Designing a fair-trade fashion company
What was it like to walk down the runway as a “designer to watch” at New York Fashion Week (NYFW) in September?
The experience was intense for Megan Hoye Kitt ’12, founder of Tuli, a fair-trade jewelry company from East Africa. “To have an ethical brand recognized in the most prestigious fashion event in the world was incredible,” Kitt said. “Everything moves quickly, from styling meetings, to interviews with the press, to industry parties. I approached the week trying to learn as much as possible, and I was fortunate to meet many people in the industry I otherwise wouldn’t have crossed paths with.”
Kitt didn’t set out to be a jewelry designer. Initially, she wanted to be a journalist. “It was the New York Times or bust for me,” she remembered.
After graduating from SPU, she moved to Japan to work as a freelance writer for a Japanese media company. One of her assignments took her to Uganda, where she met a group of single mothers desperate for work in a country facing staggering unemployment. They salvaged paper and recycled it into jewelry.
“Single mothers trying to raise their families out of poverty is common in Uganda,” Kitt explained. “These women created beautiful jewelry but lacked access to the international marketplace to sell it.”
Kitt realized that her passport and privilege gave her a chance to help these women. As a teenager and college student, she worked as a fashion model. The experience was vital as she partnered with a small group of women to tailor their craft toward a western audience.
She returned to Tokyo with a few products and began producing photoshoots and marketing through social media — using models of all sizes, colors, and ages. Tuli was born.
Demand for the pieces quickly grew, and, what started as a side project, quickly became a full-time job. Kitt traveled back to Uganda to hire more artisans. The company expanded into Kenya, where its brass collection was born and will soon debut a clothing line.
“It is not easy in today’s landscape to make sustainable fashion,” Kitt conceded. “Many factories don’t pay their workers fair wages, and they force them to work in unsafe work environments. Companies do it because they can get away with it.”
But Kitt was determined to do things differently with Tuli. She wanted to build a sustainable business model that respected the culture and dignity of the people she was working with.
“Most artisans didn’t have a formal source of income before working for Tuli,” Kitt explained. “Sales in the marketplace were rare, and they would do odd jobs like selling food to scrape by. I worked with my artisans to set a fair wage and hired business partners in Africa to run production.”
An income from Tuli lets these women meet their immediate needs like food and shelter. And since it’s consistent work, it gives them the freedom to use the money for long-term needs, like health care or education for their family.
“We’ve had artisans start their own businesses, invest in land, and fund education for themselves or their spouses. One of our first artisans, Florence, was one of the first to leave. She attended college and is now the headmistress of a boarding school,” Kitt said.
The work, she found, has made a lasting impact on her own life. “Uganda enjoys a family-centered culture. Children are always around, and Tuli hires women to watch the kids while mothers work. We also let women work from home if they choose. I’ve taken that to heart. Now I work a hybrid schedule to spend time with my two young children.”
Tuli got its name from the Luganda word for “we are,” a concept that embodies Kitt’s belief that everyone can take part in fighting global poverty. The company reinvests profits into sustainable projects, including scholarships, education, and a farm to help with food shortages and jobs.
“Good intentions aren’t enough, especially when working across cultures. Anyone working in this space must be aware of how their actions might have unintended consequences,” she said. “One of my favorite classes at SPU was part of the University Scholars Honors Program, taught by professors Kevin Neuhouser and Doug Downing. At its core, it explored how our actions impact social and economic systems. At SPU, I learned to look critically at whether aid efforts help or if they look good to an outsider.”
At its heart, Tuli is redefining how an ethical fashion brand should work. Kitt feels encouraged by the rise in consumers’ interest in knowing where their products are made and how. “Consumers are letting large brands know they are interested in sustainable fashion. There will be a turning point, and Tuli won’t be as interesting anymore.”
Since Fashion Week, Tuli has appeared in publications like Elle and Marie Claire. “NYFW validates a brand in such a pronounced way,” Kitt said. “It’s like a gleaming stamp of approval in the fashion world, and I’m hoping to use my newly minted credibility to push the industry’s ethics even more.”