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Zuri pops up to stay

Zuri owners Ashleigh Miller and Sandra Zhao found a home on Fillmore Street.


After popping up for four months at 2029 Fillmore, the just-one-dress women’s boutique Zuri has now put down permanent roots a block south at 1902 Fillmore in the small storefront that was home to Narumi Japanese Antiques for nearly four decades.

The clothing company sells mainly one style: a loose-fitting, below-knee-length frock with three-quarter-length sleeves that can be worn as a dress, jacket or duster. Fashioned from African wax fabric, Zuri’s signature fashion item proved to be a hit with locals.

Owners and founders Ashleigh Miller and Sandra Zhao say they carefully sought out their setting. The two were looking for a shopping street both eclectic and active enough to bring the devoted and the curious their way. They methodically searched for a location that would be both showcase and gathering place, much like their flagship shop on Bleeker Street in New York.

They found what they were looking for on Fillmore Street.

The inspiration for the name of their business comes from the Swahili word mzuri, which means “good” — and the owners strive to deliver on that promise. While many clothing and shoe companies have created models that give back, Zuri has gone well beyond that charitable model in creating what they call a sustainable business.

“When I say sustainable, I mean creating a business and jobs that last,” Zhao says. “We didn’t just come in, produce some dresses, make money and leave. We are in Nairobi to stay, and we have created jobs for many women and men who make fair, dependable wages sewing for us, and will for years to come.”

They say creating such work instills a sense of pride in their sewers for their ability to earn a real living and find dignity in being able care for themselves and their families.

“I also wanted to make something that people actually wanted to buy and own,” Zhao says. “This is not about coming up with the hot new thing that people will tire of after the novelty of the item wears off. This is clothing that only gets better with wear, and these are pieces that suit so many body types and such a broad range of tastes — from quiet boardroom chic to fashion-statement bold.”

Zuri’s founders met while both were guests at a wedding in Nairobi, where Zhao was wearing the dress that would become the center of their business. She had come to Nairobi after college, following a friend who settled there. Having previously worked in New York City restaurants, she jumped at the chance to open a bakery in Nairobi that featured American-style cakes and cupcakes. The bakery, Sugar Pie, was a solid success for three years.

By then, Zhao wanted to delve into other realms. Spending time with journalist friends led her to pitch stories about food in conflict zones. It was in preparation for her travels to South Sudan that she had a simple fit-and-flare dress made out of bright native wax cloth.

Her dress caught the eye of Ashleigh Miller, who was living in Nairobi after her husband took a job there, at that fateful wedding. Pregnant at the time, Miller was taken with the easy fit of the design and the bold print of the cloth. A fast friendship began, and Zhao had a dress made for Miller.

Many compliments later, they took a chance on creating a business together and began posting their dresses for sale on Instagram. A Kenyan fashion icon, who was the host of a television program popular throughout the country, began to follow their Instagram feed and featured their dresses on her program.

From that point on, their business in Kenya quickly picked up speed. The duo began to get requests from the U.S., so they took a huge leap: They had 250 dresses made and headed for a pop-up in New York City. They were terrified at the prospect of that much stock, but needn’t have worried. The New York Times ran a blurb about the sale, and all 250 dresses were gone in an hour.

Stunned and thrilled by their success, they rolled up their three-quarter length sleeves and ramped up production for Zuri, selling solely online.

As production increased, their demand for fabric began to outpace the local markets. Miller took to sourcing the cloth in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, a large port city that offers a bigger and more varied selection of wax cloth.

It’s the vibrancy of the designs that catch the eye and have already won the hearts of many devotees: massive hot pink carrots on a sizzling puce background; nuclear clouds in red, blue and tan; antic turquoise spirals spinning on a marigold sea.

New prints are added almost every week. The dresses sell for $145. A smaller offering of similarly styled shirts sell for $110 and $120.

During a holiday stop by their Fillmore pop-up, three of the five prospective customers who came in the door were already outfitted in Zuri dresses. “I have four of them,” confessed one. “It think it’s a cult,” said another. “But a good one.”

A piece of the past will remain

During the 37 years Jiro Nakamura operated his shop Narumi at 1902 Fillmore, filled to overflowing with antique Japanese dolls and other treasures, he used his own artistry to create many of the shop’s fixtures and decor. One work will remain even after Zuri moves in: the mural he painted to dress up the doors on the utility meters at the entry.

EARLIER: “Farewell to Narumi