The Muzungu SistersSHARE
If you’re like me, you pride yourself on taking exotic holidays for the dual pleasure of cultural immersion, paired with that satisfying parting gift of an off-the-beaten-track Goan rock crystal ring, or a hand-woven Majorelle blue Moroccan rug. Well, listen up because we’ve been trumped. Meet Brazilian/Colombian Tatiana Santo Domingo and friend Iranian/Cypriot Dana Alikhani (united, the Muzungu Sisters), who are circling the globe to bring the far-flung craftsman’s wares direct to our wardrobes.
Traversing villages in Argentina, to weavers’ co-ops in Indonesia, the Muzungu Sisters’ mission is sustainability with their own breed of wanderlust style. Think Sicilian pom-pom baskets, Jaipur beads and authentic Gaucho pants, but rather than relying on one Fair Trade workshop to produce their own designs, they are uniting the wealth and breadth of global artisans’ textile traditions into one e-commerce platform. What’s more, they’ve ensured each globetrotting treasure exemplifies their own cool caché, rather than made-for-tourists tack.
At the Moroccan-themed Mo Café, site of the girl’s first London pop-up store and our meeting, it is instantly clear that the pair genuinely embody the globo (global bohemian) aesthetic that they are now preaching. Wrapped in their Muzungu Sisters’ Peruvian Alpaca coats, they could almost be sisters. On this chilly evening, Alikhani’s playing the more glamorous of the dark-maned pair, her lips painted a striking bright rouge, hair pulled back with a woven Argentinean headband worn Olivia Newton-John-style across her forehead.
Santo Domingo, on the other hand, is makeup free as she crosses her new pony-hair leopard Tod’s walking boots, revealing tread that’s destined to explore far rockier terrain than our inner city locale. Mid way through discussing the details of their gypset outfits I can’t help but smile.
These are, after all, two serious girls-about-town – whether that be London, New York, Paris, Monaco … You get the idea. So here comes the obligatory name dropping: Santo Domingo’s sister-in-law is Lauren Santo Domingo of American Vogue and Moda Operandi, while her boyfriend is Andrea Casiraghi, currently second-in-line to the Monaco throne. (They met at boarding school in Paris.)
Coincidently, we’re rather accustomed to seeing Santo Domingo front row at the Paris Haute Couture with Charlotte Casiraghi, Eugenia Niarchos and Margarita Missoni in tow, and yet here we are, talking about their clothes’ county of origin, rather than designer label?
Primo pedigree aside, one thing’s for sure, these fashion nomads are expert guides for the road-less travelled. “My parents were very much hippies,” begins the 28-year-old Santo Domingo, in her blended international accent. “They went everywhere early on and we’ve all been very influenced by travelling and the things that they brought back.” For starters her mother used to run a boutique at a hotel in India, while her godfather lived in Bali. “I’ve been lucky enough, privileged enough, to see so many amazing things from a young age. It’s really opened my eyes to lots of different cultures and made me hungry for more.”
Following study, Santo Domingo worked in fashion PR for Aeffe (looking after Alberta Ferretti and Jean Paul Gaultier), before taking a research role with New York creative agency Giovanni Bianco. Most recently, she was at Vanity Fair assisting Deputy Editor Aimee Bell.
In contrast, after university, friend of ten years Alikhani joined the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, reviewing the welfare benefit cases of refugees in detention for the Government of Cyprus. Her next role was as a political analyst, utilising her background in social risk management to advise the corporate world. There, she worked in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain advising oil companies of how to minimise their impacts on local communities. “I was doing a lot of research into labour rights,” explains the savvy 27-year-old. “So I wanted to start a porthole for Fair Trade suppliers from all over the world online.”
United, the duo already had an impressive contacts book. “Our first trip together was February  to Brazil, Peru and Argentina,” says Santo Domingo, eyes widening. “We spent a few weeks meeting with the artisans’ co-operatives, exploring markets, buying things directly, but also building relationships so that we can customise order ideas back in London.”
Last year they also clocked up Indonesia, Morocco, India, Peru, Argentina, Columbia, Italy, Russia, Brazil, Turkey and Uzbekistan. “Different delivery times, producers, schedules, languages,” exhales Alikhani, of their complex supply chain. “Some people it’s via text message, some via email, phone call; some you actually have to go there physically.”
So how many trips do they plan to do each year? “As many as we want really,” says Alikhani. “We’re not about seasons and fashion schedules. Our pieces are timeless – they have been around way before we have. We like things that have stories, things that are unusual; bright colours and textures – things that make you feel that you’re being transported somewhere else.”
“I was very excited when I heard the news,” says fellow fashion entrepreneur Lauren Santo Domingo from New York. “I honestly think that the secret to success is having passion for what you’re doing, and the Muzungu Sisters is something that truly reflects their spirit.”
“We’re definitely a social enterprise,” explains Alikhani, passionately. “Right now, we’re in the 2.0 version where people realise that you can be a profitable business, be responsible and a socially respectful member of the community. We’re lucky that we’ve had this idea at a time where there’s a great awareness being created.”
“I think people in general are becoming much more conscious about how their lifestyles affect others,” concurs Lauren Santo Domingo. “There is a growing segment of consumers who are seeking out ethical clothing.”
Which brings us to their current travel crush: “We were in Tangiers this past summer,” says Santo Domingo. “It’s completely different to Marrakech; really lovely on the beach.” Then adds, “There’s something a bit louche about it, because it’s like the last trafficking port [from] Africa to Europe...” Bad energy, I ask?
“Not bad energy, but a bit [of a] bad boy vibe,” she explains.
“I also love Istanbul,” she continues. “As much as I love arriving somewhere, usually at the end of the trip I’m also quite looking forward to getting home and being cosy. Istanbul is one of these cities that I thought I would not mind living there for a few months.” She links back to her career path: “For me I need some routine, and then I need to go away and discover new things. I really wanted to find something that enabled me to not only work, but also discover the world. And as many cultures as possible.”
True to her passion for adventure, and in spite of the royal wedding/gala charity circuit that Santo Domingo also frequents, she is charmingly unaffected in person. “For me something relaxing is just to have a dinner with close friends - no fuss, not having to dress up... having a couple glasses of wine,” adding, “We like to go out and we like to have fun, but also not to have to make an effort and think of wearing high heels!”
Before their recent move to London, the pair regularly hosted dinner parties in New York where each guest would BYO a dish. “Well, it would only really be us cooking actually!” Alikhani laughs.
Sofia Barattieri, founder of new fashion destination Motilo.com, with whom the girls teamed up to launch their e-store, shares the sentiment, “Tatiana and Dana are two intelligent and grounded young ladies that could have chosen many paths in life…”
However, the one aspect they didn’t quite expect was just what it means to represent a brand – to build a business. “We laugh because it was more about the artisans and the travelling,” confides Santo Domingo. “Somehow we’re a brand and we’re having to talk to fashion people… We didn’t think about it actually.”
Indeed, as soon as I veer off brand related questions – from their industry mentors to packing tips – they each seem a tad unnerved.
Alikhani agrees, “It’s overwhelming when you’re asked about your style influences … To define yourself in a certain way.”
“We can’t complain obviously,” she adds. “There are many organisations and causes that we’re looking to partner (with). So the more awareness we can bring to ourselves and such causes, the better in the long run.”
“Eventually we’d like to have a direct giving method,” concurs Santo Domingo, “A percentage that goes back, and have collaborations with established designers – so mini capsule collections working with the artisans.”
“The possibilities are endless,” exhales Alikhani, straightening her well-travelled Peruvian bolero.
Privileged they may be, but it’s also clear that the ultimate luxury is still waking up each morning and feeling good about what it is they are doing in the world. Satisfaction, I think they call it?