Pamela Tshilemba is an accomplished seamstress and used to run a small garment business in Congo, her native country. She moved to Vermont only five years ago but she already has a steady clientele for her garments in the local African community. Creating garments remains more of a hobby because starting a business in Vermont is challenging; the equipment and the space necessary to expand are costly. But Pamela is passionate about design and would love to create garments for everyone, regardless of their ethnic background. She says, “To me, couture has no boundaries.”
What follows is a loose transcription of a recent conversation in French with Pamela.
When did you start sewing and designing?
Oh, it’s been a long time, more than 20 years! I was sewing in high school, and studied design in college. Long before, I was making outfits for my dolls. I started, and I never stopped!
I like it, when the person is smartly dressed…
Can you tell me more about your design studies?
It wasn’t just about sewing. It was about design, color, how to marry colors and materials, how to choose a theme. Because when you create a design, it is a direct extension of the theme.
The theme is the source for inspiration; it’s a tool to open my mind. When I sew, I want to share a message.
How do you approach Karibu?
When I heard about Karibu, my first question was, ok, what is the theme? You need a theme to guide the designs.
This is my third year designing for Karibu, and this year my theme will be connected to the animal spirit, and I want to combine African and American fabrics. But that’s all I’ll reveal for now!
How do you work?
You start with a theme, identify a message, look for a color. Then you can start drawing, think about accessories and the model’s silhouette. Finally, you make the garment, and that takes a lot of time. I’d say between 24 and 48 hours of sewing work. Here are a few examples of my work:
Here is one of the dresses you designed for Karibu last year. Can you tell me more about it?
The material is a kind of African fabric called pagne. We wear it in the Congo, in Burundi, and in other African countries. The dress could be worn at an official event or a traditional wedding (“marriage coutumier”) when the two families meet – this is different from the religious wedding where the bride wears a white dress.
Of course, you can use the pagne for other types of garments, like trousers or shirts. You can buy pagne at local African stores, or from neighbors returning from visits in their home countries, or online.
I’ll be using pagne for Karibu designs this year.