If you have what it takes to be featured as our next Notable,
or you’d like to nominate a colleague for the feature,
we want to hear from you.