As part of our founder interview series, we speak with Iulia Berger from Younited Cultures about using fashion for good, celebrating diversity, and supporting migrants.
What inspired you to launch Younited Cultures?
Andra is our acting hero in this story, as she had been living as a Romanian in Austria for over 10 years. During this time she had struggled at her job and even in mere personal interactions with locals and had felt discriminated against in one way or another. Now we even say it was not necessarily an upfront discrimination, but more a passive-aggressiveness people tend to have towards immigrants. She started thinking, if she was dealing with this, as a university graduate working in a management position at a medium-sized company in Austria, how this must feel for the less fortunate immigrants here. She joined the Impact Hub Vienna in order to find resources to solve this issue: to make immigrants feel more welcome. That’s where she joined forces with Iulia, also a Transylvanian-born migrant. On top of everything, the refugee crisis started soon after we launched our idea, so we started observing more and more how the media was polarising foreigners and how the social climate was getting more and more tense. When we joined forces we imagined a world in which every culture is appreciated. We came to the motto of celebrating migration as a way of shaping the society, and we decided to make fashion in order to make this attitude visible. The inspiration came from our desire to show the world that there are a lot of people thinking positively about immigration, to get immigrants to feel welcomed and appreciated and give locals a chance to show their enthusiasm towards this amazing diversity. The world around us was the inspiration, all our friends from different cultures and the increasing discomfort they felt. Our desire to cheer them up and to cheer ourselves up and make a community around it got us here, to Younited Cultures. Where YOU are the one to younite cultures.
What do you hope to achieve through Younited Cultures?
We hope to help people see the positive sides of migration. It all starts with an attitude change, of giving a lot of information, promoting positive role-models and just making fashion which is colourful and fun. We measure our impact by the amount of people who wear the colours, the symbol of celebrating diversity. And also by those who chose to support a certain culture, that is the immigrants from that culture who reach out for help. We hope we start a lot of positive conversations about immigration, we help people appreciate diversity and be more tolerant towards each other, more welcoming and integrative.
How do you use your revenue to help support migrants?
Every product is connected to a different type of impact:
The socks have a buy 3 donate 1 type of model. For every 3 pairs we sell, at the end of the year, we donate socks to organisations such as Caritas and MTOP and Augustin – charities who make sure refugees or very poor immigrants get this for the holidays
The scarfs each have a separate impact. The ambassadors (role-models) behind each scarf is mostly getting free PR from our side: we tell their story and we launch awareness campaigns about their culture with them at the centre of their story. This involves videos, press interviews articles in magazines both in Austria and Germany and also in their home countries. After each product is launched, the profits from that product is donated in accordance with what the role-model decides: sometimes we organise start-up coaching for young Romanians, other times we have women empowerment seminars or we place refugees into positions and we give them recommendations. It is up to the role-model, who knows his micro-cultural community best to decide where that money should go
The colourful scarf collection, together with the jewellery, go in the Celebrate Migration Collection. Under this motto we organize once a year a Long Night of Intercultural Dialogue, which is a festival of cultures. We invite embassies, companies and other partners to discover other cultures and we help people network. Part of this we also have the 99 Migrants portrait collection, which is meant as a picture exhibition which should travel through Austria, showcasing immigrants from various cultures which are all perfectly integrated here and contributing to society.
In short we would say we are open for anything that helps people integrate in the society. For our customers we communicate the idea of celebrating diversity and helping create a symbol for diversity. We constantly deliver talks and speeches about how to interact with immigrants and how to make a better culture. And we also encourage people to recommend more ambassadors (role models) so we can share their stories of impact and integration.
Our impact so far was for immigrants in Austria, but we are very excited to start having an impact directly for immigrants in the UK. This will be decided together with you at the end of the year, when we should redirect the UK-made profits to a local partner as part of an initiative to support immigrants.
What were you doing before Younited Cultures? How did you choose to use fashion as a means to share your voice?
Before Younited Cultures Andra was working in the sales department of a beauty – cosmetics company. She was already accustomed to the entire luxury and high-end purchase scene. Iulia was a consultant in the Impact Hub in terms of operations and marketing and after that was part of more start-ups in the field of nutrition and healthcare. Fashion came as the intersection between Andra’s passion for beauty, colours and joy and Iulia’s passion for product development and consumer behaviour. We didn’t use to know too much about fashion and it was a steep learning curve, and it still is. Every time we start on a new type of product we do thorough research about the industry, production, sustainability and then we contact various producers, have interviews with them and are very careful in any type of collaboration we make. We see fashion as one of the most rapidly changing industries, but also one of the biggest polluter. We sincerely hope people start thinking it through and understand their clothes have a meaning, they send a message, and as consumers we have the responsibility of knowing that message. We hope that an increasing amount of people will go back to using fashion as a statement – actually we constantly call ourselves a statement and not a fashion brand, because we feel that now fashion has switched its meaning to something we can’t relate to. For our topic, which is very social, emotional, often political – we wanted to give it a beautiful, creative twist. A non-aggressive but very inviting and eye-catching twist. In a world that shouts about migrants and refugess, we chose to join the conversation by showing a symbol which says it all. And even when people don’t agree with the message, they still like the product, they fell a joy looking at it and we think it changes something in them. It makes them smile, they find the idea funny and they remember it. It is a lot better than just preaching to people about how great diversity is – our fashion gets the message across faster and it makes a good impression.
Are there any migrant stories in particular that stand out in your mind since you launched Younited Culture?
We have a lot of migrants who are role models for the society. Just to start off, many pictures from our events and social projects were taken by Ahmad Lkoud, who is a Syrian who had to protect his family and ask for asylum in Austria. He used to be a corporate genius, an Operations Manager back home for a big business center. Being here he couldn’t integrate and get a job, so he learned photography in order to work with us and get enrolled in the social system. He is one of the most ambitious and warm people we know and we are very excited to share his story and to help him integrate here.
We are also very proud of our friend Adela Kuliga, who immigrated from Poland more than 10 years ago for love. She took any job she could from cleaning lady to babysitter, and while doing these jobs learned German and now, a few years down the line, she is one of the most prominent women in the networking scene, leading a career programme and networking fairs for young people.
The same is Selma Prodanovic, who had fled Bosnia during the war and after many non-prestigious jobs, she is now one of the largest investor in start-ups, she is a business Angelina and has helped hundreds of new ideas to come to life.
Or Vlad Gozman from Romania, who was already a very successful entrepreneur there and decided to go for a challenge in Wester Europe. He is now the founder of TEDx Vienna and an opinion leader in the world of technology and technology investments, leading one of the largest investment funds in Austria.
And Ali Mahlodji, who recently launched an autobiography about his flea from Iran, being saved by Amnesty International and struggling to integrate as a child in Austria. He is now running an international venture in the field of HR, a business which he founded with other immigrant friends.
I have many more, I guess you just need to pick a culture and I can tell you a story. The perks of this job.
The multi-colour square print is featured often throughout your collection. What is the meaning behind this design?
This multi-colour is what we call Celebrate Migration. The idea behind it is that every culture has a colour. And magically these colours come together to create something beautiful and harmonious. Is this magic or is this reality? Just as these colours come together, we want to bring various cultures together. Europe overall is already is a place where cultures come together. Sometimes this creates rejection and fear, but most of the times it works brilliantly. Whichever colour you like more, just like whichever culture you like more, you can place it together with others, celebrate the diversity and enjoy the harmony.
‘Ethical Fashion’ can be extremely vague. What does ‘Ethical Fashion’ mean to you?
Quality – because producing fashion is so resource-intense, we only believe in quality products. This means using textile combinations that last long, colours which don’t pollute, clear instructions about how to care about your items. This is definitely not the type of items you buy and you have to throw away due to usage in within a few months. It’s long lasting. And so is the packaging.
Being social and making a statement – we think your fashion should not only look good but also do good and share a positive message
Local production, small carbon footprint – we work with weavers and factories that put together the textile in EU – for us it is important that the initial textile is of highest quality, created in Italy, Romania or Austria ( we will also work with Germany in the future). We want to support the EU economy and we also want to make sure the factories we work with are environmental conscious and the travel distances for the products are not contributing to too much pollution.
Limited production – we also think overproduction is a mess, so we rather work with low stocks and pre-orders, we finance new products through crowd-fundings and we avoid to have on stock more than what we can sell in within a year. We believe that producing more than you can sell is also in end effect a way of wasting resources.
Slow fashion and permanent collections – we like the idea of adding more items, at a slower pace, and having the same collections for our customers. We see ourselves as a statement brand, and once a statement is made, it can’t be taken back.
Hand-made – we try to have as much as the production process be hand made as possible. This includes mostly the finishing, the packaging but also the final sewing of the items (how the sides of a scarf are rolled together). This is for us again respect for the material and respect for the customer, who should get an item which is long lasting and flawless, and which she or he can really enjoy taking care of.
What has been your proudest moment since launching Younited Cultures?
Our proudest moments are when we are attending a networking event and speaking to people about our YC ambassadors (the role models), sharing their stories and seeing how hope grows in the audience. It is so amazing to be able to tell people who feel discriminated, who feel anxious and inadequate that everything is just a phase and help them build a path for themselves. It feels very inspiring to have people come to you months after an event to tell you they got a job and they have a clear plan and YC was there to help them get courageous.
One of my best moments was recently at a networking event, when I had woman from Scotland come to me and thank me for a talk we had a few months before, about how to navigate the Austrian culture. She had seen me at an event, we ended up going for drinks after and I gave her a few hints and potential starting points. It felt very real and impactful, and I absolutely love how YC gives me this chance to connect with people on the most unexpected matters.
If you could share one message with the world about migrants, what would it be?
Celebrate migration! We are all giving our best to have the best lives ever, so be patient, listen, communicate and spread the joy! We are all better in harmony with each other.
On a more serious note, I would also love to raise awareness that immigrants suffer from high levels of anxiety and most of them are home-sick and even depressed. So a lot of their faulty behaviour comes from fear, from not understanding the rules or just being overwhelmed and not being supported enough. So regardless of the reason why they are immigrants, rest assured they had a very strong reason in order to leave their comfort zone and jump into the unknown. And sometimes just a bit of help and steering will do more good to your karma then any kind of charity act.
How would you like to see Younited Cultures grow in the future?
On the short term we will expand our collections, intensify sales and launch in other countries, with focus on Germany and UK. We want to keep a development of 2 new stories every year and 1 new product (going into T-shirts and possible swimwear this year with the colourful symbols).
In terms of impact we have this 99 Migrants exhibition and the Intercultural Festivals we are organising and we hope we keep it up with one big event every year, expanding our reach.
And on the long run we hope to be a European-wide recognised brand and people really get to understand the symbol, wear it with joy and celebrate migration!