Business Vancouver: Rwandan immigrants parlayed teenage dream into hip business

Business in Vancouver’s “How I Did It” feature asks business leaders to explain in their own words how they achieved a business goal in the face of significant entrepreneurial challenges. In this week’s issue, twin brothers Reuben and Lévi Uwi describe their journey from war-torn Rwanda to Vancouver, where – despite not having studied fashion design – they launched their own clothing lines, R&U Styles and Uwi Twins Fashion Label.

Reuben: “We left Rwanda in ’94. We were six years old. Our mom and dad and our other two brothers and our sister made our way into Kenya, left Kenya in 1998 and made our way to Vancouver.”

Lévi: “We graduated [from high school] in 2006. During the summer we were mulling over what we were going to do with our lives. We wanted to do something we enjoyed. The idea of making clothes came up. It seemed natural.”

Reuben: “We just started making T-shirts [under the R&U label]. We made about 50 T-shirts that we just sold to our friends, then made another run of about 100 and approached a couple of retail stores and they liked it.

“We had a friend who bought some of our T-shirts, and her mom turned out to be working at the Hudson’s Bay. She saw some of our T-shirts and the next thing we know, we’re sitting down having a meeting and they’re sending our stuff to Toronto to see if they can put us in the Hudson’s Bay.

“We started at Oakridge mall and [Pacific Centre], so we had two locations with the Bay. We did a couple of seasons. The company [Hudson’s Bay] was acquired, and they dropped a lot of the brands. The [R&U] brand didn’t produce a collection after 2010. So I worked at Industry Canada in the finance department for a while.

“Then there was a cut that happened and I was one of the people who got cut. I decided, I’m young – might as well give it a shot and fulfil a dream that I have to launch a brand with my twin brother.

“I started working on the collection itself in December 2012, got a designer, started sketching, and then I was lucky enough to be accepted into the entrepreneurship program at Douglas College. With the entrepreneurship program there was some funding where you’re able to go work on the business.

“We did Vancouver Fashion Week in September 2013, and we had invited some people from CYBF [Canadian Youth Business Foundation] as well. We did our business plan [for Uwi Twins Fashion Label] and then we got funded through CYBF. That was about $30,000. That allowed us to go into production and to do the marketing. My brother and I travelled to Hong Kong to oversee production of this collection that we’re bringing to market.”

Lévi: “When you’re competing with big brands, all these overseas manufacturers expect you to produce in large quantities, so a huge challenge was to be able to find somebody who can actually deal with the stage of a business that we’re currently in, because we’re not going to produce 100,000 of one item.

“This is a full-range collection – men’s and women’s wear. We want to be a unisex brand, so we offer men’s pants, shorts, jackets  and T-shirts, and on the women’s side it’s dresses, shorts, skirts and tops.” •

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