Muzungu Sisters: Dana Alikhani and Tatiana Santo Domingo
“We were looking for a catchy and unusual name and we always liked the word Muzungu which in Swahili originally meant ‘traveler’ or ‘wanderer’ (but has now come to mean white person colloquially because the first travelers were white), i.e. the traveling sisters.” – Dana Alikhani on the Muzungu Sisters name.
Dana Alikhani and Tatiana Santo Domingo are working hard to infuse authenticity, history, and one-of-a-kind pieces back into style with their new business venture: the Muzungu Sisters. Just last week, I read an article in The New York Times titled, “A Return to Artisan in the Art World.” The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I have been thinking about the void of true individuality in much of the fashion and accessories market for quite some time. Yes, the internet is wonderful in that it provides instant accessibility and the ease of shopping from anywhere, but for those that truly value and strive for unique and individual style, you don’t want to wear the “it bag” and the same shoes as everyone else. And, often times, you don’t want to listen or hear someone else dictate what you should wear either. But, beyond vintage, where does one find an assurance in individualism when it comes to style? The boutiques in those cities where you once traveled and picked up unique finds, now offer e-commerce websites and ship around the globe. So, after reading about the Muzungu Sisters in British Vogue, and the company’s goal to celebrate true craft and pieces with a history and cultural relevance, I knew I had to learn more about them.
Left: Sonia Bolero Right: Jaipur Long Beads
Left: Fatima Jacket Right: Sicilian Basket
“Our green velvet Fatima jacket is ideal for looking elegant during the holidays and our fur moccasin slippers are the best for cold winter days.” - Tatiana Santo Domingo
Around 30% of the Muzungu Sisters collection consists of one of a kind pieces that are vintage and not able to be reproduced.
When it comes to the Muzungu Sisters, instant fans range from individuals who appreciate and are drawn to ethnic clothing, to people who dress in designer brands and wish to accentuate their look with a unique piece from the collection. “Right now, we’re selling gaucho pants from Argentina, leather moccasins from Morocco, beautiful silver and thread necklaces from India, super-luxurious velvet embroidered jackets from Morocco, colorful boleros from Peru, Sicilian baskets, shawls from Kashmir, mochila bags woven by the Kankuamo tribe in Columbia, and much more,” said Dana. So, how did both Dana and Tatiana come together to create such an eclectically purchasable closet? “We both always appreciated ethnic clothes and things we’d bring back from trips abroad,” said Dana, “But, the idea for the site came about in 2009 in my apartment in New York when the two of us were both living there. At the time, I was finishing my Masters degree in Human Rights and wanted to start an online portal that would promote fair labor practices through supporting artisans in various communities. Tatiana had wanted to travel and collect things from around the world and curate a website including her favorite items she gathered, so we decided to merge our two ideas together.”
In fact, the company’s name, Muzungu originally meant “traveler” or “wanderer” in Swahili (but, has now come to mean white person colloquially because the first travelers were white.) “We were looking for a catchy and unusual name,” said Dana, “We always liked the word Muzungu – i.e. the traveling sisters.” And, of course, they find most of their style influence while on the trips – scouring the globe for the world’s most beautiful and one-of-a-kind pieces. “We find inspiration in the places we travel and the people and artisans we meet,” said Dana, “Our pieces are different aesthetically from mass-produced fashion in colour, texture and quality. But, most importantly, they are different in the unique stories that form their histories. In that sense, they’re like national treasures! Many of our pieces form part of ethnic national dress like our Peruvian bolero jackets that are traditionally worn by women weavers in the Peruvian highlands. We had them made in alpaca wool to make them more wearable, but otherwise we changed nothing else of the design.” Around 30% of the Muzungu Sisters collection consists of one of a kind pieces that are vintage and not able to be reproduced. These pieces are sold in the Muzungu Sisters pop-up shops, while the items they have online are the ones they custom-order.
Left: Leila Jacket Right: Fur Moccasin Slippers
Clockwise from Left: Tribal Kaftan, Jaipur Short Beads, Mochila Bag
“We both like things that are ‘ethnic,’ but have our own way of putting them together,” said Tatiana.
The Muzungu Sisters have traveled to Morocco (to Marrakech and Tangier), as well as to Peru (Lima, Cuzco, Machu Picchu), Argentina (Salta and Jujuy), Turkey (Istanbul), and India (Bombay, Jaipur, Delhi). In early 2012, they are planning a trip to Africa and Southeast Asia. Do Dana and Tatiana find themselves drawn to different styles? “We both like unique pieces with a story behind them,” said Dana. Do they find themselves dressing similar? “We both like things that are ‘ethnic,’ but have our own way of putting them together,” said Tatiana. Their picks for the holiday season will certainly spice up any ordinary wardrobe. “My picks for the holiday season are the red Sonia bolero from Peru: it’s perfect with a silk maxi skirt for evening Christmas parties,” said Dana, “And, our black velvet Leila jacket with silver embroidery that works for family lunches and evening appearances alike!” And, as for Tatiana, she’s looking forward to a mix of festive sophistication. “Our green velvet Fatima jacket is ideal for looking elegant during the holidays and our fur moccasin slippers are the best for cold winter days,” she said.
Left: Swirl Kaftan Right: Bali Sarong
Muzungu Sisters: Tatiana Santo Domingo and Dana Alikhani
“We know that for many online shoppers, the vibrant colors, textures and character of Muzungu Sisters items will be a form of virtual escapism.” - Dana Alikhani
So, though online shopping often makes finding those rare pieces you are sure no one else will have more difficult, when it comes to the Muzungu Sisters, it allows you to shop interesting and unique clothing and accessories from around the world. “There’s no doubt that online shopping has brought a whole new realm of accessibility for consumers, and this also extends to our products which are usually very hard to get your hands on,” said Dana, “We know that for many online shoppers, the vibrant colors, textures and character of Muzungu Sisters items will be a form of virtual escapism.” For instance, you can’t travel to Peru in the near future, the Muzungu Sisters allows you to wear and own a bit of the culture. “For other shoppers, Muzungu Sisters will be a place where people who are used to traveling very often can find the items they usually have to travel thousands of miles to find, through one click,” she said, “In the same way that our products come from all over the world, we would like to make them accessible to as many places as possible, and being online enables us to do that!”
And, where can you shop these products that are sure to set your wardrobe apart from the rest? “Our products are currently online available on our online shop www.muzungusisters.com which is hosted on a new online shopping platform called Motilo, and our pop-up shop in London,” said Dana, “We’re planning various pop-up shops in the new year in different cities so stay tuned!”
I know what’s on my holiday wish list.
Though London based, the Muzungu Sisters ship to the US!