The Infinite Potential of Santa Anzo’s ARAPAPA Fashion Brand
Never has the phrase, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” rung so chillingly true as in the case of international fashion designer, Santa Anzo. Santa, a force of nature, who has developed a passionate enthusiasm for the true business behind fashion over the years, knows for a fact that, God loves children – to her, it is the only believable explanation as to why she is alive today. Born in the Ugandan capital of Kampala during the turbulent times of Idi Amin Dada, the renowned former president who became known as the “Butcher of Uganda”, Santa was a victim of years of civil wars characterized by violent and bloody coups and vengeance, as one government turned on the former. “This resulted in my Dad’s unjustified arrest and our family being banished to the village, which was a total culture shock for my 4-year-old self. Three months later the war progressed to my village, Moyo, which led to my mother, my siblings and I being exiled in South Sudan, where we lived as refugees and in abject poverty,” Santa told Fashionomics Africa.
Suddenly, Santa’s city life of milk, honey and bread was substituted by wild leaves and fruits. Her family was forced to walk for miles into the wilderness to dig deep into the earth in search of water to drink. “We used leaves to catch sips of water, drop by drop. South Sudan was the worst nightmare any child could go through.” Memories of the Uganda Santa grew up in are marked by war, bullets and dead bodies falling around her. “When my village was attacked by soldiers, I remember running to hide in a corn and sorghum garden as the bullets rained around me. Many dropped to their death. I survived the massacre that left my village burnt to ashes and littered with dead bodies – of both humans and animals.” Following a traumatic childhood as such, the fact that she went on to study in Kampala for both her primary and advanced level education, is truly inspiring. “For my secondary education, I went on to study in Jinja, a town 80 miles from my family in Kampala. I studied fashion at the Dolphin Fashion College,” she told us.
Her education and subsequent career isn’t her only source of great pride and joy. Her daughter, Eku – which means Glory, Praise and Honour – is nine years old and already a natural environmental activist, passionate about animal rights. “Her name is intended to activate the divine calling in her life, so that her words and actions may bring honour, glory and praise to her God. So that she will be the answer and the solution to the problems she and her peers find themselves in.” Perhaps Santa’s mother would have been more supportive of her choices, had she too followed a path in activism. Instead, Santa loved to sketch what turned out to be fashion models, which deepened her fascination with unique, stylish clothing. “My father always allowed me to experiment, but my mother was against my trendy styles even though she owned a sewing machine and mended our clothing. Fashion was not part of what she was bringing her daughter up to be.”
As Santa matured, it seemed clear to everyone except her family and herself, that she was indeed, the perfect African model, often compared to the likes of South Sudanese-American model, Alek Wel. “Soon l was booking modelling assignments and l was rocking the catwalk - I was the bald-headed, skinny tigress on stage, cheered by crowds. The Paparazzi lenses were tuned onto me, and what began as a hobby became my identity.” Santa had arrived, fashion was clearly her calling. She became an inspiration – and hope – for many like-minded people looking to break through in the fashion business. “So, at twenty years old, I became the answer and the solution to budding models: I got us organized, became a modelling agent and model scout and by 2001 – driven by a high demand - I had set up one of Uganda’s first professional modelling agencies. Soon we were booked by leading multi-national business like MTN, Stanbic Bank, East African Breweries, AIRTEL, Zain, etc. and modelling had now become a booming business.”
Santa officially launched ARAPAPA models on July 27th, 2001, when she was just nineteen years old. In the Madi tribe found on the West-Nile of Uganda, Arapapa translates into butterfly. “I chose the symbolism of the butterfly for two main reasons. Firstly the metaphor of the butterfly represents my life’s transformational path. The magnificence and beauty that has emerged from the pain of a war torn life of a refugee girl. ARAPAPA represents rebirth, transformation, creativity, endless potential, vibrant joy, change, ascension, and an ability to experience the wonder of life - the true colourful magic of being Ugandan- our identity and our dreams,” she explained. It’s no wonder then that, the ARAPAPA brand is constantly expanding, transforming and helping Santa reap the infinite potential of its symbolism. “The success of ARAPAPA models soon birthed ARAPAPA by Santa ANZO, a Fashion House and Design Studio. People bought the unique clothes l designed and wore off me, and orders started to fly in. Corporate companies turned to me for mascots and uniquely designed uniforms. In the same year, overwhelmed by the attention my designs were earning l decided to set up shop as ARAPAPA clothing label. ARAPAPA by Santa ANZO’s signature is Afro-fusion. Authentic designs inspired by my African-ness, Made in Uganda – unique cuts to whet your appetite with a very contemporary accent.”
When Santa set out to launch the concept of a Ugandan Fashion Week in 2003, she was met with ridicule. She was told Ugandans weren’t creative people, and that she should relocate to Europe, America or, at the very least, South Africa, to live out her fantasy. True to her nature, she kept insisting as she genuinely believed that there was a lot more to the Ugandan fashion industry than meets the eye. “The talent simply lay docile and unexploited. I started out with four renowned Ugandan designers but by the time l held the first edition of Uganda International Fashion Week (UIFW) in November 2003, l had registered over sixty local fashion players, mostly fashion designers and fabric manufacturers. By the 2nd edition, UIFW had grown to over 145 participants and l was now hosting the rest of Africa. Omou Sy from Senegal, XULY BET and Clive Rundle, the godfather of South African fashion attended, and Rwanda sent eight fashion designers as well as Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria. The stage was set for African fashion as the world media turned its lenses on Uganda with CNN, BBC, SABC Africa covering the various editions of the UIFW,” Santa told us.
Nowadays, UIFW is at the forefront of causing socio-economic change within the sector of fashion in Uganda - and by extension Africa - by creating partnerships that promote the fashion, garments and textile industry. UIFW has evolved to illuminate the potential of fashion as a vehicle for swift economic development in Uganda and creates a framework allowing for the cross-country exchange of fashion entrepreneurship, ideas and concepts; the expansion of business-to-business engagement and trade amongst sector players in the global market; the fostering and sharing of information and ideas amongst fashion sector players and the fashion market; the promotion of and contribution to fashion tourism and the preservation of culture; the provision of a platform for designers to showcase their unique expressions and designs to the fashion market and the enhancement of visibility and strategic importance of the fashion industry to governments, academia and other key stakeholders.
Santa recently kickstarted the UIFW Virtual Talk Show with the sole aim of informing and educating the general public about the true Business Behind Fashion. The initiative was motivated by President of the Republic of Uganda, Y.K. Museveni's declaration that, fashion and clothing is the second most significant sector that has the capacity to revive the economy of Uganda post COVID-19. The President stated that the clothing/fashion sector is an important survival economy only second to food. The other three priority sectors are food, security, medicine and shelter. However, with no representation at the national planning level, no representation at the cabinet/ministry level and no representation in the parliament of the republic of Uganda, the sector of clothing has been left to suffer continued stagnation. The UIFW conversations are aimed at interesting decision makers in government and, possible funders to invest in the sector of clothing and fashion.
“With the youngest population in the world at 77% and youth unemployment at 83%, the clothing and apparel market accounts for over 2% of the world GDP and is valued at over 3 trillion USD, and has the capacity to absorb the unemployed of Uganda, mainly women and youth. So far we have hosted five speakers and all of them have brought something unique to the discussion. Namely, award winning Ugandan fashion designers Rafael Kasule, Stella Atal and Jose Hendo, and Jan Malan the international acclaimed fashion show producer and director of the UIFW fashion shows. Dr. Hillary Emma Musoke, the Private Secretary to his Excellency the President of Uganda, in charge of Youth (Agriculture, Value Addition, Innovation and Export Promotion) was our fifth guest and he gave us the much needed presidential perspective on the clothing and fashion sector,” Santa told us. As to what Santa has learned from the UIFW Virtual Talk Show in terms of how to move fashion as a business forward after the Covid-19 pandemic, Santa’s message is clear:
“We have to keep re-inventing the wheels and power our online presence if we are to stay relevant and alive. Most importantly, Africa has to set up its own production plants for fabrics and clothing, we can no longer remain dependant on the West and China. Africa must industrialize.”