Yoyo and Kytzia. Kytzia and Yoyo. A colorful duo so similar in their mannerisms and movement that one might think they’re sisters. They finish one another’s sentences, dress interchangeably and can almost always be found in tandem. Where there is one, there is the other, both with a similarly palpable energy. If you don’t know them when you notice them, you will want to — piqued by a curiosity about the color in both their movements and their clothing.
As I later found out through many conversations at The Assemblage NoMad, where Ubuntu Market recently opened its first showroom, the two have known each other since they were three years old. They both grew up traveling to Oaxaca, Mexico, a place that grounds them with deep heritage and roots and whose color, artistry and people inspired Ubuntu, which they founded in 2016.
Ubuntu’s foundation is one of humanness and merit: it sells products hand-made by artisans in developing countries, selecting the retailers it represents according to the stories of the people creating them and only if their values align with Ubuntu’s — which are transparency in action, having a social and positive impact on different communities and paying fare wages.
But what does it mean to represent them, exactly? It means selling the goods directly to consumers at pop-up markets, weekend retreats, and now, a showroom. The physical space has given them incredible exposure, Bourlon says, giving fans and customers a tangible meeting place to visit, ask questions and dig into the trend of ‘intentional shopping’ Ubuntu aims to foster. Because at the heart of the market is the simple idea of awareness — inviting consumers to become aware of where their purchases come from, where their money is going and whom it’s supporting. This moves the process beyond fast-fashion to buying products that both do good for local artisans and last over time.
Though Ubuntu has only been around for a year — it started as a hobby before the founders both quit their full-time jobs to focus entirely on growing the brand — it has gained notoriety both quietly and quickly, largely thanks to their most popular product: pompoms, or “magical pompoms” as they lovingly call them. These strings of vibrantly colored curtain hangers, often worn around the neck, have been made by families in Oaxaca for decades and are a well-known trinket there. But in New York and other global cities, they stand out against the backdrop of all-black ensembles. Yoyo and Kytzia felt compelled to share the pompoms because of the “good energy” they offer the wearer.
We sat down with the personalities behind Ubuntu to learn more about the magical pompoms (which they we wearing, naturally — but more on that later), developing a retail model and the role of collaboration in their growing company.
The Assemblage: So, welcome. Lets start easy: can you introduce yourselves?
Yoana: I am Yoana, but everyone call me Yoyo.
Kytzia: And I am Kytzia. And we have a project together called Ubuntu Market. Ubuntu means “I am what I am, because of who we all are.” It’s an African philosophy, which is sort of who we are. It means you are a unique individual, but how you think has been shaped by the people around you in your life: your parents, your teachers, your friends. Everyone. How you think is because of all the influences that you’ve had.
Yoana: There is a phrase that we love that is: “Ubuntu is a universal love that connects all humanity.” That we are all one, and we are all interconnected.
Kytzia: And that we are meant to work together, and collaborate. The human species is not meant to be isolated. Ubuntu is what it is today because of what everyone has made it. Not just me and Yoyo.
TA: How does the Ubuntu Market model work?
Kytzia: We look for partners who we align with….and that are having a positive impact in whatever they’re doing. If they are, Ubuntu Market will represent them and sell their product [in the United States].
Yoana: Or even if they are doing their passion. Many times people have—
Kytzia: A hobby.
Yoana: Yes, like hobbies. Many times people don’t go through with their dreams because it’s not a safe or easy job. But, we want to open the door to these creative people too who have hobbies or passions. We want to be able to expose their work to the world. And to these people, this hobby can be an entire way of life.
TA: So, do you consider yourself a retailer?
Kytzia: Up until today it was just pop-up markets bringing together brands from around the world. What they shared in common is incredible stories behind their products. So we’re a retailer direct to consumers — we don’t sell to stores for stores to then go and sell it. The idea is like a gathering in the market. We create experiences and different types of activations, which is like the market in different settings. Or it’s the showroom, so now people come and experience the market in a different way.
TA: You have your showroom at The Assemblage NoMad. Can you tell me what it’s like having your first showroom, and how people are engaging with Ubuntu Market now versus how they were before?
Kytzia: It’s amazing.
Yoana: It’s amazing and colorful.
Kytzia: It’s been a game changer for us to have a physical space because we only used to do pop-ups. We [used to have] full-time jobs that we loved, and then Ubuntu turned into something bigger…and we could not be without a physical space because not everyone can make it to an event or to a market. It’s given us a lot of exposure.
Yoana: And the people who are here, actually, are who we want to come [to the market]. People here in The Assemblage are consciously aware, and Ubuntu is all about becoming conscious on what you’re buying.
Kytzia: Who you’re supporting.
Yoana: And where your money is going.
Kytzia: People are instantly interested in knowing more than just the final product that is given to you. Everything that goes behind [the creation] is super important. Here, we’ve seen that everyone is really interested in the story of that creation.
On the other hand, like Yoyo was saying, [being aware] what impact the purchase has. When you become a little conscious about what you’re buying and you ask, “Who am I supporting? Where is this money going?” Because we’re just like a trampoline to represent these brands. You’re not buying from us, you’re buying directly from the brands.
Ubuntu shares the short- and long-term goals of each project we support so everyone can know directly where their money is going, and where they are investing. It all ties together that it makes people more aware. For example, if you know this kimono is from Morocco, but you also know the story of the artisans who make it and the story of the brand, and the person who started this brand, and how they work with artisans…you just give it much more value.
It’s not like fast-fashion where you’re constantly changing. We want people to be more conscious, and keep their pieces for a longer period.
Yoana: An amazing example of this is these awesome pompoms.
Kytzia: They bring magic, and happiness, and love to life.
TA: What’s the story of the pompoms?
Yoana: We work with an artisan in Oaxaca, and he makes these little pompoms with all of his family.
Kytzia: This is a typical product they’ve been making in Mexico for years. But, basically they’re these strings and they call them a curtain of pompoms. It makes our day happier when we have them on.
Yoana: You can feel it.
Kytzia: We really think that they have incredible energy.
Yoana: We started giving them to people — to very special people for us to share this energy with.
Kytzia: And they started going…all over the world. A friend who lives in Hawaii has them as an altar and a friend in Oslo has them hanging in his workplace. Everyone gives them different meaning, and some people don’t wear them at all; they just have them on their doorknob or something. We use them for everything, even as a dog leash.
TA: Is there anything you’re learning now about collaboration, either through your relationship to one another or to the people around you?
Kytzia: I think collaboration is the future. It is the very basis of Ubuntu, the philosophy, and how we work with everyone. There is a lot of value in the trades we do. It’s helping each other out in whatever uniqueness we can offer. When collaborations that make sense just happen, they’re very, very valuable. And Ubuntu…is the result.
Yoana: Of collaboration.
Kytzia: Plenty of collaborations.