Stella Atal: Uganda's Fast Moving Designer
Stella Mercy Atal.

Stella Atal: Uganda's Fast Moving Designer


My designs are very different from what the Ugandan market offers. My fashions are authentically African.

By Jane Musoke-Nteyafas
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First published: July 29, 2008


To see her fashion designs is to fall in love with them. Her dresses, an explosion of colours, unique fabrics, prints and symbols are artistically and visually stimulating. If you want to look unique, fashionable and African, Stella Atal is the way to go. In her late 20's, Stella Mercy Atal is a recognizable figure on the Ugandan and international art and fashion scene and it comes as no surprise. The petite fashion designer/artist runs a flourishing art business, participates in fashion shows and manages her art workshop, employing young artists and marketing and selling her artwork both locally and internationally. She is additionally an interior designer. Atal's work can be found at Banana Boat, the source of the Nile in Jinja, and at her studio in Kamwokya. Internationally, she has showcased her work in places like California, Washington DC, and Philadelphia and has sold her work to Bono of U2.


Stella Mercy Atal
Stella Mercy Atal.

Stella Mercy Atal was born in Northern Uganda around the shores of Lake Kyoga on Labour Day, although she grew up in Kampala. She paints both miniature and large wall hangings using acrylics and water- based textile paints; using materials such as bark cloth, recycled paper made out of water hyacinth, Hessian, canvas and many other tradition materials.

Atal recently started her own fashion design label Atal Stella Uganda. Her studio has designed outfits for South African Hugh Masekela, and Ugandan celebrities Isaiah Katumwa, Blu*3, Karitas Karisimbi, Susanne Kerunen and many others. She has also organized fashion shows to raise funds for Hope Ward International hospital in Kampala. The hospital offers surgery for people with severe illnesses who cannot afford such services. The funds raised were used to buy beds for the patients in the ward. In 2006 she was featured on MNet's Studio 53 as Uganda's top and budding young female artist.


Jane: Stella Atal in your own words is...?
Stella:
She is an artist specializing in artwork inspired by both ancient and contemporary African designs. My work depicts the typical lifestyle of people living on the shores of lake Victoria, the daily activities of those people from sunrise to sunset and also their social, economical and political life.

Art by Stella Mercy Atal
Art by Stella Mercy Atal.

At what point in your life did you decide that art was your dream career?
Since childhood, I had the dream of being a fashion designer and artist. I started practicing fashion commercially three years back, but I have been making my own clothes and those of my friends for a very long time.

You come from an artistic family. In my case my mother was the primary artistic one and she is the one who influenced me the most, although some of my writing skills were picked up from my father as well. He has great oratory skills. How was your family artistic and how did it influence you?
Yes I do come from an artistic family were everyone at home, right from my mother, is an artist. I started painting at the age of five, spending most of my time with my big brother Andrew who taught me how to mix colors, sketch and he would always ask me what I wanted to paint and make sure that I learnt that particular thing that day.

What inspires you as an artist?
I use a lot of African motifs that were of a significant use to ancient African people. These include the lizard, which was used as a sign of luck in the families; fish and water which they believed to be a sign of peace. Ancient Africans would use water from rivers and lakes to settle their tribal differences. So I use that as well. The mask was worn on different occasions; for example celebrating the birth of twins, good harvest, crowning of the chiefs etc so I use them. I also use traditional more well-known African patterns which are sign of the multiplicity and diversity which exists in the world.

Stella Mercy Atal with one of her art pieces
Stella Mercy Atal with one of her art pieces.

Do you get dry spells when you just cannot create and what do you do when that happens?
Sometimes I run out of ideas or feel stressed and I can't paint at all but if it happens I just shift to fashion or interior designing which gives me motivation.

Art by Stella Mercy Atal
Art by Stella Mercy Atal.

Running an art business is not easy, yet you are doing it and you are quite successful. You are employing young artists and marketing and selling your artwork both locally and internationally. How do you manage to do it? What are your challenges?
Being an artist in Uganda isn't easy at all as there is no support for the local artists at all from the government. Very little is being done to promote them. It has taken me years to be noticed as a famous female artist in my country and it takes a lot of patience, determination and endurance because when I started my studio in 1997 I had only US$20 which I used to buy at least the basic materials for one piece and lucky enough it was bought immediately the public saw it, and that gave me a go ahead. It was the capital the to buy more materials.

There are seasons I would feel like giving up because I couldn't even afford to pay my house rent or even buy more materials but I knew I would never be happy if I did any other work outside my dream profession. Today I feel so proud that I have managed to penetrate the market and get recognized internationally. I have traveled to many countries that I have never been to before and I find my artwork in people's homes, offices and hotels and that to me I great success. I have been able to create a big workshop in my country and now can employ a few people to help me.

How can the Ugandan government help the fashion industry?
The only way government can help fashion industry is to stop second hand clothes coming into the country and also importation of cheap garments from China because people think we designers are very expensive not knowing that, with us, they are buying something original and of quality. Also if the government can reduce taxes on fashion accessories that are not available in Uganda yet they help in the production.

Stella Mercy Atal fashion
Stella Mercy Atal fashion.

What is your greatest success story?
My most memorable time is about to come when I am going to win the first ever copyright case for intellectual property ownership in Uganda soon. I felt artist's rights were being violated by business people and because most artists don't have money to pay lawyers. They (the lawyers) just leave them. But I am suing a company that used and duplicated my works and sold them to the market without my permission. The case has been going on for the last year and is now almost finished and waiting for the judgment date.

Stella Mercy Atal fashion
Stella Mercy Atal fashion.

Now fashion. What led you to that transition? What fabrics and material do you use for your clothes?
I love style and to me fashion is passion. When I see smart people I get inspired and always get ideas on how I can make them more stylish using my clothing line which comprises of different materials like linen, organic cotton produced in Uganda, bark cloth, recycled materials. What makes my works different from the rest of the signers is the simplicity of the designs that makes them wearable at any time, in any place. I do hand prints on them which is my trademark and that has made my label "Atal Stella Uganda" famous in Uganda for the last three years... because my clothes can easily be recognized by the public.

Stella Mercy Atal fashion
Stella Mercy Atal fashion.

What is beautiful about your clothes is how Afrocentric they are and yet they also have a fun youthful edge that appeals to youth who are heavily influenced by western culture as far as fashion. Is this intentional or coincidence?
When people hear of African clothes, they think of West African style or use of printed materials but to me, African wear, is to put an African touch on any kind of fabric. It does not necessarily need to be African material. You can use satin, chiffon, taffeta and you still make it look African. All my clothes have my original African hand print, which makes them appealing to all types and class of people. Some of my clothes have a western style but with an African finish. And because I am young myself I am able to create clothes that appeal to the youth.

How is the general reception of your clothes in Uganda?
People in Uganda really love my clothes, and I have gotten positive response from all groups of people. A lot of people come and get clothes made from me and they are so happy to have someone in Uganda doing what I am doing.

What about internationally?
Internationally everyone who has seen my collection must buy. They like the designs and colours I use and the uniqueness of the style. The reason I have many people responding to my designs is that they see my style and fashions suitable for all body sizes and age. The designs still look good whether it is in small size or large.

Dressed by Stella Mercy Atal: Sarah Ndagire at 2008 Nyaka Eire! Concert
Dressed by Stella Mercy Atal: Sarah Ndagire at 2008 Nyaka Eire! Concert.

Let's address size. Now one of the complaints I heard when I was in Uganda for the Nyaka Eire Concert 2008, was that bigger women were not quite represented in the fashion industry and yet Uganda is a country where the average woman is not skinny. The average Ugandan woman, let alone African woman, has wide hips, a large bottom and considerable thighs. That is the reality. They are the majority and many of them have purchasing power, yet do not find clothes that fit them with designers they may want to support. How do you personally address something like that?
Many Ugandan women have started appreciating their bodies and are now wearing clothes which compliment their body structures. Any woman can look nice if she finds clothes that compliment her particular figure. Some designers do not cater to the different sizes, but I create clothes which women of all sizes can wear.

Stella Mercy Atal
Stella Mercy Atal.

People like Sylvia Owori, Santa Anzo and yourself are representing Uganda quite well when it comes to the fashion scene. How does Ugandan fashion rate on the international scene? Is it getting the respect and attention that it deserves?
Once you make something interesting in Uganda people will support you and that's what they are doing to me because they find my clothes exclusive. They can be worn by Africans ad Europeans and they all come out looking stunning. I take time to create designs and choose colors as I have to make sure whatever I choose is suitable for all color skin type and body sizes. So yes... I'd say we are getting respect and attention internationally.

How do designer clothes differ from say, clothes one would buy in regular shops? Are people buying a name in the same way that they'd buy H & M, Gap or Gucci?
My designs are very different from what the Ugandan market offers. My fashions are authentically African. I design clothes for celebrities who want to dazzle in public as well as for people who want to be noticed in their workplace or at a party. I have gotten a lot of support from the public because my clothes range from formal wear, casual, safari, evening, and I also do urban and hip hop collections for the young group and celebrities. I make costumes, uniforms and wedding collections as well and I cater for the men, women and kids. So yes they are buying a name, but they are also buying quality. You will not find many people wearing what you have bought. I custom-make many of my dresses.

Who would you like to wear your clothes? Like which celebrity would you want to endorse your clothes?
I would love to see people like Oprah putting on my label, and any other celebrities who are not buying from me because they have money to spend. Basically, someone buying because they appreciate my work.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
I am working so hard to see my name on the International scene. I want to be someone recognized internationally and back home. I would like to open a one-stop center for art, fashion and interior designing in my capital city-Kampala.

Any tips for people who may be looking to be where you are?
In business we don't do what we feel we want, but we try to create things that appeals to people who are going to buy the products. We can give advice but can't decide on what the clients want. In order to succeed, you must be able to meet the deadline, be polite to your clients, produce the best quality possible, say thank you and keep a smile on your face while serving a client.

Stella Mercy Atal fashion
Stella Mercy Atal fashion.

Contact Stella Atal:

Great African Art Studios
SArt & Fashion Studio
P.O. Box 12259 Kampala (Uganda)
Plot 474 Old Kiira Rd Kamwokya
Tel. +256-312-291655
Mob: +256-772-468131

E-mail: katalstella@yahoo.com
Website: www.greatafricanart.co.uk

By Jane Musoke-Nteyafas
more from author >>
First published: July 29, 2008

Jane Musoke-Nteyafas, poet/author/artist and playwright, was born in Moscow, Russia and currently resides in Toronto, Canada. She is the daughter of retired diplomats. By the time she was 19, she spoke French, English, Spanish, Danish, Luganda, some Russian and had lived in Russia, Uganda, France, Denmark, Cuba and Canada.

Jane won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000 in Toronto where she was also named one of the new voices of Africa after reciting one of her poems. In 2004, she was published in T-Dot Griots-An Anthology of Toronto's Black storytellers and in February 2005, her art piece Namyenya was featured as the poster piece for the Human Rights through Art-Black History Month Exhibit.

She is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, art and playwriting including the 2007 Planet Africa Rising Star Award and the 2008 African Canadian Women Achievement Award. Her first book Butterflies of the Nile was published in May 2008. Please visit her website at www.nteyafas.com.