At an upscale restaurant in Gigiri, a verdant suburb on the outskirts of Nairobi, Ashleigh Gersh Miller, a rug seller, nine months pregnant, met Sandra Zhao, who owned a bakery. Seated at the same table, the two began chatting. Ashleigh loved Sandra’s dress: a collared, below-the-knee, button-down tunic with three-quarter-length sleeves and deep pockets. The loose A-line fit was practical—she was a week away from her due date.
The original dress was made in bright wax print fabric by Flo, a tailor in Nairobi. Sandra and Flo designed it together, before a business trip to South Sudan. They cut it to be light, airy, and appropriate for travel in a conservative country, with big enough pockets to hold odds and ends.
Sandra lived in that dress for the two-week trek, and though it had been designed with practicality and modesty in mind, she loved how it made her look and feel. “It was comfortable to walk and drive long distances in, breathable and easy to wash and hang to dry to wear the next day,” she says.
When paired with heels, Sandra realized, the dress also made for a charming outfit for her friend’s wedding. Indeed, it was a hit, especially with Ashleigh. But beyond bonding over the dress, the women shared a spark. “I think Ashley and I are impulsive, but also sort of gut-oriented people,” Sandra says of their unique connection. As a gesture of her excitement, Sandra offered to buy fabric, take it to Flo, and have a dress made for her new friend.
By the time dinner had ended, Sandra and Ashleigh were left with one question: What if they teamed up to sell the dresses?
After Ashleigh gave birth to a baby girl, the two women met for dinner and Sandra presented her with the custom dress. Ashleigh was impressed. Sandra had promised to have the dress made, and she actually followed through. “Everybody says stuff like that, but nobody really does it,” Ashleigh says.
Each woman was struck by the other personally as well as professionally. By the time dinner had ended, Sandra and Ashleigh were left with one question: what if they teamed up to sell the dresses?
There wasn’t much to lose: an extremely minimal upfront investment was required, and they could start the business without leaving their jobs. The speedy setup and low stakes made the decision a no-brainer. As Sandra saw it, “Say no one bought them? Not a huge cost to us. We would just have more clothing.” So they launched their fashion company, Zuri, with a few dresses, an Instagram account and a bare-bones ecommerce site.
“Just one dress,” the original tagline, still fits perfectly today. The phrase clarifies the obvious: the Zuri dress works for any occasion, from a reporting trip in remote South Sudan to an urban wedding. It also speaks to the Zuri buyer: an on-the-go adventurer who moves between environments, unafraid to make a statement with big prints and bright colors.
The duo realized they could sensibly manage their partnership through thick humidity, exhausting travel, and the fiscal and personal pressures of a new venture.
The first customers were a few extended contacts reached through social media. But the Zuri founders began to gain traction after working with Diana Opoti, an influential Kenyan producer, publicist, and social-media maven who is well-known in the African fashion scene. Diana wore Zuri dresses to Fashion Week events in South Africa and Nigeria.
To meet growing demand after Diana’s endorsement, the women flew south to Tanzania to source more fabric at Kariakoo, the biggest market in Dar es Salaam, the coastal capital. The trip was a turning point. The duo realized they could sensibly manage their partnership through thick humidity, exhausting travel, and the fiscal and personal pressures of a new venture. Sandra eventually moved to New York, and the women have benefited from having a permanent presence in the U.S. as they look to scale, but they find their different time zones a challenge. WhatsApp is critical, as they’re in constant communication.
Like the first trip to Tanzania, and the connection with Diana, a New York Times article about the brand was another game-changer. “We didn’t slowly scale up. We were very small and then all of a sudden making a ton of stuff,” Sandra says. Demand increased too much for the seven tailors sewing Zuri dresses, and production was moved to factories in Kenya. The women say they visited the factories and looked to ensure that the clothes were made in a safe environment. They say they pay factory workers a market rate, keeping in line with the national system.
We are creating opportunities for individuals in the formal labor market where they have access to rights and protections.
Some development experts, including Jessica Horn, the director of programs for the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), have spoken out against certain business models that promise to advance women through the arts, sewing, and similar trades. “Many of the income-generation models that have been developed for African women do not actually shift African women’s economic power very much,” Jessica says. “They presume a low-education, low-skill, low-wage constituency and do not do much to change that.”
For their part, the founders of Zuri say that they’re working with manufacturing partners who pay fair wages. “We are creating opportunities for individuals in the formal labor market where they have access to rights and protections,” Ashleigh and Sandra note.
Ashleigh and Sandra started establishing Zuri in the U.S. through pop-up stores in San Francisco, Malibu, and New York. But with pop-ups, Ashleigh notes, it became “hard to prep in terms of inventory, knowing what kind of space to get and how to publicize.” In 2017, she and Sandra opened their first brick-and-mortar Zuri store in New York's West Village to aplomb. Given the camaraderie at the pop-ups, Ashleigh and Sandra decided that creating a physical space where people could try on the dresses and experience the brand in person was worth the investment.
Zuri's co-founders appear thrilled with the response so far. After going from starting a small side project to signing a Manhattan lease in such a short time, the duo is eager to see where the brand will go next. “We want to continue growing at our own pace,” Ashleigh says.
Words by Amanda Sperber
Photographs courtesy of Zuri