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Rwandan LGBTQ fashion designer plans comeback after arrest



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Rwandan fashion designer Moise Turahirwa. Credits: Luis Tato/AFP

Less than a decade after founding Moshions, a fashion brand whose customers included Rwanda's President Paul Kagame, LGBTQ designer Moise Turahirwa's career came to a crashing halt following their arrest a year ago.

Turahirwa was charged after sharing a post on Instagram claiming that their passport was changed to reflect their gender.

Now out on bail, the 33-year-old told AFP they were shocked by the speed with which their life unravelled, but insisted they would "rise from the ashes" by focusing on the concept of gender fluidity that first drew them to fashion.

Raised in a village along Rwanda's border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Turahirwa started making dresses for their sisters' dolls as a young boy.

But encouragement was in scarce supply. "I remember a lot of rejection as a child. My mother... didn't want me to play with dolls," Turahirwa said, pointing to ingrained traditional attitudes to gender roles.

It was only after Turahirwa moved to the capital Kigali to pursue a degree in civil engineering that their passion for fashion found full expression. Surrounded by like-minded creatives, Turahirwa scraped together their first collection that showcased many of the elements that would become hallmarks of the Moshions label.

Entirely sewn by hand, the 2015 collection was self-consciously modern, with no African prints to be seen amid the sheer white tank tops, bronze leather shorts and peplum blouses worn by the models.

It was an instant hit on Rwanda's nascent fashion scene but sales were slow, with Turahirwa working as an engineer to make ends meet during Moshion's early years.

The brand received a major boost during the 2017 presidential election when Turahirwa produced jackets and T-shirts screen-printed with images of Rwanda's iron-fisted ruler Kagame.

Government partnerships followed, with Kagame himself spotted in a Moshions shirt. The brand also held shows in Europe, as Turahirwa pursued a masters degree in design in Florence and saw their creations worn by celebrities including Ivorian football icon Didier Drogba, Spanish actress Rossy de Palma and Doctor Who star Ncuti Gatwa.

By the start of 2023, Turahirwa was employing around three dozen people based out of a large studio in Kigali, with annual turnover amounting to 500,000 euros ($533,000), they said.

'A lot of toxicity'

At first glance, the jewel-toned silk dresses and embellished grey sweatshirts appear to have little connection with traditional Rwandan design. A closer look however reveals the influence of Rwanda's imigongo art, whether on printed dresses or the black and white beadwork adorning sleeves.

Turahirwa's most consistent inspiration though is the mushanana, the traditional draped scarf worn by Rwandan men and women, whose gender-fluid identity reflects the designer's own beliefs about fashion's role in society. "Fashion... gives you the right to be whoever you want to be," they said. But it still has limitations, as Turahirwa found out last year when they shared the post about the gender change on their passport.

They were charged with passport forgery and drug abuse, spending two months in custody after lab tests showed they had consumed cannabis.

The forgery charges were dropped while the drug abuse case is ongoing. The arrest in April last year followed an outcry three months earlier over a leaked video allegedly showing them having sex with two men.

Although homosexuality is not banned in Rwanda, discrimination is rife and social attitudes towards LGBTQ issues reflect "a lot of toxicity", Turahirwa said.

"I think they wanted to make an example of me for the youth, that they should be extra careful with their freedom."

'Start over'

Despite their legal woes, Turahirwa said they remained a steadfast backer of Rwanda's government, with Moshions producing a fresh batch of T-shirts to support Kagame's re-election campaign this year.

Gender-neutral design inspired by Rwanda's traditional draped clothing is at the forefront of their push to "start over", they said.

Since the arrest, their ambitions have shifted, with Turahirwa looking to make Moshions a more niche brand with a smaller consumer base.

"I don't feel comfortable out in public because I feel like people have a lot of negativity about me."

They found safe haven in the embrace of family members, who were the only people to visit Turahirwa in prison.

However, the designer has never shared their sexuality or their non-binary identity with their parents.

"We don't speak about it," Turahirwa said. "There's nothing for me to say."(AFP)

Moses Turahirwa