Fashion designer Sandrine Gisa made history last week after being appointed head of the Visual Merchandising Group (VMG) at Hennes & Mauritz, a Swedish multinational clothing company based in Stockholm which focuses on fast fashion clothing for men, women, teenagers and children.
As of November 2019, H&M is present in 74 countries with more than 5,000 stores under the company’s various brands, with 126,000 full-time equivalent positions.
The Muhanga-born designer, who now lives in Gävleborg, a town in southern Sweden three hours from the capital Stockholm, is the youngest to hold such a position at just 29, which people say , became a huge problem as the last youngster to lead the global department had done so at 42.
In an interview with new times, Gisa talks about becoming the first Rwandan to work for the global fashion brand and what it means for her and the Rwandan fashion industry in general.
What powers do you hold in your new appointment at H&M?
I manage the visual merchandises (MD) department. H&M has so many departments and every design it’s ever done has to go through visual design before it becomes something people buy. It must be approved by the visual design department before going into production.
The fact that H&M is a global company headquartered here in Stockholm means that all decisions made must be implemented in all H&M stores, of which there are more than 5,000 worldwide.
When I got the job, it scared me a little when I realized that the decision our team is going to make will be global.
What does your appointment in such a big fashion brand like H&M mean for you as a designer and for the fashion industry in Rwanda?
When I was appointed in December, I went home and told my mother and my brothers. I just thought the job wasn’t a big deal until I started seeing people at the company so excited, saying there were people who had been with the company for over 35 years but never managed to return to the post.
I started to take things seriously when one of my bosses said to me ‘did you know that you are the first and the youngest woman to hold this position, especially from Africa? Your country should be proud of you!
Since then, I understood why people see it as something huge for me and for the Rwandan fashion industry in general.
Honestly, I’m a person who believes in actions over words. I like to take things slowly and let actions speak for me because I have people who have always doubted me.
So the position really means a lot to me personally or to my country.
How was your journey in fashion until H&M appointed you?
My mother is a seamstress, I grew up watching her do this for a living. She still helps me on my journey. I remember designing all the collections I presented at Kigali International Fashion Week in 2019.
So I grew up with the dream and passion of one day becoming a designer to the point that I tore up the clothes she bought for me to give them my favorite designs. We were arguing about it but I insisted, and then she had no choice but to teach me how it was done.
With the passion, I now have a master’s degree in fashion business and I happened to work at H&M during my internship as a tailor. Since then, we have become familiar. It is very difficult to work in a big company. With passion, I started working for them as a saleswoman in their store, and after finishing my studies, I joined their design team.
I didn’t go that far because I come from a wealthy family, but that’s all I told my dad and he never doubts me. I’m not the best in the whole company but God made me the chosen one.
Do your new responsibilities force you to stop your career as a fashion designer?
Yes, I have no choice but to quit because I’m supposed to work closely with them.
However, my goal is to one day own such a great company to develop and help my country because as a designer I personally watch how things are done and later see how we transfer skills because we have so many story that we could put into a design that can inspire people around the world.
How do you think this step can inspire the fashion industry in Rwanda and the African industry in general?
I think it can inspire Rwandan fashion and the African fashion industry because we have so much in us that people see but we fail to recognize ourselves.
Because in everything we do, we do it as an African native that when someone sees it, they get inspired and it’s sad that other people take advantage of our ideas. I would like to see the same happen not only in my country but in Africa as a whole. I would like this to happen in Africa too, especially in my home country, because we have so much to offer people who just think of genocide while our name always comes up.
What major fashion events have you attended during your career as a designer?
I represented Sweden at the Kigali International Fashion Week in 2019 in Kigali then in 2020 in Tokyo.
Other events where I have presented my collections include Scandinavia Fashion Week in Scandinavian countries.
But for now, for the sake of my new job, I can’t continue doing it because I’m no longer allowed to present at other fashion events because to avoid conflicts with employers, I might copy their creations.
Why do you think visual design is important to becoming a successful designer?
Visual merchandising design moves with the times. People used to make visual designs and presentations on papers, but they easily lost them or the papers got old. But, in the digital age, you can create your visual designs on your laptop and protect them from those who want to copy them.