Rwandan/Kenyan based designers, Marc Oliver and Inés Cuatrecasas are many things. They are the visionaries behind African luxury fashion house, Mille Collins. They are tall, tanned and irrevocably European. They are also very difficult people to get to. I blame it on Inés’s warm and welcoming personality and the sincerity and effort she handles every interview with. I also blame it on their extreme European-ness that makes me want to return to the blue, blue Barcelona beaches.
When I first spot Inés backstage, she is in a dark asymmetrical cut jacket, fitted dark blue chinos and thin strapped high heel sandals. Her gold hair hangs in that typical effortless, chic Spaniard way that the rest of the world has been attempting to duplicate for decades. She is with Marc, among family, friends and models gliding their spider legs up and down in the middle of what the rest of us normal people, would describe as utter chaos. Jewellery is being bagged, rails emptied and, who’s disappeared now?
I let Marc and Inés enjoy their after-show buzz and meet Inés again later in the media lounge. She’s just completed three, lengthy interviews and her athletic frame is exhausted from standing in heels for so long. She gives me what may be the warmest hug I’ve ever received from someone who has had to bend so low, and we sit down on one of the white leather couches to begin the interview.
Inés: How are you?
I’m good, thank you, how are you? How do you feel after the show?
Inés: I think we had a lot fun with this collection which is great.
I could tell; it was a really interesting show.
Inés: Yeah, we had a lot of fun and I think we felt it. So it was the nervousness that you always have and everything with the backstage, but there was this excitement of moving into something a little bit different and taking a risk.
I’m told it’s your first time doing street wear. What made you want to move towards street wear?
Inés: I think we wanted to—s obviously the international trends were street, so there were a lot of sneakers going on, a lot of sweaters with night dresses. We were inspired by that mix and then we also wanted to get out of our comfort zone which is a lot of formal wear and elegant jackets, so we thought, let’s play a little and have a little bit of fun. Especially for the menswear side where I feel our client is a little bit younger and funkier. We were basically catering for them.
How do you think your returning customers, who would have already gotten used to your luxurious, elegant appeal—how would you expect them to interpret this?
Inés: We hope the women, who are the ones who have seen most of that line, will appreciate the risk taken at the beginning of the collection and I think they can still find those pieces at the end – those pencil skirts, the long dresses and the jackets. They can still see that touch of,” ooh, that’s what I remember Mille Collins was and maybe I should also risk and go a little bit bolder”, you know? Let’s see! But I hope they like it.
That’s really cool. I noticed your first few jerseys—one of them had a little barber shop as well. I think that’s really beautiful because it’s a very universal African symbol. Is that something you are used to seeing every day in Rwanda?
Inés: Yes. That was actually the neighbourhood we were inspired, Nyamajyosi. What we wanted to do, was to take a close look into the neighbourhood first, and then zoom out and see what is our interpretation up close and from far. The street line in the beginning with all those street things going on and that was purely a close look into that neighbourhood and then the pieces that came back which were more, laid-back mirror the silhouettes and the cuts of the roof and the colours. Simply a collage of the neighbourhood from a far distance.
Did that influence any of the materials you chose?
Inés: Definitely, I feel this year we went a little bit far from a natural, flowy and earthy feeling and more towards a technological one in a sense more structure and leather, so we gave it more shape. We also tried to be comfortable about it, like those pencil skirts are very fitted but they’re stretchy.
More, like, relaxed?
Inés: Exactly. We don’t want super tight.
And what would you say is a Mille Collins’s signature?
Inés: That’s a difficult one. I would say jackets are always in our collection. This year was all these cut-out jackets and the last year was more minimalistic, kind of sculptural. I think jackets are always there. Of course, the night dresses and apparently there is street now.
That was a very excellent collection. I wouldn’t have guessed that it was your first one. I see that you’ve also collaborated with some South Africans, how did that come about?
Ines: Yes, incredible. So, basically, Jenna McArthur has been our PR person for this entire Africa Fashion Week and obviously there are a lot of parts that we don’t do, like necklaces and, cuffs and all that. We’ve never done eyewear and we wanted some funky sunglasses. We also don’t do shoes, so we were looking for the right partners. We found traditionally made sandals, Simon Mary hats, and shades made out of skateboard material. So, again, that’s street inspiration translated into a product. It was a perfect match.
Very inspiring and promising. Do you see yourself doing more products here in South Africa?
For sure. I mean, I have moved to Cape Town to look into operations here and into expanding the brand in South Africa, so there’s going to be a lot happening.
And then, just to wrap up, what would you say has been your biggest accomplishment to date?
Ines: I would say probably the stores we’ve opened in Kenya. That that risk you take is probably the biggest—every time you open a stand-alone store, it’s shaky ground. We opened the first one in 2010, it went well so we started opening a second, a third and today we have four stores in Nairobi. We are opening the fifth one at the end of November. It’s been a journey for us, being from the African continent and not an outside bride.
It’s interesting because you do have the influence of the international world but a very African take, a very African-Luxe take as well. What would you describe that is?
African Luxe. That’s exactly it. I think that with this collection, we’ve taken a step forward in connecting with Africa.