Uwi Twins put on inaugural show at semiannual New York event, with eye toward the next generation of African designers.
More than 400 designers will show off their spring/summer 2016 collections at New York Fashion Week, in venues all around the city.
But for twin brothers Reuben and Lévi Uwi — who as children fled their homeland of Rwanda during the genocide — making that short trip down the runway in their debut show on Friday night represents a journey 20 years and thousands of miles long.
The Uwis call their collection I Left My Heart in Africa. They drew their inspiration from their native country, and they’re hoping their success will, in turn, inspire young people there who may have given up on hoping for a better life. “We definitely want to be able to reconnect with the youth that are in Africa that don’t even get the chance to follow their hearts,” said Reuben. “We want to fill that gap when it comes to fashion, with Africa and North America and, hopefully, as we make it we can give the next fashion designer a chance. That’s really our long-term vision.”
The Uwi twins’ journey to one of the peaks of the fashion industry began in Kigali, Rwanda, in 1994, when the Uwis were just 6 years old, two of the hundreds of thousands of children caught in the crossfire of ethnic violence that shocked the world. They remember the carnage that surrounded them as they left the only home they had ever known. “I remember our neighbor’s house was completely bombed to shreds,” said Levi. “It wasn’t the best thing for a child to see, all these dead bodies across the road.”
In just 100 days in 1994, more than 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered in attacks after the death of the country’s Hutu president, when his plane was shot down. Most were members of the minority Tutsi, killed by Hutus, the country’s ethnic majority. When the horror ended, three-quarters of the country’s Tutsi population was dead.
Reuben said their parents weren’t political regarding Rwandan ethnic differences. “The way they raised us, they never wanted us to look at those particular races and attach ourselves to them,” he said. “It’s definitely not their mentality.”
“We didn’t know who was attacking our villages,” said Lévi. “It wasn’t somebody specifically attacking us. It was between whoever was fighting, and we were caught in the middle.”
The parents bundled their boys into the family car and joined more than 2 million Rwandan refugees fleeing for their lives. “We drove out of the country to Congo, and from there we flew to Kenya,” said Lévi. They lived there for the next four years, until they immigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1998, where they found themselves pretty much the only Rwandans around. “We really didn’t have anybody,” said Lévi. “So we made new friends, new connections and immersed ourselves in the culture. We were lucky in that we got a whole different perspective from people from different backgrounds, and that was great.”
Instead of heading to college, they started designing together in 2006, straight out of high school. They created a line of T-shirts that a local boutique agreed to sell. When a friend showed one of them to her mother, an executive with Hudson’s Bay Co., one of Canada’s largest retailers and the owner of Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue, she brought the line, Uwi Brothers Fashion Label, into the store. “That pretty much gave us the confidence that we could go deep into the fashion industry and survive,” said Lévi.
Two years ago, Reuben signed up for business courses at a local college, which helped him connect with Futurpreneur, a Canadian nonprofit organization dedicated to helping young entrepreneurs with advice and some seed funding. That allowed them to develop their new line, Uwi Twins, which they’ll show tonight at Fashion Week.
And last year, after 17 years away, they returned to Africa, to Kenya, in search of inspiration. “It was the first time we’d been back since we left the continent,” said Reuben. “It was not a complete homecoming, but it was a full circle in the sense that we went to a place we were at when we were still young, at a time when we were fortunate enough to have these opportunities. Planning our collection when we were there, being inspired by everything that was around us, to bring this collection to fruition, was very special to us.”
The twins talk a lot about luck and their good fortune, of their parents who spirited them out of harm’s way, of the country that took them in, educated them and offered them opportunities to succeed. And that’s why, they say, the pictures they have seen recently of Syrian refugees — of families making dangerous journeys to Europe to escape a brutal civil war — have touched them in a deeply personal way. They say they know what drives families to leave behind everything and head into the unknown, searching for safety.
“It really comes down to a matter of life and death,” said Lévi. “You have to choose between ‘Am I going to stay here and die, or am I going to fight for my life and survive?’ At the end of the day, they don’t really have a choice but to flee their own country, even if they don’t want to. We had to leave everything we had, leave our clothes, leave our house. Our father had to leave his business. You lose it all, but in return, you gain your life.”
They’re hoping that their debut at New York Fashion Week will give exposure to their designs and that it will also give them a voice as another humanitarian crisis unfolds. “For us to have gone through this and see what’s going on in the world now, it’s crazy. We want people to have empathy, to think, ‘What if this was your family? Wouldn’t you want someone to help?’”
And they believe that if they succeed, they’ll encourage others to at least try. Said, Reuben, “We want them to say, ‘These guys went through a lot, but they made it out. And if they can do it, maybe I can go after my dreams.’