“The reason I do this is to make women look and feel beautiful and empowered.” Kahindo Mateene, a Congolese designer, Project Runway alum, entrepreneur and former RTR employee(!), recently reminisced as she described the joy of seeing a woman wear one of her signature maxis for the first time.

For Kahindo, fashion is much more than creating beautiful clothing. It’s using her Pan African-inspired label to build a better industry, not only through sustainable practices, but  by providing financial independence for women in her hometown of Goma.

We recently chatted with the designer to get her take on entrepreneurship in the wake of a global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and her hopes for the future of fashion.

You’ve described your career in the fashion industry as “inevitable.” Tell us about this.

Well, I’m Congolese, and we are not only known for our music, but also our fashion sense. I’ve had a love of fashion from an early age, and have memories of my mother sewing on her Singer sewing machine. Growing up,  it was customary to pick fabrics from the market and get it tailored to a design of your choice, so it was inevitable.

What inspired Kahindo?

I wanted to tell authentic stories of my Congolese culture and heritage and share it with the world through fashion. I was born in Uganda, educated in Kenya and have lived in Ethiopia, and Niger. This Pan African experience are cultural references that inspire and influence my creative design process. Combined with a passion for empowering women back home by creating sustainable jobs and paying fair living wages.

What have been some of the biggest challenges, greatest risks and most memorable moments?

I started my brand in 2009 in Chicago, because I wanted to create pieces that I could easily transition from day to night that featured traditional African prints. In 2012, I was accepted into the Chicago Fashion Incubator at Macy’s on State Street where I learned the business side of fashion. In 2013, I competed on Project Runway, which was a big moment for me. In 2014, the idea of ethical fashion and sustainable fashion came about when I recycled scrap fabrics from my collection into clutches that were made in Congo. I moved to New York in July 2015, which was a risk. I then rebranded my label with a focus on ethical fashion. I’ve had great moments like showcasing at fashion shows from New York to South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria. The biggest challenge has been a lack of financial resources and support from retailers and press in order to grow my business. That is slowly changing with one of my biggest accomplishments, being on Rent the Runway!

You are passionate about supporting women from your hometown of Goma through your work. Why is it important to think of your business as bigger than designing and selling?

I come from a country where 90% of the population live in poverty on less than $1.50 a day. This impacts women disproportionately and limits their access to education and to earn a living and be able to support themselves and their families. I have always wanted to give back, but not in a charity kind of way. What these women need is work, and to be able to earn a fair living wage and feel empowered by financial independence and access to education and healthcare. I was lucky and blessed to have the opportunities I had, and I feel obligated to do the same for my fellow sisters back home.

We are huge fans of your bold colors and prints. Tell us about your design process. How has your Pan African background influenced both your designs and the philosophy behind them?

Africa has 54 countries and each country has a distinct culture and language and different tribes. I have been lucky enough to live and travel to 12 countries on the continent. These are all cultures that I can pull inspiration from when creating a collection. For example, one was inspired by the Maasai tribe in Kenya, and another one by the colorful houses in BoKaap, CapeTown. Everything always starts with color, when designing a new collection, that is the essence of KAHINDO. We started developing prints in house — they are always unique to the brand and always tell a story. We love to collaborate with different artists to interpret their work into textiles. 

You’ve said that your mission is to empower women of every age and size. What does that look like right now? How can the fashion industry take this on?

To be more inclusive and not only feature different shapes and sizes on the runway and in ads, but also carry a wider range of sizes. Every woman deserves to look and feel beautiful.

The Black Lives Matter movement and continuous efforts of activists has called on the industry to take a drastic and necessary step towards equality, equity and a world where fashion is actively anti-racist. Do you have any advice for young Black designers?

My advice would be to be tenacious and believe in yourself and know that you may have to work 10 times as hard as another designer to make it in the fashion industry, because that is what I have had to do. Never stop learning and perfecting your craft. Support from press and retailers is needed to grow a brand, and I didn’t have it, but that didn’t deter me from relentlessly pursuing my passion. I have been passed over for so many opportunities because of the color of my skin and I truly hope that  the next generation of black designers don’t have to go through what I went through. Even with everything going on, I still see magazines and the mainstream fashion industry highlighting the handful of already successful black brands out there, when there are hundreds of independent smaller brands who are creating beautiful work and also deserve to be seen, so there’s still a long way to go.

What has designing and creating in the midst of quarantine looked like for you and your business?

I pulled my sewing machine out of retirement to start sewing masks. I hadn’t sewn in at least 4 years, and realized how much I missed it. I launched a campaign that helps donate masks to healthcare workers in New York. I have been busy growing the business and working full-time on it has brought me immense joy.

You briefly worked for Rent the Runway (we are glad you are back). Tell us about your time with RTR. Was it a step in the direction of dedicating 100% of your time to your brand?

It absolutely was. It was meant to be, and it’s interesting that it nearly didn’t happen. My day job (until recently) was as an HR Technology Consultant. I came to RTR in that capacity and luckily got the opportunity to show my collection to the buying team. This resulted in RTR picking up my brand and has really given me the confidence and ability to venture full-time on my business.

First fashion memory: Matching outfits with my sister

Current favorite designer: Proenza Schouler

Personal fashion icon: My late mother

Life-changing read: The Alchemist

Emoji that describes your current mood: 😂🙏🏾

Last thing you Googled: Emoji dictionary

The most memorable person you’ve dressed? Last year, I dressed the talented and beautiful actress Yolonda Ross for the Cannes Film Festival.

If you weren’t a designer, what would you be? An HR Technology Consultant.

What’s your guilty pleasure? Chocolate.

Best advice you’ve ever received: God’s plan is better than your plan.

Best advice you’ve ever given: Everything happens for a reason.