Zuri, The Kenyan Label With A Beautiful African Aesthetic Is Finding A Following In India
New York-based designer Sandra Zhao didn’t want something hassle-free while travelling, something that could fit into a modern or conservative environment. So she designed a tunic-style dress that’s snug around the shoulders and loose around the rest of the body. It’s got a full skirt, long sleeves, and the entire garment can be buttoned up through the front, up to a smart collar. When Ashleigh Miller, another New Yorker bumped into Zhao at a wedding with this dress on, they instantly hit off a conversation, became friends and made it a business in 2017.
Named after the Swahili word for ‘Good’, the dress is special in the way that it’s silhouette is ideal for everyone, literally. It’s crafted from Dutch wax cotton which is great for holding diverse prints . The Dutch colonists were the connection between South-East Asia — where fabrics are dyed using wax and batik techniques — and West Africa, where they sold machine-made batik replicas we now know as wax prints. Zuri’s modern design interpretations of these techniques are artistic, quirky and never stay the same.
The dress is also very versatile; it can be worn as just a dress, a tunic, a jacket and a skirt. And it’s made ethically.
Excerpts from an interview with co-owner, Sandra Zhao:
What have you trained in? Did you always want to get into a business like this?
SZ: Before Zuri, I owned a bakery, launched a start-up, and cooked at a restaurant, so I don’t have obvious relevant training. I studied history in college and have always loved doing and creating things, so in many ways what we’re doing now makes a lot of sense. Ashleigh studied philosophy and went to law school, and became a rug dealer. We’re both doers, we’re not patient and we are committed to doing what we want, which I think are helpful characteristics for running a business. I don’t think either of us could have imagined doing what we’re doing now, but we’re really happy that we are!
What exactly was the thought-process behind choosing to work with just one style of dress?
SZ: We wanted to wear it all the time! From the start, it was clear that we didn’t want to wear anything else. Plus, it’s so versatile that even though it’s a single cut, it can be worn as a dress, jacket, tunic and even skirt.
Can you shed light on the start-to-finish process for a new print/dress – from sourcing the fabric to identifying prints to adapting it to your needs to manufacturing?
SZ: We source the textiles ourselves in a big market Dar Salaam, Tanzania. We tend to gravitate towards prints that jump out at us and make us smile. Then we send the fabric to Kenya where we produce the dresses. We then ship the dresses to our store in NYC and they travel all over the world to happy customers.
How did you get introduced to SOKO (the manufacturing unit) and Tushone (the workshop)? What was the initial process of learning about these two, checking the sustainable jobs they provide, and deciding to work with them? How do you continue to ensure sustainability in the process?
SZ: We found our manufacturing partners through tips from friends and just living in Kenya. The workshop is actually located in the same building as my bakery was, so I’d been going there for a while to get clothing made. The tailors there made the first dress and we continue to work with them today to test out samples. Since we’re based in Kenya, we’re able to be very present in the manufacturing process and ensure that they meet our standards. The larger manufacturers also go through rigorous audits so that we can be sure that their practices meet global ethical and sustainable standards.
How much research or background went into selecting these particular prints – Kitenge & Ankara? How do you ensure that you continue telling the global story of these prints in a respectful manner and ensure that the African roots and history are not lost in the modern commercial market?
SZ: We do our best to read and talk to as many people as we can to learn about the textiles and the culture and history around them. We’ve visited factories where the textiles are made, we’ve talked with designers in the factories, we spend time with the vendors in the markets and we ask our customers for their thoughts. Because we have a constant presence in East Africa, we can be attuned to attitudes around the textiles and get continual feedback on our work.
Why did you decide to have a rotation of changing prints? Do you ever bring back any prints due to demand or personal favourites?
SZ: Our production is completely responsive to the textile industry across the continent. New prints come out of factories constantly, which means that we can only produce as much as we can find in the markets. It wasn’t an active decision to produce limited runs of prints, we didn’t have a choice! When we find a print that we love in the market, we’ll buy as much of it as we can, knowing that it might be gone the next time we’re there.
From stores in New York and San Francisco, you’re also retailing in India. How’d you make that decision?
SZ: A stockist in India reached out to us, and we were so thrilled and excited! We’ve had customers tell us that our dress reminds them of a salwar kameez or a kurta, so it seemed perfect that our dresses find a home in India.
How did you come to hear about Zuri?
Bharti Lalwani (BL): In 2017, a very dear friend of mine asked me to take a look at this brand, which she was already a patron of. It was new, under the radar and not many folks knew about it. At the time, Zuri was only selling online and doing pop-ups across the USA. I reached out to them and we arranged to retail here on a pre-order basis, which I now manage twice a year. They sent me line-sheet of the products they’d want to sell here — different from what they sell online so there’s no competition.
What prompted you to start retailing it in India?
BL: Zuri’s garments are ethically made in Africa. I was raised in Lagos, Nigeria and now work in the art world, and it addresses a lot of issues, right from politics to the social impact of consumerism. The brand resonated with my cultural upbringing and mirrored my social and political beliefs. When the Rana Plaza tragedy happened — 1134 garment workers lost their lives due to unsafe working conditions — only a small percentage of brands fixed their work ethics and policies, but the majority continued on. The issue with fast fashion is that it doesn’t last very long, it also creates waste and adds to the pollution. Zuri gives us the option as individuals to do our bit for the planet and take responsibility.
Since Zuri works with SOKO, one can see where one’s money is going; Fair wages mean good health, education for the community. It’s giving fashion businesses a choice to not exploit workers, but rather empower them. I feel strongly about these issues.
In terms of fashion, I couldn’t find much off the rack because of the standardised size charts. I wanted a garment that’s bright and versatile that saves me the time and effort to dress up. It is conservative enough to take on my research trips to various countries as well as easy to pair with separates. The prints are just incredibly vibrant. My Nigerian side warms up to these patterns which draw the eye in. I naturally gravitated to the brand an DC its ethos. Also, until I started wearing Zuri, I was always this wallflower who wanted to disappear, but then being in these patterns is so cheerful and comfortable, that I would like to be seen.
I also try to make the dresses I stock a little more special by lightly embroidering sequins onto them, so that when one moves in the dress, it catches the light, and can transition from daywear to nightwear easily.
How have the reactions been so far?
BL: I’m not catering to a very big market, which helps me keep the choices of prints unique for every customer. If I know that there are common friends living in the same city, I’ll make sure that they don’t buy the same dress unless they really want to. Many of the customers love the extra sequin work that I incorporate into the dresses. Certainly, no New Yorker gets these extra personal touches and for my clients, I go the extra mile.