“Most of the African prints (known as Ankara in western Africa, or chitenge in east and central Africa) sold globally and in the African markets, are not authentically African, rooted in the African reality, designed by Africans or manufactured in Africa – even though patterns and motifs are inspirations gleaned from African sources.”
ZURi and iMANi is a surface and textile design studio started in 2016. They create original pattern designs for the fashion, home and paper goods market to produce timeless lifestyle and homeware collections.
The design studio’s portfolio includes a collection of ladies’ coats, scarves, canvas sneakers and leather bags, as well as textiles – timeless pieces in original ZURi and iMANi pattern prints for the revolutionary woman who is not into trends, wants to put her money ethically into a more conscious economy but still wants craftsmanship, authenticity, originality and exclusivity.
ZURi and iMANi was founded with an unafraid spirit, taking pain and turning it into art, believing that it is never too late to dream a new dream, believe it and make it happen. Cliffordene Norton chats to the founder, Joy Ezeka.
What inspired you to start ZURi and iMANi?
In 2015, I set out to create a fashion collection made out of the “Ankara fabric”, what we know as African prints. Researching online to find where to purchase fabrics in large quantities for seamless production, I stumbled across images of fabrics I had previously purchased, which are used by other fashion brands, and also discovered that the majority of these fabric prints are not produced in Africa or designed by Africans.
This discovery started me on a journey in 2016 with these questions:
- Question 1: How can I create timeless pieces for the revolutionary woman who does not follow trends but seeks exclusivity?
- Question 2: How can I create an uncontested market space for our brand in an already saturated fashion market?
- Question 3: How can I change the narrative of the African print?
To answer these questions, I did some research and discovered surface design. I also got to know about digital textile printing, which, compared with traditional textile printing methods, especially screen printing, saves about 90% on water consumption and about 80% on energy consumption. It is also a brilliant solution to fast fashion, where you can print the exact quantity of textiles you need, eliminate waste and produce apparel in small quantities.
I then went onto the internet and learned how to use Photoshop to design patterns that can be digitally printed on textile. Fortunately, South Africa had a few select companies which provided the digital textile printing service. This allowed me to be able to ideate, print pattern designs on fabric, build prototypes and test them.
The dream got bigger, with endless opportunities conceived just by asking those questions! It went from designing and producing our own custom fabrics for making timeless fashion apparel (coats) (solution to question 1), to creating pattern designs which can also be digitally printed or transferred onto leather, paper and ceramic surfaces to produce products for the fashion, home and paper goods market. This will enable us to create an uncontested market space for our brand, not only in the saturated fashion market, but in the creative retail market as a whole (solution to question 2).
The problem that got us asking question 3 was this: most of the African prints (known as Ankara in western Africa, or chitenge in east and central Africa) sold globally and in the African markets are not authentically African, rooted in the African reality, designed by Africans or manufactured in Africa – even though patterns and motifs are inspirations gleaned from African sources. Also, designs from Africa have often been misinterpreted, or recognised or defined as tribal art, with their creativity reduced to a certain stylistic representation and use of colours, materials and patterns.
This finding turned my passion for surface design into purpose and started us on a mission to change the narrative of the current “African prints” by weaving modern stories inspired by the richness of Africa, in order to create “our own” authentic Africanity content designs, while still retaining an awareness of current trends in design – made in Africa by Africans (the solution to question 3)!
What inspires your textile designs?
As corny as this will sound, the beauty of Africa inspires my designs. I e-travel through the internet space to different African countries and explore their landmarks, history and culture, and then I digitally weave all these unique elements into beautiful modern stories that form a pattern design unique to each country.
Tell us more about the beautiful Kingdom of Kush design.
The lost Kingdom of Kush (1070 BC – AD 350), I discovered on one of my e-travels around Africa, was an ancient kingdom located in the Sudanese and southern Egyptian Nile valley – now the Republic of the Sudan. I was fascinated to find preserved relics of pyramids, temples and palaces somewhere other than Egypt!
It is also fascinating to know that the ancient city of Meroë, where most of the pyramids and temples are found, was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2011.
Kush was a kingdom in northern Africa in the region corresponding to modern day Sudan. The larger region around Kush (later referred to as Nubia) was inhabited c 8 000 BCE, but the Kingdom of Kush rose much later. The Kerma culture, so named after the city of Kerma in the region, is attested as early as 2 500 BCE, and archaeological evidence from Sudan and Egypt shows that Egyptians and the people of the Kush region were in contact from the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt (c 3 150 – c 2 613 BCE) onwards. The later civilisation defined as “Kushite” probably evolved from this earlier culture, but was heavily influenced by the Egyptians.
What is the scariest thing about opening a new business?
I actually laughed out loud after reading this question. In the beginning, it’s not scary. You just have this dream, and it feels like you would not be able to live or breathe if you didn’t chase after it and make it happen. It’s like falling in love – the butterflies, every kiss and meeting being like the first time, heart beating wildly, the giddiness, the laughter, pure joy; and then, when the relationship passes the honeymoon phase, that’s when the work begins – that’s how it is/was for me. Reality set in when it was time to evolve from idea to prototype and then to market phase.
The scariest for me was finances – how to raise funds to introduce the brand into the market with products, build the brand and stay afloat. What helped to keep the dream alive was that I was passionate about what I was doing. I had fallen in love with surface design, and I could envision where the business could get to. That kept me going and motivated me not to give up.
What has been the biggest highlight for you so far?
Successfully completing Startup School South Africa’s 12-week online entrepreneurship course and winning the first place prize funding from Investec Bank in 2019!
The course equipped me with the right skills I needed to design a business model and put together an execution strategy to take ZURi and iMANi from idea to possibility, and the prize funding made that possibility a reality! We were also finally able to launch the business online officially in January 2020.
What would you like to accomplish in the next five years?
For ZURi and iMANi to open a fully equipped design studio in Cape Town – fully equipped with other surface designers and a production unit with machinery to produce products for our fashion, home and paper goods department, as well as our own digital printers so we can print our design in-house on any surface. And we would also love to see our products retailing in international stores and collaborating with big brands to have our pattern designs used on their products.
Our mission is to change the narrative of the current “African prints” by weaving modern stories inspired by the richness of Africa, visually recording its narratives made up of its culture, history and landmarks to create “our own” authentic Africanity content designs, but still retaining an awareness of current trends in design.
Africa’s time is now, and a new revolution has started in which South Africa is working towards democratising production and becoming self-sufficient, and the creative industry is not left out in this uprising. The creative economy is one of the most rapidly growing sectors globally. With the introduction of 3D printing, rapid prototyping and digital printing technology, ZURi and iMANi has the perfect opportunity to participate in the global economy through glocalisation.
In five years’ time, we want to be proud to say that we are contributing to the growth of the African creative economy, especially the textile industry, which has been on the decline – made in Africa by Africans.
If you had one piece of advice for someone just starting, what would it be?
Don’t quit your day job! And, if you don’t have a job, get one first and ease slowly into starting out on your own (except if you do have huge savings sitting somewhere, or family and friends who would support you when the journey gets bumpy and rough)! Because there are going to be some very, very dark days ahead that love and passion alone will not be able to see you through. But it is not all gloom and doom. As long as you can dream it, believe it, make it happen, put in the work, learn from your mistakes, learn from others, equip yourself with the right tools to help you through this journey and persevere, it will work out.
What are the challenges and opportunities you’ve faced as a business owner during this pandemic?
We have just launched officially in January, so this was a big hit on the business. Trade shows were cancelled, and sales trickled in. But I received these timely motivating words from one of my mentors. These words gave me the determination to make sure that ZURi and iMANi does not fold up. We are looking at ways in which we can tweak and adjust our current business model to evolve and move with the times to survive this pandemic.
“The best time to start a business is in difficult times. If you survive, the following years are plain sailing. It’s going to be tough for the next few months, and then things will take a turn for the better. Persevere and you will be amazed at what you will achieve.” – Stewart Cohen
- Photos: provided