How Rebecca Tembo Overcame her Personal Struggles to Help Other Fashion Entrepreneurs

An image of a model standing in a houndstooth Rebecca Tembo jumpsuit
Photo: Rebecca Tembo

The 25-year-old designer has worked with the likes of Cardi B and Maren Morris but she's had to push through some tough times to make it big.

She may be running a successful fashion brand now, but Rebecca Tembo knows what it’s like to be unsure of one’s creative path. The self-taught designer, who was born in London to Nigerian and Zambian parents, has gone viral on social media a number of times, thanks to her custom-made jumpsuits. But she’s also had her fair share of challenges – and battled mental health issues – along the way.

“I’ve had a lot of viral moments but it never gets old,” Tembo tells OkayAfrica. “I’d like to say there’s a huge element of luck, but luck isn’t possible without doing the work. Also, going viral isn’t enough. You need to be able to convert a percentage of those people into clients which I’ve learnt over time.” Earlier this year, one of her bespoke jumpsuits was shared on social media enough that it led to an opportunity with Cardi B.

“I couldn’t have ever planned for that moment,” she says. As Tembo tells it, the right person saw her jumpsuit and directed her to someone on Cardi B’s team who was interested in her style. She ended up working with Cardi’s stylist, Kollin Carter’s and traveling with the fashion team on the rapper’s European tour, as she altered and customized looks from well known designers in hip hop, Angel Brinks and Matthew Reisman.

“It was super surreal to see the email, work with Kollin’s team and, of course, work so closely with Cardi. It’s definitely the highlight of 2022,” says Tembo.

But it was a highlight Tembo almost never had. The designer admits the past few years have not been easy for her. “I went through a turbulent period during 2020 and 2021 with my mental health,” she says. “I was extremely suicidal; I had four suicide attempts, and was just in a dark place. It affected my ability to run my business.”

Ever since she was a young girl, Tembo had wanted to be a designer. From the age of 9, she would draw dresses she’d share with friends and her family. “As I got into my early teens I was obsessed with FashionTV, and would spend hours on YouTube trying to find out how to become a fashion designer,” she says. When she was 18, she started making custom pieces, but her father wasn’t keen on her pursuing fashion as a career. Still, she felt compelled to follow her dreams of becoming a designer and began working towards a diploma in fashion and design.

“It was a two-year course but I was there for only one and a half years because my mental health issues started at that time,” she says. Tembo’s small business was starting to grow but then the pandemic began. “There were so many issues that were going on that I could not understand,” she continues. “There was no one to make me understand what was going through my head and you have education to think about, clients, and you have no idea what you are doing. That is how the stress started.”

She decided to take a time out, invest in her self-development and seek clarity in her life. “Even to this day, as you evolve you realize your passion and your calling [does not follow] a straight line," she says. "There are so many obstacles that come into play and experiences that influence what you will do next."

For Tembo, therapy, journaling and reading were among the things that helped her. "I’ve had to unlearn things and re-evaluate my beliefs," she says. "Becoming an active gym-goer -- I work out 5 days a week -- has certainly helped me realize my potential and push my limits mentally, not just in the gym but in all areas of my life.” Her life started turning around and Tembo started seeing the positives in her life and career clearer.

Today, Tembo’s jumpsuits are known for their uniqueness, elegance and style in the fashion industry, and among star clients. Her first celebrity opportunity came in February 2020, when she dressed former soap opera actress Michelle Keegan during the Sky’s Up Next Event, in a one-sleeved red and black tweed jumpsuit complete with delicate gold stitching that made a striking statement. Last year, Grammy award-winning singer, Maren Morris wore a fuchsia-colored Portofino wrap top and Portofino midi skirt from Tembo's line, when she hosted Jimmy Kimmel Live.

“I have no crazy story about where I get my ideas/inspiration from,” she chuckles. “If I’m being honest, a lot of them come in the shower, or through movies. Sometimes even the lyrics in a song can inspire me. Whichever way, I always think about what the best version of myself would wear and take it from there.”

With her own business thriving, Tembo is now using her experience to help others who may be struggling to get onto the right track. She recently launched The Entry Platform for aspiring designers and entrepreneurs, to equip them with the tools and community to succeed in the fashion industry. It’s inspired by the sense of loneliness she herself once felt, and her not wanting her peers to have to build their businesses in isolation.

The platform has an international community of over 7,000 members. Additionally, Tembo has hosted events for attendees, has a podcast and has self-published two books. She believes that everything that mindset plays a critical role in one’s mental health and the work that is created.

“You need to believe you are worthy," she says. "Not that you’re deserving, because deserving doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee, but worthy as in you have the right to chase your dreams and have the right to success - whatever that looks like to you.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health, suicide or substance use crisis or emotional distress, reach out 24/7 to to connect to a trained crisis counselor, or find a hotline number to call near you.

*Corrected to reflect that Tembo has worked with the likes of Cardi B and Maren Morris, and not that Cardi B has worn her jumpsuits.