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Harvard Beckons - Fashion designer Pam Samasuwo-Nyawiri receives scholarship to top Ivy League University!

by Tidi Kwidini
05 Apr 2016 at 09:37hrs | Views
Award Winning Designer and African Fashion Advocate Pamela Samasuwo-Nyawiri has received a scholarship to Harvard to do a PhD.
Pamela, who is a journalist by trade, having always been inspired by fashion, decided to go back to university and study Fashion Accessory Design almost three years ago.

Combining her first degree in Journalism and Communication, her passion for creativity and her drive to succeed in the fashion industry, the winner of the Vogue and Muuse Best International Fashion Accessory Design 2014 has excelled in the industry and has never looked back.

Vanhu Vamwe, the brain child of Samasuwo-Nyawiri has established itself as a household name and brand. Vanhu Vamwe, which simply means 'one people' sends the message of coming together as citizens of the world regardless of ethnicity and language barriers but purely for the love of fashion, art and culture.

Her designs are handmade immaculately using different ancestral techniques, with carefully selected materials that add value and display uniqueness based on real life experiences from which she draws most of her inspiration from.

Samasuwo-Nyawiri, who last year won the Zimbabwe Achievers Fashion Designer of the Year Award has done concept research for brands like Paul Smith and designed a range of accessories for them, as well as a series of styling photo-shoots inspired by British Vogue. Pamela has also designed a limited edition collection for River Island in the United Kingdom.

A wife, mother and business owner, she stops at nothing until she gets results. With the announcement of this Years Fashion Designer finalists for ZAA 2016, Tidi Kwidini had the pleasure of catching up with her to talk about the Zim Achievers finalists, her journey and her hopes for the future.

Tell us a bit more about "Vanhu Vamwe", how it came about and what the purpose for the brand was when you started?

Vanhu Vamwe is the brainchild of my husband Simba and I.  We created it around this idea of preservation of culture and devotedly protecting craftsmanship as a dying art form.  As a team we share creative responsibilities, while others split designing and managing the business we have embraced each other's differences in design aesthetics into one concept.

In other words, two people, with different strengths, coming together to build one brand?

Yes indeed! While one of us decided to go and study Fashion, the other spent the duration of the time doing intense market research to see where our placement was. We are used to supporting each other on a personal level, and this has helped us transition the professional relationship. We often go into our separate bubbles for different creative ideas, but always come as one to bounce ideas around.  Our work is unconventional as are our individual ideologies.

So what are the priorities of the brand?

Our priority is ethically producing our products for the preservation of traditional craftsmanship with different artisan communities globally. We are inclined to serving others first, reflecting the cultural values of our African heritage.  In this fast paced fashion environment, we are determined to stay firmly on the ground, sticking to our core values and building on fruitful and lasting relationships with the people we work with. There is greater joy in the end product yes, but we believe that more fulfilment is achieved when you tell the stories of the people first.   Story telling puts you in unison with humanity, with people's hearts and gives the products real tangible meaning. We hope as you follow our story you are inspired to start questioning your priorities too. We hope to be able to reach communities in each corner of the earth, as we continue to reveal the forgotten stories of generations.

You are a Journalist by trade, what made you switch to fashion?

Yes, I am. However, I grew up in a home where fashion was very important. My mother, although a banker for almost 25 years, had a fashion business and also was one of the first few black models. She was very articulate and I always admired that in her. Saying that, my interest in fashion was never in the love of clothes, I am like the worst dresser ever, my choice of clothing always raises eyebrows, but I was and am interested in the aesthetics and processes of fashion, and how I can express it in academic and perhaps intellectual forms. So one night I was talking to my husband about this idea of creating a fashion brand that was very conceptual in how it looked but also a story teller. So it was not so much a switch from fashion to journalism, but a very clever combination of practices in journalism and fashion design.

Let us talk about Zim Achievers; you won the Fashion Designer of the year award, what did this mean to you?

In life, you set out to do something you love and are passionate about, and ultimately, that is the main thing, to do something you love and believe you can excel in. However, when you start to get recognised for the work you are doing, especially by your own people, it is such a precious feeling. I was so honoured to be nominated, to be recognised for the passion I have for my work, and the creativity that goes into it. Zim Achievers is such an amazing platform and gives us Zimbabweans something to be truly proud of.

Speaking of winning, the nominees have been announced for this year's awards and there are some strong contenders, particularly in the designer category…

I am so excited for all the ladies who have been shortlisted. Just being nominated is amazing! I know how I felt last year when I found out that I had made the shortlist, it just adds an extra spring and drive in your step to do more and be more, and know that you can achieve anything you want if you believe. I wish all the ladies in the designer category, and everyone else who has been nominated the very best. Win or lose, they are all absolute gems with remarkable talent.

Back to design, how did you get into designing accessories, is it something you had always wanted to do?

When I went for the university application I was actually interested in knitwear design, but was told that this particular course was full, however they had just started a new course in Accessories specialising in leather luxury goods, I was sold! I have never regretted the choice, I know that everything that has happened thus far was set up by God and the connections continue to pour out in abundance.  
What was the first thing you designed before you decided to study Fashion?

I designed these awful leather and knitwear neck pieces, well everyone loved them and I actually sold out on all 20!! I am cringing now because I understand quality control and the essence of good practice in design. This, funny enough, was years prior to me getting into fashion and I had no idea at all that one day, I would end up where I am. God has a sense of humour!

He does indeed! What drives you on a day to day basis?

I have an obsessive personality, and addicted to development, which means I am always looking and discovering new ways to push myself. I am driven by passion and love for what I do. I have in the past expressed how money is not a motivator for me, only because I understand that there is a process. You are passionate, you work, and money comes simple. But you have to be part of the process, sustain it with patience to see it come.

Are there any pieces or accessories that stand out to you from your collections, if so which ones and why?

I love the oversized rectangular bag, which was adapted from the sleep paralysis collection and into the Perfect Imperfections, which was sold out in less than 2 weeks. It was featured in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar and was part of an exhibition in New York. It's experimental, it spells out Vanhu Vamwe as soon as you see it, and it has become the trade mark bag that will always feature in different ways in every collection I design. From my recent collection the Ivan bag. The bag took me a month to get right and functional and the prototype was finished a day before I flew out of Ecuador, and I named it after my host brother in Ecuador… he is pretty special!

Speaking of Ecuador, you were there for several weeks, tell us about that experience?

I was in Ecuador for 2 months. The most memorable time of my life. I was resurrected while I was there. There was something overly familiar about the people, the environment and the atmosphere. Everything spelt Zimbabwe for me. I found this very fascinating, and so many things were so similar. I was convinced when I left that while society is so bent on highlighting apparent crimes of cultural appropriation, it turned out that every country, continent, race and culture has a unifying tie, we just do not want to admit it.

What sort of things did you get up to on a day to day basis outside of work?

I went to the cows in the morning, collected firewood, and ate maize, like real Zim style maize EVERYDAY, sugar cane, mangoes and veg as in Zim, with yellow sadza!! It was pure heaven. I had difficulty in language as they speak Spanish, but it was important for me to integrate into their culture and into the village to gain their trust. As a result we came out with a smashing collection that is getting international reviews.

This particular collection was launched late last year, what was the highlight of this collection?

The collection is called A Non Existent Tribe and is inspired by the Himba and Herero tribes of Namibia whom I lived with in 2012 and the Indigenous people of Ecuador. It has a mixture of leather, wool and straw and handcrafted with honest raw materials from start to finish. It is made in Ecuador. The collection was SOLD OUT within 4 weeks and we had to get another batch out. The collection was just three weeks ago voted as one of the top sustainable brands of 2016 of 150 other collections at Berlin fashion week. This last week, top buyers from renowned boutique, Net a porter, listed the collection as one of 5 best collections by artisans. At the same time, Vogue India Editor said the collection was her top pick too as it was very earthy and she loved the concept of giving 50 percent of the profits back into the community. We are so excited! 2016 will be another great year!!

Sum up your highlights and any challenges you have faced over the last 18-24 months?

I have had the most amazing time to be honest. From very earlier on in my degree, I was noticed by key people in the global fashion industry, and that was because I was very expressive and sure about who I wanted to be as a designer. The opportunities came flowing; my challenge was to ensure that I picked only those that were for me. You know sometimes you grab everything and in the midst of doing that you lose your ways. I have won 8 awards to date, just a year and a half after finishing University.

Not to forget the travelling…

That has been one of the exciting things, the travel. I have travelled endlessly to places I never imagined. I have done the international fashion magazines, the international fashion weeks sitting with real life celebrities in the front row, I am grateful, however, those experiences made my purpose even clearer. My direction as a designer and perceptions have changed drastically. I want to be on ground zero, hands on with communities and if anyone deserves applause, it is the family of artisans I work with. The simplicity of their livelihood makes you want the same. That is where I am right now, in that place where I am simple, no rush, no fears, just thankful to be alive at a time like this.

As a leader and motivator, what keeps you a step ahead of the game?

I command leadership in everything I do in my personal life, I am a bit controlling with myself and I am of the notion that in business everything one does reflects on their brand. I am very much self-motivated, I am a big dreamer and for me that one idea, that one dream is a chance to ensure that it manifests in real life. I am motivated by seeing results and that alone keeps me going. I have a very obsessive nature and like a dog with a bone, when I get a hold onto something, I do not let go. I think it is also important to understand that each person is incomparable; people try and stumble by competing to "stay ahead", but when you walk in your purpose you naturally stay ahead.

What is your hope and vision for African designers and the African fashion industry?

Transparency is very much needed in our industry. There are still a lot of inconsistencies, and I don't blame the industry itself directly. Our governments have opened up borders to the Chinese who have exploited the clothing industry, with cheap fast fashion that is made under the worst conditions. As a result, the African consumer goes for the affordability and never the ethics behind the clothing. Meanwhile African designers are not catering for the audience at home and losing out on potential business, and when the local consumers do buy there is a serious imbalance of prices.

Would you say the circle is vicious in that regard?

Yes, the circle is vicious, and while African fashion has made milestones over the last 10 years, we still need to work harder.  My hope is that we are independent from the West, and begin to have consumers who buy from African designers because there is a sustainable cycle of designers who make great clothes, that are fresh and in line with ethical standards.  Africa is the jewel of inspiration and raw materials imagine a manufacturing industry thriving in the heart of Africa, where we begin to cater globally. This could potentially be the best thing that could happen and a great economic outlet we need…from fashion. Many African governments are starting to understand the multi-billion dollar industry that is fashion and how it can not only boost economies of countries but change the perception of the continent. Africa is rising and with technology, I do believe that in the next few years we will retain our leadership.

 What is next on the cards for you and Vanhu Vamwe?

I have a few exciting projects this year. The one that stands out most is in association with National Geographic and it is called "In search of the perfect bag". In the next 24 months plus, I will be travelling to the 54 countries of Africa, working with artisan communities and tribes in an attempt to set up a "safe guarding project", to preserve traditional craftsmanship. This is also spilling out to be an academic research , so I am really happy to be doing something that has some intellect in it, you see, fashion can "just be a little pretentious and fluffy!!"

Let's talks scholarship news! You received a scholarship to study at Harvard. Tell us a bit more about this and when do you start?

I did indeed!! It still makes me smile, and I am always trying to be very humble about it, but of all my achievements I have failed to remain humble! Haha.  I had a conversation with someone recently who expressed their annoyance at how society idolised Ivy League Universities, and yet we all ended up in the same jobs, yes, that might be, but from where I am personally sitting, I am screaming HARVARD BABY!!!!! I am very ambitious and have a lot of ideas on how I will push forward my research, and obviously it is in Fashion History in Africa, weaving in my obsession with preservation of traditional craftsmanship. I start next year, and I am so lucky that I have a very supportive family, who push me forward always.

What advice would you give young African designers looking to make a mark in the fashion industry?

Individualism is a must. Many young designers think that the word "designer" comes with glamour and glitz, it may after years of hard work. There are so many "designers' ‘masquerading as "doing so well", that they falsify the whole process for those who are coming into the industry. It is a tough industry; you need to have an aesthetic that is not a copycat.  You have to be polished and refined. Each year thousands of designers are coming from design school, and you have to become better, I cannot still identify with my association with Vogue or Harper's Bazaar, or my multi award winnings, I can reflect on the achievement, but social media is so quick and the last thing you have done expires so quickly, so you have to ensure that you continue to have relevance years after.  Lastly, it is not a popularity contest. Success smells and feels so good, it is not about how many followers you have on Instagram but about the quality of your work. Keep your head down, work very hard and stay out of trouble. That works for me!

The Zimbabwe Achievers Awards have over the years become the standard platform for recognising the outstanding achievements of individuals and organisations from various sectors in the Zimbabwean community in the UK and abroad. Bringing a touch of class and elegance the awards ceremony illustrates the outstanding work that Zimbabweans are doing and their commitment to building a stronger community. This year's event will take place on the 7th of May at the Royal Garden Hotel in London. Tickets are being sold exclusively at for £89.95.  Voting for this year's finalists is now underway and will run until the 29th of April. Visit

Source - Tidi Kwidini