Getting to Know Iman Masmoudi of Tuniq

Silk weaver

When Iman Masmoudi of Tuniq reached out to me several months ago to let me know about her brand, I was at the beginning of what we’ll call a “slump” and wasn’t really looking to collaborate or learn about new brands. But browsing through Iman’s website there were two things that caught my eye. 1st the Tuniq hats cost $35. That set off tons of questions in my head about ethics and margins. But also as a freelancing millennial, I was like wow that’s something I could actually afford. So I read on. The 2nd eye-catching thing was her ethics section, she mentioned how reparations for colonialism aren’t going to happen, so she started Tuniq to help bring more ethical working conditions. Reparations have been a side research project of mine for a couple of years, so I had to talk to her. A couple of phone calls and lots of back and forth later, I’m really pleased to introduce Tuniq and Iman. She’s super impressive and great to talk to. From capitalism to affordability and cultural appropriation we covered a ton of ground in this interview. I definitely learned a lot and came to any thinking more positively about ethical fashion. I hope you do to.

Iman, wearing a djerban, (traditional Tunisian bridal outfit.)

You have a very impressive resume, (I have LinkedIn stalked you a couple of times now.) How do you have time for the brand with law school and how did you get from near eastern languages to an ethical brand?

Luckily I don’t have to balance law school with this project, as I was admitted to HLS, but I deferred my acceptance for a couple of years in order to work full-time on TŪNIQ, so I haven’t matriculated yet (should probably update that on LinkedIn).

As for how my studies guided me towards this project, I had always been pretty critical of the modern consumerist economy. Studying social and political theory gave me a much deeper language and perspective with which to describe and analyze what was wrong with the modern economy, exactly how it harms workers, the environment, society, etc.

Studying Islamic Studies as a Muslim not only gave me deeper values to aspire to in that economic system but also studying that history reminded me of something I think a lot of people forget: that it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not just capitalism or communism and that’s it. There have been other alternatives throughout history and the world today. In many places, people locally produced beautiful goods, traded them with one another, made profits, etc. for millennia before the modern capitalist era without destroying each other and the environment. We can learn from that and build something better for our world.

Mariem

So I’ve been really impressed with both you and Tuniq. What motivated you to start the brand? What are your plans for the future of Tuniq?

Thank you! Initially the idea was very simple, my sister, mom, and I were meeting these amazing women artisans all over Tunisia whose crafts were just amazing and they were describing how work was slow, how not many young people were learning the skills because of that, and they were in danger of losing those inherited skills and their livelihoods forever.

So at the most basic level, we just wanted to provide fair jobs, and that is what we still want to do, of course. But we’ve come to see the project of having a much larger potential to really model a different way of doing business. The fashion industry globally is so destructive and lies at the nexus of most if not all of the key ethical questions of the modern world: income inequality, global poverty, environmental destruction, harsh working conditions, consumerism, objectification, women’s empowerment All of these things are true in other industries but few industries so perfectly exemplify what’s wrong with every single one of them and more.

To me, that means that being in the fashion space is also a tremendous opportunity to reform and rethink the whole economic system and to offer an alternative way of doing business. That, in addition to being able to offer appealing work to every hand-laboring artisan in North Africa, is our long term goal at TŪNIQ. Its why we view ourselves as really needing to benefit our customers as much as we benefit our workers, by enriching their lives with high-quality products, but also asking them to question the system more with us, through The Oasis Journal arm of TŪNIQ.

Leila, Iman and Mariem’s Mother.

What was the process of starting Tuniq? What obstacles have you run into? How did you find the artisans you wanted to work with?

We started with a small pilot line. We found a couple of women to work with, two embroiderers and a seamstress. We came up with three simple designs. We had a tiny amount of our own money to invest in making two dozen garments I threw up a quick Shopify website, and that’s how it happened!

Since then we’ve faced many challenges; the legal registration, import and export headaches, packaging, shipping costs, getting garment labels, etc. There are a million small hurdles and decisions. Two main challenges exist for us today, though. First, I find it very draining spending a lot of time on marketing. I love working with our artisans. I love designing with our team. I love seeing the product come to life. I even enjoy solving our logistical challenges. But actually getting the product out, I haven’t yet found a way that feels authentic and true to our values through and through. But I am trying to brainstorm ways to connect with people and create community that are more soul-nourishing and human. I’m hopeful about that.

Second, we try to make our clothes as accessible as possible. Our margins are tiny compared to the industry standard. And yet, we sometimes get told that our pieces cost too much. That to me is frustrating because I know some of those same customers have been conditioned to pay more for a lower quality item at Zara or H&M, whereas what they’re getting from TŪNIQ is really an heirloom piece that will last forever. I know I can do a better job showing people the real value of what they’re getting and how the price we ask for is pretty low compared to what we could set, especially given that half the revenue goes to the artisans and we also share profits with them. And I also can’t help but notice that part of it comes from a legacy of products with a cultural heritage outside the West being devalued and written off sometimes as worth less.

In terms of finding our artisans, sometimes we’re lucky and in some towns, there are local NGOs or government offices which work with local artisans and they form connections for us. But a lot of the time it’s just driving around the country in a little car, just me and my mom, meeting people, asking for further connections, and following the leads to build our own tremendous community of undiscovered artisans.

Monjia, a wool weaver
Kawthar, an embroiderer

I loved your ethics page. How did you come up with your ethical foundations and how do you make sure they are implemented?

For us, our values came before our business idea. From that, everything really was built from that foundation up. The fundamental idea that I think sets our ethics apart is that we look at everything as being interconnected. That means that every single thing we do has a moral weight to it. We can’t just make our supply chain ethical and then exploit hyper consumerist culture when we go to market our clothes. We can’t just support our women artisans and then objectify women’s bodies to sell our clothes. All of these decisions are connected and they have an impact on our artisans and our customers. We look across the board at every decision we make, from our sizing chart to our pricing scheme, and ask how we can be better and how we can use this as an opportunity to have an impact, to model a new way of doing business.

Our ethics also come from our faith as Muslims. That’s especially true of our environmental commitment because in the Islamic worldview, human beings are just custodians and stewards of the earth. The Qur’an talks about how there is a perfect balance in God’s creation that we must never transgress, and there are also tremendous benefits and blessings in it for us. Because we don’t own the earth, we don’t have the right to do whatever we want with it. And because we can benefit and nourish ourselves from it while maintaining the balance within nature, we only harm ourselves when we transgress the boundaries of nature and do damage to the earth.

Finally, I am really inspired by the ethics and the community of the merchants in the Souq in Tunis. In the traditional Souq, merchants selling the same product are always in the same area, something that has never made sense to capitalists who only care about the principles of self-interest and competition. But traditionally, they also cooperate with each other, like if they know one merchant is having a tough time or hasn’t had a customer that day, they will refer their customers to that person’s stall. Instead of business being only about self-interest and competition, it’s also a community of support and blessing. TŪNIQ draws on this spirit to inform our policies, from fairly-paid labor, honest marketing, environmental responsibility, spiritual community, to treating crafts like the sacred arts they are.

Bushra, a palm weaver

One of the things I love about your products is the price point. Why do you think it’s so important to have artisanal products be affordable? And how do you afford to have affordable products?

Thank you 🙂 I tried so hard to make this answer short, but it is just too important and there is so much to say! Affordability is so crucial to discuss in “ethical fashion.” Lots of ethical fashion companies mark up their pieces 7x or even 10x what it cost them. We rarely go above 3x, and are generally below that. A lot of times this is because such companies aren’t pushing high quantities, and they’ve got investors pressuring them to get quick returns so they sell each item for much more, to make back their investments and they end up only targeting the “luxury” market which is predominantly White and very wealthy (sometimes its also because they target the group that aligns with their backgrounds, as well, and ethical fashion label owners seem to also be predominantly White and upper class). We’ve started small with public service grants so we are thankfully not burdened by that pressure, and we can operate differently.

I believe strongly that the issue of accessibility of quality, ethical clothing to low income communities is a question of economic and spiritual justice. Fast fashion stores, in their cheapness, prey on low-income communities by making them dependent on constant, cheap buys which fall apart and lead to more purchases and to a cycle of consumerism, which is spiritually draining. I know, because I experienced that very personally in college. A lot of people say that ethical consumption is sometimes a distraction from the real structural change that needs to happen to overthrow capitalism, and I agree with that. Despite this, I think it is still important to change your individual behaviors, because when you only buy things that connect with your soul and aren’t contributing to harming others, that brings more peace into your life, your heart, and low income people should have access to that spiritual wholeness.

There is, though an extra complication for us, because it is undeniable that the price of an item goes a long way towards communicating the true value and dignity of that piece in the eyes of the customer. Since we are trading in traditional crafts that are tied to a historic culture, we also want to make sure we aren’t perpetuating the colonial legacy of high-quality non-Western cultural pieces being devalued. So, it’s a struggle. We are experimenting and trying to strike a balance between accessibility and assigning the proper dignity to these heritage pieces.

Riyadh, a wool weaver

Plastic waste is drowning the earth. You’ve been working on cutting down on plastic and synthetics. How has that process been going? Any advice for other brands looking to do the same thing?

Honestly, I was surprised by how easy it was to eliminate plastic from our packaging. I think other brands would be to. It’s really not necessary and there are so many recyclable and natural alternatives. Of course, the next step is to do even better and only use packaging which has a positive environmental impact (because of course too many paper products also come at the cost of forests), but this will require very intentionally designing our packaging to be minimal and still protect the product. I imagine there must be a way to actually use our packaging not just to serve a function but also to do good for the world. And I’d love to explore that.

As for our fabrics, that has been more of a challenge. We made a commitment to not use any imported fabrics unless they were certified organic (we’ve yet to find any of those either). This imposed a difficult but exciting challenge on us. We suddenly, after our pilot collection, needed to find locally-made fabric.

First, we had to find anyone who still traditionally weaves fabric in Tunis. We drove all over the country, took many trips to Southern and rural areas, and we have, thankfully, found some amazing weavers of silk and wool fabrics from whom we are now sourcing. I love this fabric as its completely handmade, and has all the delightful texture and imperfections (as well as scent) that makes you feel really connected to the process that went into creating it. Of course, this commitment to natural fabric (and to as little toxic dye-use as possible. Our wool fabric is only available in all the colors that sheep come in) has also meant we have to design with the locally handwoven wool and silk in mind, so its been a limitation in that sense, but also an opportunity. Its such a unique fabric that other brands just won’t have access to (hopefully they can find their own unique local fabrics!), so I’ve come to see it as an asset in that way. I would encourage other brands to look for their own unique design assets in the pursuit of sustainability, as well!

Olfa, an embroiderer

Your products are really tied to heritage and culture and bring respect to the craft and artisan. Cultural appropriation is a huge issue. Both in terms of branding, but also in terms of the people wearing the appropriated clothing. What is the best way for people to wear these pieces and respect the culture behind them?

I love that you asked this question! This is a huge issue, because so often I see well-meaning white designers, wanting to produce things ethically, go and manufacture their designs in an African country, like Ghana is a common one for example. And they inevitably end up being “inspired” by the local traditions and selling Ghana-inspired jewelry or clothes or something through their brand. I’m not speaking of anyone specific. It’s just a trend that I see. And I think the problem there, and my definition of cultural appropriation, is about profiting off of something that isn’t your own. When it comes to TŪNIQ, we ourselves are North African women, and we’re making sure that all of that benefit and that profit off of the designs is going to North Africans. If that’s in place, then wearing our clothes and enjoying them and benefiting the local North African artisans through that, I think that’s beautiful! As long as you show the cultural pieces the proper respect they deserve as gifts that are being shared with you, not costumes to play dress up in, sharing their cultural heritage and artifacts with the world is one of the key treasures that the Global South still has to use to benefit and empower themselves! It’s important to support that and create avenues for it. It’s just when someone else comes in and takes an unfair cut of the profits that I am disappointed because I feel that reparative and generative potential to benefit the original cultures is being thwarted.

Moncef, a wool weaver

Clothing is all about life. Past, present, and future all have to take place in clothing because naked isn’t going to be in fashion anytime soon. What are the traditions around the embroidery crafts? Or what is the history behind the clothing?

Oh man the embroidery traditions are just so beautiful. Every village and little town across North Africa has its own unique techniques and patterns of embroidery. The height of each region’s traditions can probably be best exemplified by its wedding garments, the bridal outfits and the grooms’, as well. In some regions, these garments are so complex and intricate, they start work on them as soon as a child is born so that it’s ready for their wedding. No two villages have the same bridal outfit. These used to be tremendous heirloom pieces, passed on from mother to daughter and father to son. So when we design pieces for TŪNIQ, they’re often drawing on simple beautiful elements from these complex wedding and bridal garments.

We also believe that there is so much value in being inspired by traditional garments. I really value the idea of inheriting a tradition as inheriting the most precious gift, because within tradition lies centuries of compounded wisdom. Traditional clothing developed over centuries to be functional, comfortable, beautiful, and really to fit into the lifestyle and serve the needs of the community it developed in. It has a functionality and harmony with life that is unmatched by any modern clothing designs. And that’s something we really cherish!

Left to Right: Leila, Iman, Mariem