This Memphis African fashion shop grew from a woman’s yen for empowerment

There was a time when Grace Byeitima, owner of Mbabazi House of Style, was interested in lawyering, not pattern layouts.

But her mother forced her to learn about the latter.

“I wanted to be a lawyer,” said Byeitima, who is from Kampala, Uganda. “My mother was a teacher in a vocational training institute, and she made me go where she was teaching and learn how to sew.

“I went grudgingly, but I went anyway.”

Yet today Byeitima, 43, who has sold African-inspired garments, jewelry and other knickknacks from her shop in the Broad Avenue Arts District since 2017, is grateful that her mother insisted that she learn how to sew.

Grace Byeitima, owner of Mbabazi House of Style, poses for a portrait, Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in Memphis, TN.

That’s because it not only has allowed her to craft a life of independence for herself, but for other women who want to use entrepreneurship to escape jobs which devalue them.

Which is what Byeitima aimed to do back in Kampala.

She said one of the ways that her mother endeared her to sewing was by bringing home unfinished sewing work – and paying her and her siblings to finish it.

“Some of the pieces, like what you’re seeing right now, is patchwork,” said Byeitima, as she pointed to ruby, saffron and black cowl neck shift that she was wearing.

A mannequin displays different clothing items sold inside Mbabazi House of Style, Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in Memphis, TN.

“I would make sure that I left school on time to work on it [patchwork clothing] so that I could use the sewing machine [first].”

But when her mother was ultimately laid off from her job, that dashed Byeitima’s hopes of attending college and studying law. On top of that, Byeitima, who was 16, learned that she was pregnant.

“So, I have this baby, my mom has no job, and I have this baby to take care of,” she said.

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