A Dream Come True! From A Small Town In Africa To New York Fashion Week

"Ugandan fashion designer tapped for New York Fashion Week 2019."

Early preteen years in Kyebando, Uganda

World-renowned fashion designer Donatella Versace once said, “Fashion is about dreaming and making others dream.” Little did Versace know that such words would be just as relevant in the small town of Kyebando, Uganda. As far back as her early teen years as an emerging designer, Nassali Sarah McDonald would often fantasize about becoming the next Coco Chanel or Vera Wang. However, her dream seemed to be blocked by the reality of poverty and lack of resources.

Nassali was the fourth of six children, all but one being girls. Being the fourth child, she would receive hand-me-down clothes from her elder sisters. Nassali’s dad and mom spent all of their income on the family’s basic needs; food, shelter, and secondhand clothes. Her dad was the headmaster of a local primary school, and her mom was an entrepreneur that operated a small grocery store. Though her parents lacked the financial means to support Nassali’s desire to study fashion, they never shied away from providing her with moral support.

Nassali refused to allow her situation to define her and, instead, taught herself the basics of fashion design. She would regularly sit in her room after school and make simple sketches of dresses that she could only imagine wearing. By the time she reached fifteen years of age, she had taught herself to sew using her grandmother’s sewing supplies.

Eventually, she developed her skills and her confidence to the point that she could redesign garments once worn by her sisters and gifted to her. The results left her sisters and classmates amazed: her pieces were dazzling! She sometimes had to convince them that the clothing was not new, just altered.

Over the next few years, she continued to hope that her parents would save enough money to allow her to pursue fashion design at university. Once again, her dreams were deferred, and she took a waitress job at a local restaurant in Kampala. She would work twelve-hour shifts and contribute her earnings to the household.

To illustrate Nassali's early life as an emerging designer.
Nassali wearing the first dress she refurbished.

Nassali's persistence pays off

Over the next few years, she continued to hope that her parents would save enough money to allow her to pursue fashion design at university. Once again, her dreams were deferred, and she took a waitress job at a local restaurant in Kampala. She would work twelve-hour shifts and contribute her earnings to the household. 

Nevertheless, she never stopped dreaming. In 2015, she decided to make a stop at the supermarket on her way to work to buy a sketchbook. There, she met an African-American gentleman, Anthony McDonald, who was in Uganda on business. Nassali agreed to meet Anthony for dinner before he headed back to the United States. Staying true to her word, the two of them met one week before Anthony’s departure. Impressed by the red cocktail dress that Nassali wore gracefully, he offered several compliments, only to learn that Nassali was the designer of the refurbished dress. 

Anthony became more intrigued after hearing Nassali’s story. At that moment, he promised to help her fulfill her dreams. Shortly after returning to the U.S., Anthony called Nassali and suggested she look for a school to enroll in so she can begin studying fashion, as she always dreamed. Shocked by the offer, Nassali thought that he was merely playing with her and she begged him not to tease her. Finally convinced, she contacted a school in Kampala and enrolled for the next session. 

Not long after starting classes, Nassali quit her restaurant job so she could focus on her studies. The fashion program she enrolled in was a one-year program, but she impressed her instructor with her ability to learn so quickly. She completed a one-year program in three months. During this time, Nassali and Anthony’s personal relationship grew just as rapidly, and the two even began to discuss the possibilities of marriage. 

This picture is to show Nassali and Anthony on first date.
"Nassali wearing self-made blazer on first date with Anthony."

Marriage and new career

Early in 2016, the couple decided to tie the knot. Anthony continued to support Nassali’s work by funding her portion of a co-op shop in the heart of Kampala. 

Nassali wasted no time and quickly began marketing herself in the local fashion scene. She partnered with brokers who would go out and find customers for a small fee, as well as solicited her family and friends.

She felt it would be wise also to leverage her husband’s connections to gain international clientele. So the two promoted her on his Instagram and Facebook pages. As they showcased her dresses, men’s and women’s shorts and shirts orders from the U.S. started pouring in. Not only did the U.S. become a hot market for her best designs, but she also began receiving requests from as far as Canada and Portugal. 

Nassali’s rapid success brought much joy to her parents, who wanted nothing more for her than to fulfill her dreams. She rewarded her parents’ constant encouragement with brand new clothes that she designed. 

Just as her business was blossoming, so was her marriage. After two years, the couple gave birth to their first child. After giving birth, she decided to stay home for a while to adjust to motherhood. While on leave, she would spend much of her time watching YouTube tutorials to learn about American design techniques. Learning more about American designs and techniques sparked an interest in blending African styles with American styles.

To show Nassali working in her first shop.
"Nassali working at her first shop in Kampala, Uganda."

Nassali's move to the US and advancing in the fashion industry

A few months later, Anthony petitioned for Nassali and their newborn son to relocate to the U.S. 

The couple relocated in January 2019. Before leaving Uganda, Nassali taught her younger sister fashion design and left her in charge of her rented space to serve her many customers. 

After settling into her new home, Nassali started acquiring equipment and transformed their fourth bedroom into her work station. She wasted little no time getting back on track. This time around, she would test the waters and invented a completely new style, bringing together African and American styles as she had desired. She revamped the traditional American romper, fitted dress, and party dress by using African printed fabrics. She sketched an entire collection and presented it to her husband and their son. They were both impressed. Soon, she discussed with her husband about launching her own clothing line. As always, he offered his support, and the concept of Nassali Wear, a multicultural clothing brand, was born. 

The young preteen girl from a small town in Uganda finally realized her dream on a grand scale! Nassali, the dreamer, was now Nassali, the designer. 

Six months after settling in the US, Nassali received a life-changing phone call. The call was from Plitz New York Fashion Week’s producer Wayne Shields. “I love your story, I love your passion! How would you like to present your designs in fashion week this September?” said Wayne.  

Nassali’s determination and persistence proved that dreams do come true. Currently, she is preparing to launch her ready to wear line called Nassali Wear. On September 7th she will make her American debut at the most prestigious fashion show in the world, New York Fashion Week. 

“Fashion is about dreaming and making others dream” ~ Donatella Versace.

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