Savvy Start-Ups: Chu&Chu Collection’s Ethical Elegance
One of my newest fashion for a cause obsessions is Chu&Chu Collection, a beautiful women’s head wear line from Croatia. Martina and Iva are a thoughtful and creative sister duo that put their hearts and minds together to dream up a stylish accessories line dedicated to helping provide jobs for unemployed female workers. By joining forces, the sisters took Martina’s NGO activist background and digital strategy expertise and combined it with Iva’s social media savvy and journalism background to create a social enterprise start-up with all the right elements of looking good and doing good.
After attending college and working for a variety of tech companies in San Francisco, Martina returned to Croatia in 2014, upon which unprecedented floods had affected over 1 million people in the region. In addition to the recent floods, the history of Croatia and its’ citizens is important to know as thousands of Croatian citizens suffered after the devastating and turbulent Civil War in the 1990s, which specifically left a large number of female workers in the textile industry without work.
Inspired to help make a difference, she pursued humanitarian efforts that helped lead her to meet the unemployed women that she and Iva (would eventually) want to help. Touched by their stories, the sisters wanted to put their own skills to work. Fast forward two years later, and this sister team has already set a firm foundation for a fashionable fair trade brand.
The beautiful Chu&Chu line is made from re-purposed Italian fabrics, and is embroidered and designed in Croatia. Turbans range from $40-70 USD and up. Below, co-founder Martina talks to me about why this cause is so close to her heart.
HGC: I love that you started the brand with your sister! How did the idea come about between the two of you?
Martina Culjak: I have only one sister. When she was 13 years old I left my home country, Croatia, to pursue my studies in San Francisco, CA. We would only see each other once a year for a couple of weeks. Although we were always very close, I definitely missed out on a lot during those years. We became inseparable upon my return to Croatia in 2014. During 2014 I started an NGO in order to help people affected by the flooding disaster in the region. It was then that I discovered the immense joy in helping others. After the floods recovery, (the idea of an ethical fashion brand was born) after seeing all the unemployed women in the areas I visited! Who better to do this with than my sister! We both are very aware of the harmful effects fast fashion has on the people and the environment, so we wanted to do something to give our little contribution to making things a tad better in our own environment.
HGC: In terms of creating a fashion/accessories line, why did you choose head wear?
MC: We started with the idea that we want to create a line that will dress women from head to toe. Starting with head first. We wanted to start with an item that was worn in every decade, (hence resistant to time and something) that is not so easy to find if you wanted to have one today. The turban seemed like a great idea to start the brand with! It was worn by gorgeous women throughout all decades, from Elizabeth Taylor to Kate Moss. Shortly after our launch, one of the big stars in our country ordered one and that is how we brought turban back on the scene in our region. Although very few people would know about what’s IN in Croatia and the region, it’s at least a start!
HGC: The 500 piece goal- is there a time frame for this initiative? If so, when is the deadline or goal to complete the order/shipment?
MC: We are a new brand and we set this goal for ourselves when we launched as a certain milestone. We did not do an aggressive crowd-funding campaign and therefore didn’t set a timeline. The 500 piece goal is to let our customers know that we are working towards employing women in the more remote areas where work is a foreign word by now and that their Chu&Chu Collection purchase will bring this idea to reality. We are already on a good way for this happen.
HGC: Can you tell me more about the craftswomen you are looking to employ? Why is it so important to help these women in remote areas?
MC: Unemployment in Croatia is 18%. In the regions where we are looking to help, the unemployment can reach up to 40%. We once had a flourishing textile industry, but after the brutal Civil War in the 1990s and major competition from China, many of those companies never recovered, leaving thousands of skilled women on the verge of poverty, seeking for employment opportunities. Through my humanitarian work I personally knocked on hundreds of doors and met many of the people in the remote and forgotten areas of Croatia, mostly in the Eastern part. I realized that the best and most dignified way to help those people would be to give them work. That’s what we want to do. In order to do that, we need to reach our goal, so that we can guarantee continuous workflow for these ladies. Right now we work with a small sewing studio employing 2 women in the capital.
HGC: The Chu&Chu head wear design and style- they are absolutely gorgeous! Who designs them and where does the inspiration come from?
MC: We design them together and the inspiration comes from thinking about our ideal woman. We think of what she does, where she goes, how she feels and what she may be missing in her closet. Right now we are working on our Spring collection and it will be all about multi-functionality. We are going to be introducing pieces that will be highly functional and will be something that you will hopefully always want to keep in your closet.
HGC: Where are these fabrics from and how did you decide on the color palette and materials?
MC: This first collection was a bit of experimentation. We wanted to see what our customers really liked and that is why we offered variety of very different styles, colors and fabrics. Our fabrics come from Italy and we buy them as remnants of designer collections.
HGC: That’s so smart and sustainable! Which Chu&Chu styles are your personal favorite and why?
MC: I love the golden embroidery piece. The embroidery design represents two sisters and this was hand embroidered by one very sweet lady (Anica) who was doing the work for nights and nights in her home. It is so dear to my heart because I know how much love and attention she put in every single thread.
HGC: Your socially conscious business is focused on female empowerment. Why is this cause close to your heart?
MC: There are so many problems in this world. I sometimes really get overwhelmed when I think about it. It makes me very happy that I can do my little part to make a difference. No matter how small it is, I at least know that I am doing something. Before this company I found my joy in helping people reconstruct their homes that were damaged during the floods. After completing this project and meeting all those vulnerable people, I picked this vulnerable group to focus my attention on, because those ladies really wanted to work. There is so much to do, but you just have to pick one thing and do the best you can.
HGC: Where would you like to see the Chu&Chu line in the next year?
MC: During the next year I would like to expand our brand into a full line of women’s clothing that will be really all about irresistible, and very practical pieces. I’d like to reach a wider audience and have a proven, scaleable system for employment.
HGC: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
MC: If you know you’ve done your best, that’s all that really matters.
HGC: That’s the best advice I’ve heard in a long time. To find out more about Martina and Iva’s journey, follow the Chu&Chu Collection on Facebook, and on Instagram @chuandchucollection. Or to shop for your own HGC-approved turban, visit the Chu&Chu Collection website here.
All photos courtesy of Chu&Chu Collection