Founder of the Umoja brand Victoria Helen Hughes speaks exclusively to Urban Times about her brand.
Why did you choose to set up a green brand?
I went to Africa in 2010 to teach English in local schools in Tanzania, I didn’t like the whole idea that there were a lot of unqualified English people teaching and taking jobs from local people. I did not like the company I was working for as their business idea was totally different from my ethical values. I left after two weeks and started to help different charities, helped in international schools. I realized that there were a lot of people who could make garments but not buy them, so I started teaching tailoring to more people and they started selling things to international teachers. That was the moment I wanted to create my brand as they already have the skills, they just need the opportunity. I started my company in 2011 and my 2012 collection sold out straight away.
Where are the materials sourced?
Most of the materials are sourced locally in Kenya, Mombasa, some from Tanzania. Some of the fabrics are also sourced from the UK, including small suppliers in Leeds.
What would you say is the future goal for Umoja?
The main goal is to create SOKO workshops. SOKO is an organisation that provides fair employment to an impoverished community, improves quality of life through training, employment opportunities and improved social services. The limited pieces are created using as many fabrics and components sourced in Africa as possible.
What is the most important thing for the Umoja brand?
To produce clothes that make people believe that they can be fashionable. Focus on long wear ability, working with up-and-coming models, make-up artists and to help young people to get jobs in creative arts. To work with as many small businesses or start-up businesses as possible to help them survive as well. Boost employment in Tanzania. But the most important thing is that I still design the same way as I did when back in studying my Fashion Degree in University of Lancashire in Preston. I look for inspiration in blogs to make sure I know what is going on in the whole fashion world, to be on trend as well as focusing on the wearability of the garment. I want to encourage people to wear clothes the way they want to wear them- whether you are a fashion lover or not, or whether you are a eco fashion lover, I want you to wear the clothes that inspire and make you happy. That way you will wear them for long time.
What would you say is the key element for an Eco fashion brand to survive in the competitive markets?
To create things in such a way that people don’t feel like you are preaching. It’s not a religion movement, it’s fashion, and I wish that people would see the positive side of fashion. You can wear the pieces you like and contribute buying eco pieces as well, you can buy clothes from second hand shops as well as swishing your garments with friends. or perhaps make your own garments. Eco can be fun. For example, you can buy African-inspired printed garments from high street shops and they look great, however, it is fantastic opportunity for me to give people the option to buy a real African printed garment that has been sourced in Africa and has a story behind it. Buying a garment really does make a difference to these people.
Is it easier to start a green brand today than it was before?
I would say nowadays it is easier as there are places like ethical fashion forum and other big organisations to help you to get started and network with the right people.
Do you see the opportunity for green fashion to develop into mainstream fashion?
I really do hope that it will happen in the near future. People are in some ways too lazy to look for ethical fashion brands as they are not on the high street yet, or at least the majority of them aren’t.
Are you planning to branch out in UK/Europe?
I have plans to wholesale in future.
What it is to be a female entrepreneur?
There are mostly females in the business, the owner of SOKO to name just one. My financial manager is male but there are many females in the business today, which is a great thing. You learn so many new things everyday which is crucial to someone like me who actually did not have any knowledge of how to set up a business. There are a lot of people ready to help you if you network and find the right people to work with.
Would you encourage more women to set up their businesses?
I think it is a fantastic opportunity. There are so many areas in which you can get help today, you can research anything you need, you can employ people for an hour and they can teach you. Try people per hour.com. I was a student and quite fearless and learned to appreciate Africa. African communities are the happiest people in the world and education is the best thing you can give them. More people going to school is going to help future generations. The economy is booming in Africa so I feel hopeful that things will be better in future. So there is a real chance for other women to go ahead and set up their businesses.
Why have you chosen Tanzania as an inspiration for your brand?
I fell in love in Tanzania. It’s personal reasons, I really love the people and the place.
What is the mission statement for Umoja brand?
If we all do just one good thing a day we can all live in a better world. So in other words, I want to prove to people that ethical fashion can be fun and I want to encourage people to take part, even if it’s just in a small way. One small thing can make a big difference!
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