Dressed For Success
Local woman launches dress business in Kenya.
Just like workers everywhere, the people who sew Ashleigh Gersh Miller’s dresses like to go to the watering hole after their factory shift is over. But it’s not alcohol they’re seeking; they’ve come to see the sunset and watch the elephants drink.
That literal watering hole is just one of the many charms of Miller’s life in Africa, where she’s lived since 2013 when her husband, Andrew, got a job at a private equity fund in Nairobi, Kenya. It’s a long way from Bloomfield Township, where they both grew up.
“Andrew did the Peace Corps there when he was 24 and loved it,” Miller said. “We visited a couple of times and when the opportunity came to move there, I thought it was time for a change.”
What a change it was: The couple had been living in New York City for some 10 years and Miller was a new mother to baby Felix. (Ten months ago, she gave birth to daughter Raffi.)
“We figured it would be a new experience,” said Miller, 37, who never imagined her new life would include launching Zuri, a dress company that is red-hot and poised for great expansion.
At a wedding last year, Miller complimented the dress designed by a fellow expat, Sandra Zhao of Denver.
“There is not a lot you can buy off the rack here so everyone has a tailor,” Miller said. “She had her tailor make me one of the dresses, and I said, ‘I want 10 of these and I want to wear it every day.’ Sandra and I decided to make 20, which felt like a lot, to see if they would sell — and they did, immediately.”
The women knew they were onto something with their comfortable, boldly printed tunic-like dresses, which are produced in limited runs of bright wax cotton fabric and sell for $145.
“The cut is really easy to wear, and it looks good on every body type and every age,” Miller said.
Seeking ethical manufacturers, the women partnered with Wildlife Works, a company with a conservation strategy based on job creation, and Soko, which helps create sustainable livelihoods and an alternative to prostitution and poaching in a region with Kenya’s highest rates of unemployment. Zuri dresses are crafted at a fair trade-certified eco-factory that employs mostly women.
“It was really great to meet everybody at the factory. It’s a lovely indoor-outdoor place and they are happy,” Miller said. “We wanted to do the right thing, and it turns out that this is something people seek out.”
That’s an understatement. In April, Zuri was mentioned in the New York Times and orders started pouring in from around the world — Morocco, Europe, Thailand, Australia. Since launching in November, the company has sold 4,200 dresses.
Miller spent June in the U.S., visiting family and doing pop-up stores in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Manhattan. She’s now back in Kenya, where she and Zhao are focused on growth, including another pop-up in New York and expanding the product line to shirts for women and possibly, men.
“We would like to be as big as we can possibly be,” Miller said. “It’s still just the two of us; we need to hire someone to grow.”
Meanwhile, Andrew has a new job at a logistics startup and the Miller family continues its love affair with Kenya.
“The people are amazing, so sweet, very chill, and they love kids. In the U.S. when you bring a child to a restaurant people think, ‘Oh no.’ Here, there are literally playgrounds at every restaurant. It is very family-focused,” Miller said. “Swahili culture is so lovely. It’s a wonderful place to live.”
Nairobi, she said, is unexpectedly sophisticated. “The hospital is totally first-rate, and when I needed to buy a French coffee press, I went to Nakumatt, which is like the Walmart of Kenya, and they had three choices! It is not this rustic place that people imagine.”
Still, she admitted, “I would kill for a good bagel.”
Though they are not especially religious, the Millers always get together with a group of 20 or 30 fellow Jews for the holidays.
“Growing up, my dad was Jewish, and he wanted us to figure it out for ourselves,” Miller said. “Those values of choice have guided me a lot “When we got to Nairobi, we immediately found a Jewish community. I can’t explain why, but that was important to us.” •