“If you have privilege or power it is a responsibility to give it away to other people. That is what is powerful.”
Abby is the founder of Zuri Collection, a handbag company based in Chicago.
Did you always want to have a career in fashion and accessories? Where did it start?
“Not exactly. I have always loved fashion, but even a few years ago, I had no idea I would be doing this. I grew up in Lake Forest, a suburb of Chicago, and went to Northwestern on an athletic scholarship playing lacrosse. My college experience was totally dominated by sports, which was great. I loved it. In college I was someone who came having no idea what I wanted to do. I did not have a plan. My major was human development and psychological services. I began to realize I wanted to work with children, and along with that, I had a lot of classes on urban issues and social justice. Learning about the black and white achievement gap in education was something that I couldn’t put down, and ultimately it is what really motivated me to become a teacher. I ended up continuing to get a masters from Northwestern and became an elementary school teacher. I taught in Chicago Public Schools for six years, and loved every minute of it. I took a trip to Tanzania with my family and that completely changed my career path.
The year after our family trip, I moved back to Tanzania to teach there. I taught there for three months and fell in love with the culture. When I did that I was 30 years old, while a lot of the other volunteers I was with were 19 or 20. I felt so lucky to have this experience at that point in my life. I had career experience, life experience, and hopefully some maturity that enabled me to turn this amazing experience into something much bigger. I had no idea at the time that I’d be creating a brand, but I did have this feeling of gratitude and an awareness about how lucky I was. When I got back I really began to think about what I should do with this experience. I thought about teaching and working there, but I could not decide what I wanted to do. I did not think I wanted to be there full time, but I wanted to do something not already being done that would support the local community.
During this time, I was learning more about fair trade. I was inspired by Noonday Collection; they are the biggest fair-trade jewelry company in the world. I became an ambassador for them in 2014, because I thought it was a great way to be connected with people and issues of global poverty. I learned so much from Noonday about the power of fair trade, and that experience really helped to get me prepared for the sales aspect (among other things) of Zuri Collection.”
When did you decide to launch Zuri Collection?
“I had the idea probably since 2014, but it took a couple years to really crystalize. The first person I told my idea to was a friend of mine who works with artisans in Rwanda, and she was a huge encouragement. Her excitement for me made me feel like this was really something worth pursuing. In June of 2016, I went to Tanzania again to work with local artisans and learn about the quality of their products. I came back with strong partnerships and decided to launch in October 2016. It hasn’t quite been two years.”
How has the brand changed since you started?
“It has changed a lot even in the past two years. When I started I thought it would be a skirt and dress company. Now we don’t have any skirts or dresses. I didn’t have a clear product in mind; I just knew the country I wanted to work with, so I sold a variety of products. I was purchasing some wholesale and then also doing my own collection on the side. Last summer was when I made the commitment to go deeper with just a few groups so that our brand was cohesive, but also so the artisans we work with could have consistency and commitment.”
How did you decide on a name for your brand?
“Zuri means beautiful in Swahili. It sounds like its name, it sounds beautiful. It can also have other meanings but it is often used as beautiful. I also liked that it is easy to pronounce. I really wanted people to see the beauty of Africa and the people who live there. I felt like the name and the brand should show the beauty and story together.”
How do you manage living in Chicago, while working closely with artisans in Africa?
“I have been going there once a year. We communicate over Whatsapp, but visiting once a year has been sufficient. I was still teaching until now, and this summer is really the first time I’m able to plan and think ahead knowing Zuri Collection has my full attention.
I have seen most of the artisans we work with make everything in front of me. There is only one group I have not visited that makes our baskets. They are in a very rural part of Tanzania. I found them because their baskets were in a market in the town, and I was looking for a basket group and noticed they had an email on the tag. I emailed them and found out they currently have a presence in Europe, but not in the U.S., so it was a great partnership for both of us. They can have a U.S. market, and I found a high-quality basket weaving group.”
What are your thoughts on fast fashion? Do you try to avoid it?
“Fast fashion is something that is unavoidable. We are all a part of it. Clothing is often made unethically. I went through a faze where I said I would never step foot in a Zara or Forever 21 again, and although I actually haven’t been to those stores in particular, there are so many other stores that carry brands that are not transparent, and I was feeling guilt and shame for buying something at Anthropologie, for example. I think we have to be kind to ourselves and embrace paradox. I am an advocate for fair trade and ethical fashion, and do my best to shop ethical brands as much as possible, but I also still shop at Anthropologie. I have found a comfortable balance knowing I’m not perfect, but a constant work in progress.
I think the best answer is to try to be educated about it as much as you can. The more you know the better choices you can make. There are more and more ethical brands out there and it is important to support them. I always try to go to Everlane for T-shirts, denim and other basics and Mata Traders for a cute summer dress before looking elsewhere.
I do not think fair trade or ethical fashion is going to go out of style. A lot of mainstream brands are starting to realize consumers want to know who made their clothes and they are responding. I think it will continue to grow and hopefully it will put enough pressure on these big businesses to make a change. On the other hand, the consumer has a lot of power. Our dollars speak and the way we spend our money contributes to a lot of how brands plan their future. For years we have been a deeply consumerist culture, and people are starting to realize we don’t need as much stuff as we once thought. People want quality and are willing to spend a little more for something that will last a long time. I also feel like the notion of trends are kind of changing. People don’t only wear one style as much anymore. There may be a few things in style, but no one is looking at you and saying, “this is so two years ago.” There is a lot more that is “in” which makes it easier to wear certain things year after year or season after season. I think people are trying to have trends fit their lifestyles more rather than trying to fit in with the trends, which is such a better way of looking at fashion!”
What is the biggest thing you learned starting a company?
“I don’t know if this is everyone’s experience, but I have learned I need help. It can be hard to ask for help; as women we often do not want to ask for help. We think we’re supposed to be able to do it all, but that is a lie that needs to be unraveled. I cannot do it all. I don’t have all the skills or the capacity. Furthermore, it has been very clear to me that if I just do this brand alone, it will have a very limited perspective and limited reach. I think things only thrive with community. And the thing is, women are so good at showing up for each other!”
What does it mean to you to be powerful?
“I do not know if this is the same, but I once heard a quote that talked about privilege; if you have privilege or power it is a responsibility to give it away to other people. That is what is powerful. I think holding privilege is not helpful if you don’t find a way to give it away. Powerful can mean a lot of things. For example, kindness can be powerful. I think owning your own story can be really powerful. Especially in the age of social media when no one is really connecting. I think if you can be secure in your own story and willing to share it, it can be powerful and really positively impact people.”