FASHION DESIGNER, ENTREPRENEUR & PHILANTHROPIST
Belange’s story begins in Kolwezi and Likasi, Democratic Republic of Congo where she was born and raised. Growing up she wanted to be an engineer just like her father, so in high school she studied math and physics. She loved it but she never felt like that was the place for her, she thought that she had more to offer to the world than what she could give through engineering. She was a victim of bullying and this got worse during her senior year when her face got affected by severe pimples. Due to this, her family doctor suggested she stay home from school for a week. “I was so depressed, people called me ugly, it was the worst time of my life”. During that week off, she was bored and started to think of things she could do to pass the time. She had her sewing machine and a dress she no longer liked that she bought at a Goodwill. “What if I could make something else out of this dress,” Belange said to herself. Little did she know she had started cutting up the dress, which two hours later she had sewed into a handbag. She was tired of going to school and having people define her a certain way. “If I was able to change this ugly dress and make a beautiful bag out of it, I could also be different.” When she recovered, she went to school with the bag she had made, and a classmate liked it and asked her if she could buy the handbag. After making her first sale, Belange had many customers coming to her with their old clothes to be sewed into bags. This was when her business started. Three months after this, she told her father that she couldn’t be an engineer anymore, that she wanted to explore her artistic side, but just like any other African father, he argued and told her that “there is no future in fashion.” Her father however told her that if she could prove that fashion is her calling then, she could pursue it in school.
A month after this conversation with her father, her business was bombing to the point that she was able to buy herself a new advanced sewing machine. She then decided to officially name her business the Belange Handmade LLC, at the age of 17. At the darkest time in her life, Belange managed to create something so bright that even she was unsure she could handle. “Bouncing back up from bullying and earning people’s respect is something I am very proud of.” Belange’s father noticed how happy she was that he couldn’t deny that this was it for his daughter. He then told Belange to pick any college she wanted to go to for fashion and he would pay. She then started looking at schools and a cousin of hers that lives in the US suggested that she come to Des Moines, Iowa which she did. While at Des Moines Area Community College, Belange was an active member of Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society and was an Honors student throughout her time there. Belange graduated from DMACC with her AA Degree and is currently a junior pursuing her Bachelor degree in Apparel, Merchandising, and Design at Iowa State University. Through her business, she has been able to sponsor DMACC’s annual Fashion Gala and a few other nonprofit organizations such as Living Water International and La Grande Académie. After graduating from DMACC in 2018, she was contacted by the CEO of Raw Artists, a company that promotes young artists, who had found Belange’s profile on social media, to be one of the designers at a fashion show in Omaha, Nebraska which would then be Belange’s first Runway Show. After this show, the coordinator thought that Belange had done such an amazing job that he offered her another opportunity in Hollywood to take place in the summer of 2019. This offer was given with options of different locations such as Japan, Canada, Europe, Australia or Hollywood of which she chose Hollywood.
Belange went on to explain that she has been invested in giving back to her fashion community which she said she has often been judged for because she is “African”. Often. people say to her “Why would you call the fashion community your community, that’s a white community?” Getting this question from people, has made Belange really dig deep and think about how she could use her talent to give back to her own inner community, the African community. It was this question that drove Belange to research nonprofit organizations that support and empowers African children who are facing challenges in pursuing their education due to financial difficulties because of her passion for children. She had to really take her time because she hadn’t found a Non- Governmental Organization(NGO) that touched her heart right off the bat. She came across La Grande Academie on Facebook, an organization that strives to promote a world-class education in the rural areas of developing countries in West Africa, specifically in Zinder, Niger. The organization also provides scholarships (LGA Scholarship Fund) to the children they support. This was Belange’s breakthrough moment, it was after a conversation with the founder that made her realize she could sponsor a kid through the scholarship program. Her sponsorship of the child in Niger birthed her project called “The Africa Project” which is a sponsorship program that she created exclusively to serve African NGOs around the world. Through the project, she has started to design exclusive clothing collections meant for fundraising purposes. “It’s really something that I want to be able to bring African people together and work together to create a goal that is achievable in order to help our own Africans.”
When asked to share some of her biggest challenges, Belange shared that she didn’t have the skills needed to become a designer compared to most people in her major so she really had to work harder than the average person in all of her classes. She also shared that managing a business at such a tender age was very challenging for her because she had no prior experience whatsoever. Coming from a Francophone country, adapting to the language differences was another challenge she had to deal with. Although she had learned English in DRC, it wasn’t the same because back home they learn British English.
In the future, Belange hopes to open a fashion school because as Congolese people we see fashion as a “on the street” type of industry. But she believes otherwise, to her fashion is one of the most lasting industries there is. She wants a school that incorporates fashion and business skills because fashion is not just about making clothes, it’s about the buying and selling of it.
Message to young Congolese:
Never give up! It may be a short phrase but it’s very powerful. Always write your ideas down somewhere. Ideas written out don't die, they must come to life. Do not let your age limit you. You can do anything you want to do at any age. People tell me that I am such a dreamer, but you know what I tell them? Dream! It’s fun, just dream. Allow yourself to be free. And if something doesn’t work out, take a break, think about some other things you can you do, and do it. Above all, define yourself, don’t let anyone do it for you.
On what it means to be an empowered Congolese woman:
To me, the word empower means light, it means that when people see you they see light that they can use in their life. The person I think of whenever this word is said is the Kenyan sister Nancy Mwirotsi because there is so much that I wouldn’t have been able to do had I not met her at the time that I did. She taught me how to write a business plan and much more. She is the person that I really connected with here and is like my mother far away from home.
Belange is a definition of #Congolesegirlmagic. Although her reality began with being bullied in high school, depression at a young age, and finding herself in a new country with new linguistic challenges, she chose to rise above these circumstances and achieve success in what she is passionate about.
WE SEE HER, WE RECOGNIZE HER, AND WE UPLIFT HER. PLEASE JOIN US IN DOING THE SAME BY SHARING HER STORY WITH THE WORLD. THIS IS HOW WE CHANGE THE NARRATIVE.