At 15-years-old, Sarah Nakintu would go hunting for weekend outfits among the open-air stalls of Owino, Kampala’s secondhand clothing market. Dressed in school uniforms and with an allowance from her father in hand, she and her girlfriends would comb through the stalls for designer denim. But good fashion is never straightforward.
“The funny thing is there was a stigma around going to the secondhand market because it meant that you didn’t really have money to buy things on High Street,” Sarah says. “We were browsing, like really excited to be there, and we saw these boys from our school and we dived and tried to hide because it was embarrassing to go there.”
Her most-prized purchase from Owino was a 90s-era Coach purse. Although Sarah admits she wasn’t aware of the luxury handbag line until she relocated to NYC in 2005. She recalls when a stranger stopped her on the street to enquire about where her bag was from, and was shocked to learn it was from Uganda.
“The person was like, ‘What? Do you know this is a Coach bag?’ I’m like, ‘What is Coach? I don’t know,’” Nakintu explains.
Today, Nakintu designs her own line of luxury handbags. When I met her at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in Manhattan she wore a white, honeycomb-mesh bomber jacket from Beyoncé’s Ivy Park line, a magnificent Afro and Stila-ruby-rouged lips.
Established in 2015, Kintu New York—named in honor of papa Nakintu, one of her biggest supporters—specializes in handbags made by Italian craftsmen featuring a cow-horn closure sourced from Kenya, Indian hand-woven silk, and vegetable tanned leather. The minimalist bags’ compact size, generous number of pockets and variations, including an array of bold colors, are practical and perfect for urban women on-the-go. Kintu New York is soon to launch at KaDeWe Berlin, one of Germany’s oldest department stores.
During a two-year stint in Italy, Sarah met artisans whose skills are on the verge of extinction as younger generations are abandoning their family traditions of fine craftsmanship. Sarah’s dedication to ensuring their artistry gets passed on led her to create her luxury brand influenced by her Ugandan upbringing, globetrotting and NYC street wear that’s expanding the boundaries of “African-inspired.”
Below are highlights from our conversation. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Erin C.J. Robertson for PM: Who is Sarah Nakintu?
Sarah Nakintu: I moved to the U.S. in 2005 for higher education and to explore something a little bit outside Kampala, where I’d been born and raised. When you grow up with African parents, it can be a challenge to do what you want. I always loved fashion and I wanted to do fashion from when I was really young, but my parents were all about school. You know, go to school, get an education, and be like a lawyer or something.
I think New York just opened my eyes so much to people doing what they love and people hustling and trying to get things done. With time, I just thought maybe I can really do what I love as opposed to doing something that my parents wanted me to do.
What drew you to fashion?
With fashion, you’re really able to bring out your imagination. I travel so much these days and every time I go to a place, I’m very inspired. I can see what New York looks like and look at cities like Milan. How do people there dress? I’m really interested in seeing how it all trickles down. How can something be a painting today and tomorrow it’s fully interpreted into a dress or a bag?
What was it like growing up in Uganda?
I grew up in boarding school, so I was very sheltered. Uganda is a religious country. You’re kind of expected to be a good person and go to church—do what your parents are telling you to do kind of thing. A lot of judgment as well, so you can’t disgrace your parents.
I remember my aunties and my sisters and my whole family would be like, ‘You know you’re too loud. You really need to tone it down.’ The only person, really, that was appreciative of me and who I was was my dad who encouraged me to be myself.
Yeah, I have definitely always been very interested in fashion. With or without money, it’s always been my thing.
What was the moment like when you told your family that you wanted to pursue fashion full-time?
I didn’t really tell them. With things like this, it’s really better to go and do it and then once you’re successful or you’ve moved the needle a little bit, you can tell them. I think I’ve tried to tell them like, ‘Hey, I’m doing this handbag thing,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, okay. Sure. Whatever.’ I have a lot of ideas, so I’m sure they were thinking, ‘Oh, that’s one of her crazy ideas.’ I didn’t get their blessing—I just went ahead and did it. That moment was scary for me because I had a full-time job and I was earning really well and in New York it’s hard to just give up a full-time job to go and do something where you have no idea if it’s going to succeed.
How is Kintu African-inspired?
Often when you tell people that you’re doing something African-inspired, they’re expecting African pattern or African material or something like that—this is not necessarily what I wanted to do. I represent modern Africa and the different types of people that come out of our continent. There are so many ways to do African inspiration.
A lot of brands do African-inspired in a way that’s a bit overwhelming. I wanted to do a bag that you can take from morning to day to night. We wanted to do a luxury line that’s African-inspired. You know, very subtle but still there. The closure is the shape of a cow horn. If you’re East African or know about East African culture, the cow is very central to our subsistence. Animal print is actually completely African-inspired. We worked with African animals and we did it in a very modern manner, which it’s really, really interesting to a lot of buyers. It’s something that they’ve not seen before and they love it.
Why is sustainability important to you?
Our bags are made really well with long-lasting materials. You can pass them on to your children. I think that’s really important. There’s also sustainability in terms of where we make our bags and who we make them with. When we worked in India and Kenya, we’re paying a living wage. We pay artisans what they deserved as opposed to just saying just because you’re based in Kenya, we’re not going to pay you well.
That’s also important to me because remember, I’m African. Just being there and remembering the women in the market working really hard or the farmers that I grew up seeing or the tailor, that’s sewing. They work really hard. They groom and they grow and they hone their craft. We need to start paying them really well and recognizing their talent and taking it global. I feel really passionate about being able to bring those skills and then also create the next generation of artisans.
What advice do you have for another African creator who wants establish their own brand?
Find your niche and something that you’re really passionate about. Research the idea. Talk to your friends about it. They might discourage you, but if you really think it’s going to work, then you should go for it. Build your network. Even if you have nobody, reach out to people. Introduce yourself. Knock on doors and just go on LinkedIn. Reach out to people that you think you need to talk to. Dig, deep. There might be someone that you met somewhere that you forgot about, but that person might be someone really important. Just really don’t take anyone for granted. , As an entrepreneur, you need to be available also for other people. You don’t want to just reach out to people so you can use them. You should genuinely be interested in people and get to know them. Find a community where you can plug in. I’m part of a sustainable emerging designer group. We meet every month. I go there. I give ideas as much as I get. Do what you have to do. If you have to rent out your apartment and stay with friends, just so you can explore the idea, you should definitely go for it.