Translated as “wanderer” in Swahili, Muzungu Sisters was established by Tatiana Santo Domingo and Dana Alikhani in 2011. The girls travel to bring ethically crafted clothes and accessories from local artisans to encourage the continuation of traditional craft and to bring these pieces into the modern wardrobe. Each item is carefully sourced to ensure fair labour practices, promote cultural diversity and support small-scale economies. From hiking across Machu Picchu to browsing the boisterous markets in India, the Muzungu Sisters share with A Boy Named Sue some inspiring moments from their journeys:
How do you come across the pieces while travelling?
Before we travel, we do a lot of research and ask for information from people who have lived in the place where we are heading. Once there we walk in the streets, go to the markets, then suddenly you get taken somewhere, or you simply fall on a piece. It really depends. The sarongs from Bali - Tatiana’s family always used to travel there and bring them back. Sometimes it’s not something that we are focused on finding, we just come across it.
Do you feel that your products are different from those in souvenir shops?
We have probably picked up a few tacky souvenirs ourselves! Yet, it’s a matter of personal taste: Muzungu Sisters reflects our own personal style. Some people may regard one of our bags as a grain sack, but for us these are the products that we love and our friends love. It’s very important that each piece can speak for itself. Within the context of the souvenir shop, it probably looks like a tourist item. But if you mix it with a leather vest, a t-shirt and jeans, it takes on a whole different context.
To be honest, I’m sure that some of the stuff we’ve bought doesn’t give an accurate cultural reflection of the country and could be quite kitsch. We don’t dwell on it too much because it’s just our taste. If we like something, we’ll get it.
With so many of these items widely available when travelling, people don’t necessarily appreciate them. Once you are back home, in the urban concrete, you remember all the beautiful textiles that you saw and think, ‘Why didn’t I pick up more?’
How did you come across with the Peruvian jackets?
Before we went to Peru, we did research on the textile traditions, weaving and the cultural dress. I saw the jackets in a book about traditional Inca wear in the Peruvian highlands. Knowing that you can find similar pieces in this particular region of Peru, we met up with a fair trade cooperative that teaches people how to weave and use vegetable dyes from plants and flowers just the way their ancestors did.
The Peruvian jacket is made in a settlement outside of Cusco. They showed us how to make all these different colours from natural dyes - even that bright red from cochineal! They would take the wool and put it together with onions to make it yellow and when they added water it would turn from mustard to lemon. Their knowledge of colour combinations using these dyes and techniques is amazing. Garments have been dyed like this for thousands of years, but people have forgotten the craft.
How do you establish a relationship with local people?
It depends on the country. In many of these countries communication is very difficult because you don’t really know whom you are dealing with. Working with organizations really helps. We usually work with small workshops or individual artisans and we have good relationships with them. In Brazil, we work with a cooperative which is made up of local women, who weave clutch bags and bucket bags out of silk straw. In India, a lot of people who work with fine textiles are working out of their homes so they’re able to have their children next to them and simultaneously can bring up a family. It’s a much more sustainable method of working and supporting themselves, which is important for us.
In terms of practice, how do you define and choose products that are ethical and sustainable?
The ethical side is more of a personal thing - we are not preaching it to other people. For many buyers, that’s a bonus, but they mainly buy the piece because they like it. Since starting this venture, we decided to work directly with artisans who are able to sustain themselves from their craft. We maintain a personal relationship with the people who produce things for Muzungu Sisters. We see them in their working environment; know what they are being paid and we ensure that they’re not employed by subcontractors who are conning them out of what they should be making. In that manner we are able to ensure that the whole supply chain is ethical from the beginning to the end.
As a small business, the social responsibility is already built into your company. How do you regard Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) which is seen as an added bonus rather than the brand's core?
I (Dana) think there’s a difference between CSR and business & human rights. CSR is very much a marketing tool. A lot of companies say that they can plant 10,000 trees a day, but in reality the fuels that they are burning in their factories, while doing that, have nothing to do with being green.
Having respect for human rights within your workforce is very different to CSR. CSR is voluntary: it’s not actually a legal obligation, but respecting the rights of the workers, making sure everyone is paid a basic salary and making sure that the standards are upheld - that is a legal obligation (as long as it’s enforced by the government). This is basic, while CSR is fluff. I believe that both can help each other and a lot of good things have happened in companies that have started from CSR initiative. You can influence more from within than you can from outside.
How does one incorporate a Muzungu Sisters’ product into her look without looking like she’s in a costume?
It would be a good start to actually really like the piece. If you don’t like it and you don’t feel comfortable, even if someone tells you how to wear it, you are going to feel awkward. If you like the way it looks and feels - that’s a good start. Mix it with the stuff you usually wear. You don’t have to wear Moroccan pants and go for the whole look- you can wear a Muzungu jacket on top of denim shorts or leather pants. People don’t see it as a costume anymore. They have become a classic staple piece for people wear it out of its context.
How do you want your customers to identify with these products?
We were only in Peru for 10 days so it would be a bit arrogant for us to think that we transmit the Peruvian culture to shoppers in London and New York. I (Dana) don’t think we ascribe too much self-importance to the brand. We like these pieces and we think they’re amazing made by amazing people. We just like to have the view that fashion is not necessarily what you see in glossy magazines. Fashion exists in many places, from Africa to Bhutan; you will find unbelievable needlework, or colour palettes where people are creating instinctively. They are creating fashion even though they haven’t been to a fashion school. It is sometimes much more intricate than haute couture. They are beautiful things, not souvenirs.
It’s not like we’re bringing back something and telling people: “Now you’re going to be a Peruvian!” These are just things that we love and we’re happy that people also love them. Every piece has a story behind it but if people don’t care and they just like the product, it’s fine with us. What is important for us is the conditions these items are being made.
As avid travellers, what are your tips for packing light?
Pack light and wear local clothes. We went to India for 12 days and wore salwars, kurtas and tunics. When you are in countries like that you want to blend in and you have to be covered. When travelling, we don’t dress in our London clothes. I have noticed that wherever you are, you can always get things washed, so you don’t need clothes for 12 days, you just need clothes for 3 days.
What is the best thing about travelling with your girlfriends?
When you travel, you always end up in funny situations. It’s really nice to have someone to laugh with especially since we are in the markets all day long. It’s dusty, hot, smelly and exhausting. It is really nice to be with a friend, someone you can eat with. And we love to eat. A big part of the day is doing research where to have lunch, and dinner and tea!
What’s your next destination of choice?
Actually, we don’t know, maybe South-East Asia, Laos or Vietnam. We both love the textiles woven in Laos. The colours there, they are really beautiful! So I guess that would be our next stop and India is the place we always go back to.