When fashion designers Reuben and Lévi Uwi returned to Kenya for the first time in 17 years, they were in search of inspiration for designs to debut at New York Fashion Week—a stark contrast to their last trip to the country, when their family sought sanctuary from the shocking violence in Rwanda. In April 1994, the 7-year-old twins and their family packed up the car, drove to Congo, then flew to Kenya, fleeing the carnage in their homeland that would leave more than 800,000 Rwandans dead in just 100 days.
“At that young age, we didn’t really realize the magnitude of the situation,” says Reuben. “We were fighting for life and death.”
The Uwi family lived in Kenya for a few years before eventually emigrating to Vancouver, which they now consider their home. Reuben and Lévi weave details of their heritage and incredible story into the garments of the Uwi Twins fashion label. They made their New York Fashion Week debut on Friday evening, with a runway show featuring their third collection, I Left My Heart in Africa.
“Having been in Canada for that long, it was important for us to get back to our roots,” Reuben said of his return to Kenya last February. “That really inspired us to create this collection, from the colors to the patterns. We really honed in on creating something we feel is special to share with everyone.”
Their homecoming was threaded throughout the Uwi Twins runway show at New York’s Gotham Hall on Friday. Traditional drummers and a face-painted dancer roused the audience before models showcased 50 pieces from the collection for men and women. The 33 looks that comprise I Left My Heart in Africa range from artistic street wear, like T-shirts and shorts, to dressier pieces, like long blazers and geometric dresses, that easily transition from the office to the nightclub. Many pieces incorporate personal details, like their birth year, 1987, and a photo of the twins as child refugees. The show is evident that the designers look to Africa not as a source of pain, but as a fountain of inspiration.
“We have accents of gold, which symbolize the rich resources that Africa does have,” Lévi said.
Reuben added, “We did a couple of safaris, so you’ll see giraffe and animal prints in the collection. The sheer natural beauty of Africa is breathtaking, so inspiration comes easy. We had a chance to go to Mombasa in Kenya. That yellow [and] that royal blue that we used within the collection come from being inspired by the ocean.”
The 27-year-old designers demonstrate the power of perseverance. Reuben and Lévi kicked off their careers in fashion as teenagers with R&U Styles, a T-shirt line that was picked up by Hudson’s Bay, a department store chain with 90 locations throughout Canada. Their confidence came from earning frequent compliments from friends on their style and “knowing how to put things together and knowing what works,” Lévi said.
Rather than go to college, the men chose to pursue fashion with no formal training and launched the Uwi Twins label in 2014 as a chance to tell their story through fabric, patterns and colors.
“Our whole entire goal with this brand is to inspire the underdog, to inspire young entrepreneurs to never give up, to always persevere,” Lévi said. “We wanted this brand to essentially symbolize the message of perseverance and keep going and never give up on your dreams. In life and in business, you’re always going to have ups and downs and it’s all a matter of how you deal with it and how you’re going to move on from there. It’s never going to be easy. You just have to stick to your personality and stick to what you believe in and never give up on your end dream.”
The designers hope that their debut at New York Fashion Week will build their presence in the United States, further bolstered with a show at Los Angeles Fashion Week in October.
“We definitely want to . . . be that bridge between North America and Africa when it comes to modern fashion designers,” Reuben said. “With sharing our story, we hope to inspire or spark motivation in young designers and entrepreneurs, or someone who wants to pursue their passion.”
While plans for global domination are within reach for these emerging designers, Reuben and Lévi stay down to earth, joking with each other over petty arguments about fabric colors and praising their parents for behaving bravely during the most perilous period of their lives. It’s safe to say their ambition comes from humble roots.
“If it wasn’t for our experiences, we wouldn’t be who we are right now,” said Reuben. “If it wasn’t for Africa, if it wasn’t for what happened, I don’t know if we’d be in the same position or if we would have the same drive to get to where we want to go in life.”