When preparing for a trip to South Sudan last May, the American designer Sandra Zhao’s packing list was straightforward: “I wanted something I could shove in a backpack, that wouldn’t look like I’d just shoved it in a backpack.” Zhao, a New York City transplant, was living in Nairobi, where it’s fast and cheap to have clothes tailored, so she designed the dress she had in mind: resistant to wrinkling, airy enough for the equatorial sun and long enough (in sleeves and skirt) to be culturally appropriate. The resulting piece — a tunic-style dress that’s fitted in the shoulders and loose through the body — hit all the marks. It also, remarkably, looked good. Zhao traveled in the dress; then she started living in it.
At a wedding later that year, Ashleigh Gersh Miller (another New Yorker who had recently relocated to Nairobi) saw Zhao in the dress and was immediately drawn to it. “It was the week of my due date with my second child,” Miller says, so the loose, forgiving cut appealed. (“It doesn’t look like a muumuu,” says Zhao, “But it kind of feels like one.”) The two struck up a conversation. Soon after, they went into business.
Zuri, which launched online at shopzuri.com this year, is built on Zhao and Miller’s conviction that there’s one dress (indeed, “just one dress” is the brand’s tag line and hashtag) suitable for all purposes and people. “We’re both really short, but you could be six feet tall,” says Zhao. “It looks good on everyone.” They attribute this “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”-like adaptability to the structured top and an ample skirt that floats away from the body and hits just around the knee. “It’s just a flattering cut.”
The design of the dress has changed only slightly from Zhao’s first iteration. In response to feedback from friends, they’ve lengthened the sleeves (making it possible to tie the dress around one’s waist as a skirt) and added pockets. Buttons run down the front, so it can be worn as a jacket. “Personally, I like to wear it over pants,” says Miller.
Equally central to the designer’s shared aesthetic is their choice of material. At any given time, the dress is available in limited-run colourways cut from Dutch wax fabric: the riotously bright, playfully patterned cotton cloth that is, to many, synonymous with “African dress.” Though Zhao and Miller source their fabric from the continent — specifically Tanzania, Congo and Nigeria — historically, it’s not African at all. Initially produced by the Dutch to tap into the Indonesian Batik market, the wax-printed cotton cloth travelled via colonial channels to East and West Africa, where it became ubiquitous.
Most Dutch wax fabric is still designed in the Netherlands, but the patterns have become highly localized. (One popular print called “LV” or “Le Sac du Michelle Obama,” features a repeating pattern of the Louis Vuitton bag that Obama carried during her 2009 trip to Ghana.) They’re also short-lived. “Fabrics are constantly circulating and cycling,” says Zhao. “One factory will put a pattern out, then another will adapt it — it repeats and moves, sort of like it’s alive.”
For now, the dress itself is also on the move. Available online and stocked by St. Cloud in Houston, Tex., as well as by Merchants on Long in Cape Town, South Africa, Zuri’s in-store presence comes mostly in the form of pop-ups. Two are slated for June, one at Shinola in Detroit and one in New York.
The duo would eventually like to start printing their own materials, but in the meantime, it’s clear they enjoy the chase. “We’ve got feelers out in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and we’re heading to Uganda in a couple weeks,” Miller says. Fabrics are typically only in production for a few weeks, so when a favorite motif — retro oscillating fans, or lovebirds on branches — shows up, they have to act fast. “We walked into a shop recently, and a pattern we’d been looking for for months literally dropped at our feet,” Miller says. “I was immediately like, ‘Sold!’”
Zhao calls the constant variety and unpredictability of materials “a roller coaster of emotion,” but it’s also a perfect complement to the slow, singular design process. “It’s been fun to have one dress,” Miller says, “and to perfect it.”