African designer's dream: putting 'umugwegwe' on the map

PARIS (AFP) — When young fashion designer Bill Ruterana was looking for inspiration and cheap material to make clothes in his native Rwanda, he found it sprouting under his feet.

"Umugwegwe", a plant something like flax or raffia, grows prolifically in Rwanda and when treated produces a frothy wool-like fibre.

Ruterana used it to spectacular effect in his latest collection unveiled this weekend at the second edition of Paris' "Labo Ethnik World Fashion Show" spotlighting African, Caribbean and multi-cultural design.

"Umugwegwe serves no real purpose but is a goldmine for me. It grows everywhere and it's very easy to work with," said the slight 24-year-old, who is such a fan that he used it not only for flamboyant multicoloured head-dresses but even for a show-stopping wedding gown.

He discovered that by pulverising the plant he could tease out fibres and colour them with vegetable dyes.

Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ruterana moved to Kigali in 1994 at the age of 10, just after the genocide that left 800,000 people dead, according to the UN.

"I saw bombs, mines, piles of corpses on the roads and in bushes, my friends with hands and feet chopped off," he says. The trauma if anything left him determined to succeed. A cartoonist and artist by training, he turned to fashion after painting dancers' bodies for a festival.

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