Self-taught fashion designer draws from Ugandan upbringing

Aburu smiles in the brightly-lit office of her Puyallup apartment complex.
Aburu smiles in the brightly-lit office of her Puyallup apartment complex.

Like many international students in the United States, Shalom Aburu started college with the intention of being a doctor.

But inspired by a tradition of crafting during her upbringing in Uganda, and by her businesswoman mother, Aburu switched to fashion. Soon her designs will turn heads at Bellevue Fashion Week Independent Designer Runway Show in September.

“I never thought of myself ending up as a fashion designer,” she says.

Aburu is a Pierce College graduate with an associate’s degree in art, and is a self-taught designer of garments and accessories. Aburu learned to create with her hands as a young child in her hometown of Rubongi, Uganda.

“Growing up as a child in Africa … most of the kids were outside and we would make our own dolls, our own stuff to play with,” she said. “It was so hands-y; that’s when I developed a love for making stuff.”

At a young age Aburu learned to bead, a skill that’s today demonstrated in her colorful and detailed necklaces and other accessories.

Aburu first began to explore design by refashioning her own clothes when she was 15-years-old. Aburu says she grew familiar with how different garments were constructed by “buying clothes and ripping the seams up to see how they were made.”

“I’ve always loved doing design, I’ve always found ways of teaching myself,” she said.

But when she came to the United States more than two years ago, she enrolled at Pierce College in Lakewood and planned to transfer to a university for pre-med.

While she was capable of doing the work, she was uninspired.

Aburu’s mother, a successful businesswoman and philanthropist in their home village, was upset when she broke the news.

“’What, you want to study art? I’m not paying tuition for art!’” Aburu recalls her mother saying.

But now Aburu’s mother is totally in support. The two talk on the phone almost daily, and Aburu receives the fabrics for her designs directly from Uganda in packages sent by her mom.

“It’s always a huge package,” Aburu says, miming a box half as tall as she is.

Along with the inspiration from her upbringing, Aburu looks to other African cultures for new materials and silhouettes. Aburu is also inspired by the latest runway shows and her love for the 1950s and 1960s glamorous style.

But mostly, Aburu says, she is inspired by her own art: drawings, paintings, photographs. Aburu spends time weekly at Pierce College’s open studios to cultivate ideas.

As far as her process for creating the clothes, Aburu says that she typically opts to mostly freestyle it.

“Sometimes I don’t even sketch it out before, I just have the idea in my head like: ‘the bottom will be a circle skirt and the top will be…’ ”

Aburu took to first selling her clothes by word-of-mouth at Pierce College. She took each compliment on a garment she modeled herself on campus as the opportunity for a sales pitch.

“I never really thought I’d end up on the runway because I’m a self-taught designer,” said Aburu.

Aburu recalls believing that runway fashion design is “for people who went to fancy fashion school.”

But a friend connected her with Chance Fashion, a Seattle-based organization that puts on one fashion show each month highlighting local designers, models, hair and makeup artists, and photographers. A video on Aburu Fashion House’s Facebook page shows eight of Aburu’s designs in her first ever runway show in Olympia earlier this year.

And after Olympia and Bellevue, Aburu hopes to take on the world.

“As a big picture, I want to make African fashion more known to the public,” Aburu says.

According to the website Business of Fashion, Africa’s “poor infrastructure, poverty, corruption” and “political instability” exclude the continent almost entirely from the global fashion industry.

But not if Aburu has anything to say about it.

“If I thrive in fashion, I want to be that voice showing people another side of the fashion world that they don’t know about,” she says.

The IDRS will kick off Bellevue Fashion Week on Sept. 21.

Aburu beads quickly, she says: she can make almost an entire necklace in the time it takes her to watch an episode one of her favorite crime shows on Netflix, How to Get Away with Murder.
Aburu beads quickly, she says: she can make almost an entire necklace in the time it takes her to watch an episode one of her favorite crime shows on Netflix, How to Get Away with Murder. (Photo courtesy of Shelby Mang)
Like the fabrics for her garments, Aburu's mother sends beads and seeds for her accessories in monthly packages to her Puyallup home. Aburu says that Skype makes it easier for the two to confer over different pattern and material choices.
Like the fabrics for her garments, Aburu’s mother sends beads and seeds for her accessories in monthly packages to her Puyallup home. Aburu says that Skype makes it easier for the two to confer over different pattern and material choices. (Photo courtesy of Shelby Mang)
Aburu says the beads she forms individually by hand using thin triangles of colored magazine print take a while longer to make than her other beaded accessories.
Aburu says the beads she forms individually by hand using thin triangles of colored magazine print take a while longer to make than her other beaded accessories. (Photo courtesy of Shelby Mang)

 

Open back dress from Aburu Fashion House's spring mini collection. (Photograph courtesy of James Casson of Visual Passion Photography)
Open back dress from Aburu Fashion House’s spring mini collection modeled by Fauzia Johnson. (Photograph courtesy of James Casson of Visual Passion Photography)
African-inspired outfit from Aburu Fashion House's spring mini collection modeled by Fauzia Johnson. (Photograph courtesy of James Casson of Visual Passion Photography)
African-inspired outfit from Aburu Fashion House’s spring mini collection modeled by Fauzia Johnson. (Photograph courtesy of James Casson of Visual Passion Photography)
Casual outfit from Aburu Fashion House's spring mini collection modeled by Fauzia Johnson. (Photograph courtesy of James Casson of Visual Passion Photography)
Casual outfit from Aburu Fashion House’s spring mini collection modeled by Fauzia Johnson. (Photograph courtesy of James Casson of Visual Passion Photography)

 

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