Judicaelle Irakoze and Douglas Rutamu knew each other for years through mutual friends, but it wasn’t until they discovered they shared a mutual passion — fashion design — that they became friends themselves. Now, the two burgeoning designers are planning a fall fashion show and inspiring each other with their enthusiasm. “I have so many ideas, but sometimes it’s hard to turn them into a reality. Judicaelle helps motivate me,” explains Douglas. Check out their joint fashion show on September 3 at The Root Cellar — for now, learn more about what style means to them.
D: People will ask me where I’m from — you know, my accent is thick, so they wonder. I’ll tell them I’m from Rwanda, but now I live in Maine. You know what? People don’t even know where Maine is! They’re like, is that in Canada? But I don’t care; I love Maine.
J: I love small cities like Portland. I love to travel around, but Maine is home.
D: Portland gives me the motivation to dress as myself. People here dress freely.
J: I went to a very, very fancy party in New York City. I thought parties like that — you know, rich people’s parties — were only a TV thing. I didn’t even know that side of society was real. At this party, everyone was wearing black. All black. It’s New York! And me, I showed up in a bright-blue, twenty-dollar dress, with bright-red heels and a big yellow ring. I got a lot of attention for that!
D: I love color. Color can help you send a message. Like, I have this jacket that I’ll wear in the fall when it’s starting to get cold. The jacket is covered in flowers — they call it a Hawaiian-print jacket. So even if it’s cold outside, it’s like I’m in Hawaii. It’s a happy jacket.
Dressed like a million bucks
J: I like to think, what if Obama called, right now, and I had to go meet him? I want to be proud of what I’m wearing. I want to look good. Or like what one of my style icons, Kerry Washington, once said in an interview: she was asked why she always dresses so professionally, and she said, “Because I’m about to make a million dollars.” I want to dress like I’m about to make a million dollars.
D: I had a friend who had to go to a wedding once, and out of a huge closet of so many clothes — jackets, shoes, everything — he didn’t have anything to wear to a wedding!
J: I have an aunt who has the perfect outfit for every occasion, but it takes her two hours to find that outfit in all of her clothes. But when she’s finished getting dressed, you see — it was worth it. I used to go to her house in Burundi and watch her get dressed. She would have the perfect outfit, but then need to change a necklace or an earring. It was down to the details.
D: I find style inspiration everywhere. I work at a homeless shelter, and I’ll see what people are wearing there and, I swear to God, I have to ask them where they got it! Or someone walking down the street. Right now I’m noticing the style of people from Angola and Congo — wow, I think I put together a good outfit, but man! They look really good.
An outfit for every body
J: Since I came to America, I’ve struggled with my weight. At first, I was upset when I wanted to wear something and it didn’t look good on me. You know, as women, we are trying so hard to be accepted and to fit into the models [ideal] we see on TV! You feel like you need to wear short dresses or this or that to be beautiful. But wearing a short dress doesn’t mean you look good — or, a short dress can look good, but it doesn’t mean a long dress can’t look good too.
D: You need to be comfortable in what you’re wearing.
J: Yes. So my [online] store has a theme. When I search for wholesale clothing, I look for items that are classic and classy. I want everyone to be able to find something they are comfortable in.
A conversation piece
D: The idea for my first collection came when I came to Portland and saw the diversity, especially in the African community. So many of these countries had been dealing with civil war, genocide, and generally unstable lives. My inspiration came out of wanting to raise up those countries. You look at a certain timeframe and you see the genocide, or the civil war — but each country is so much more than that. For us, America is our home, our second home. I want to help people show pride in where they came from and to be able to express themselves.
J: But without being so obvious about it.
D: My hats don’t have images of flags or names of countries. Instead, it’s a little phrase or something, a piece of a country’s history that will make people say, hmmm, what’s that about? My hat right now says “250,” which is the Rwandan country code [for international phone calls]. People will ask what it means, and it can start a conversation.
• Douglas is on Instagram as @dougli. Find his hats (and, soon, clothing) online at douglicollection.com.
• Judicaelle can be found on Instagram as @j.u.d.i.c.a.e.l.l.e_, or check out her online store at abigaellecloset.website.
• Douglas and Judicaelle have a fashion show at The Root Cellar on September 3.