When LA Fashion Week came calling, the Tanzanian born Americans, Rahel and Mwasi Mwitula couldn’t believe their ears.
“I kept asking them, ‘Are you sure you meant to call us? We’re a small operation,” Rahel said, recalling the exchange from nearly a year ago.
After several minutes reassuring her that yes, LA Fashion Week did indeed want a line from her African clothing collection, ILAVA (which means ‘it can be done’), featured in their 5-day event, Rahel realized things were about to change – very quickly.
“That was one of the breakout moments for us,” she said. “It’s been one of the biggest achievements of ILAVA thus far.”
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It's a wrap!!! We just finished our LA Fashion Week, Spring 2018 Collection production. We hope you will love the collection as much we do…😊 #laboroflove #entrepreneur #socialentrepreneurs #sisters #partnersforlife #proudlymadeintanzania #la#fashion #week #myilava#itcanbedoneagain
Rahel Mwitula (right) is the founder and lead designer of ILAVA, and Mwasi Mwitula (left) is the CEO of ILAVA. Both Rahel and Mwasi reside in Chicago, IL.
Their LA Fashion Week debut had been years in the making. When the sisters first started thinking about starting their fashion line, it was 2015, Rahel was still in graduate school, and neither women had any design or fashion experience.
“At the time we were making these trips back home to Tanzania, where we’d get clothes made for us and bring them back. Each time we came back to the States, people would ask us all the time, ‘Can you make something for us?’” Mwasi said. “Hearing that got us thinking about starting a business.”
“supporting women not through donation but through something more powerful – networking”
Conversation became more serious after Rahel returned from a trip to Kenya that year, where she studied female entrepreneurship.
“While I was there, I started meeting all these wonderful women who are making beautiful things and are entrepreneurs operating at a grassroots level,” she said.
“Everything turned around after that point. Seeing and hearing from these women is what got us thinking – how can we support these women in a business sense, and what would that look like?”
The experience helped her to see the power behind supporting women not through donation but through something more powerful – networking.
“When you can connect people to the right market, the opportunities are endless,” Rahel said.
Committed to the idea of a social enterprise, Rahel and Mwasi began by collaborating with women in Africa to sell their products in the U.S. They started off small – selling jewelry and greeting cards – before slowly expanding to include more women’s wear and accessories.
Today Myilava offers a colorful variety womens’ clothes and accessories, plus home décors like decorative pillows and kitchen linens. Across the range of products they offer, distinctive and bright African patterns and colors unite them all – definitively chosen to boldly celebrate the culture and heritage of its creators.
“We’re all about celebrating African women and African cultures, and our collections invite people to join us in that celebration,” Mwasi said. “We also make a conscious effort to recondition how people see African culture, and start conversations, through the way we name and design our collections.”
Each year ILAVA makes a point of giving back to African communities, a principle that’s has been part of its foundation since day one.
“Often times corporate social responsibility is the thing people do after they’ve made money to make themselves feel good and get a tax break. But we take it very seriously and it’s been a core part of our business from the very beginning,” Rahel said.
To give back, the sisters connect with nonprofits or institutions on the ground. In their first year, they teamed up with ELIMAA, a primary school near Arusha, Tanzania, to supply clothes to its primary students. And last year, they joined Msichana Initiative, which advocates for girls’ right to education in Tanzania. Through the initiative’s One Girl One Bike Project, ILAVA donated 50 bikes to help young girls get to and from school.
Supporting other women entrepreneurs is as core to their mission as giving back. To those thinking about starting their own business, Rahel and Mwasi’s advice is simple, and perfectly summed up brand’s name ILAVA, meaning: ‘ it can be done ‘.
“When we first started, we didn’t have any design background, we had to learn all about colors, patterns, and cuts, through the experience of creating the line itself. The fact that we’ve made it this far is proof that it is possible for anyone when you have a mission and a willingness to see it through,” said Rahel, who will host an upcoming TEDx talk at Northwestern University in Chicago on how to be a change maker.
“If you’re ever feeling down, just look at your surroundings,” she added. “For me, I think about the fact that there’s a girl now who will no longer have to walk 2 or 3 hours because we were able to donate a bike to them. When I think about that, I realize that what we’re doing is much bigger than myself and I find motivation in that to continue.”