With a degree in international relations and a catalogue of experience in the fashion industry, Grace Elliston founded the socially conscious shoe and leather goods brand Zwina Habibi. Through her label she aims both to confront global issues and drive the Moroccan economy.
The young entrepreneur is full of energy, excitement and compassion. She turns the spotlight away from herself and instead highlights the creativity and craft of Moroccan artisans. Making slight adjustments to traditional attire, her designs share the vibrancy of Morocco with the rest of the world.
At its very core, Zwina Habibi is a company that represents friendships beyond borders. The brand aims to overcome global inequalities so often reinforced by the fashion industry and instead offers us inspiration for the future.
Type of brand:
Where can we find your designs?
Online and at various pop-up fairs around London.
Who is the Zwina Habibi customer?
The ZH girl is both savvy and stylish, a woman who relishes her individuality and dresses to stand out.
Can you explain the name of the brand?
Zwina is a colloquial Moroccan-Arabic word for a cute girl or someone you might have a crush on; Habibi is used with similar affection but to describe a boy.
How did Moroccan culture inspire you to start Zwina Habibi?
Morocco is a country overflowing with inspiration. From the landscape and climate to the people, art and music scene - I'm not sure where to begin! It was mainly the good nature of the people and quality of their craftsmanship that helped to kickstart ZH. I rely fully on the work and support of local artisans in Marrakech to create my product. It's these very people that have lost out on vital business as the current international political climate has led to a decline in western tourism to Morocco. I started ZH in an attempt to reverse this flow and open up the market once again.
Tell us about your first visit to Marrakech.
My first visit to Marrakech was about 12 years ago - and I must have only been about 12. To me, Morocco was totally different to how it is now. It was mysterious and unknown, full of overwhelming sounds, smells and colours. Now it's my home away from home; the maze of derbs (Moroccan streets) that once unnerved me now takes me on adventures.
Which aspects of your designs can be attributed to Morocco and which to London?
All of our designs begin as Moroccan and are then tweaked to work with current western trends and aesthetic. For example, raffia is a very traditional Moroccan material, but we worked in design elements that sit beautifully on the pages of British magazines.
Where do you imagine your designs worn?
Anywhere and everywhere! They are completely versatile accessories that can be worn to work or a party, for walking a dog or going on a date. The backpacks are festival appropriate in the summer and Christmas market appropriate in the winter.
Tell us a bit about your craftsmen.
Each craftsman has a few people working for them, mainly family members. The idea is that everyone is trained to a high standard so that they have a trade rather than a line job in a factory. It's a passion for them as much as a career, and it's likely they will be making shoes and bags for the rest of their lives. Ahmed makes the comfortable and delicate raffia shoes, a summer staple for both men and women. Imad specialises in leather shoes, adding Moroccan twists to classic winter and summer shapes. Mounir was the craftsman who made the first ever "boogie bag", the original ZH suede backpack. He now makes a range of backpacks, the soft suede "squish squash" totes and the ZH wallets.
How often do you visit them?
At least once every two months for a week or two each time. I spent a good four months out there this year. I find it much easier working side by side with them as there is always a lot to keep track of.
What are some of the biggest challenges of running a business across two continents?
The language barrier and physical distance are two things I've had to learn to work with. Issues around timing and coordination when I am not there have proved stressful but these were mainly teething problems. I've definitely learned from it all.
Are your customers mostly from western backgrounds or do you have a following in Morocco as well?
They are mainly western, but we have sent items all around the world. Shops in New York and São Paolo are keen to stock the SS17 collection when it lands, which is super exciting. Instagram has been very helpful in spreading ZH globally, as has word of mouth - I often hear from customers who wear our products that they are stopped by strangers on the tube! Although we are not currently stocked in Morocco we certainly look towards doing this one day.
What costs are associated with being an ethical brand?
Our methods of labour and production are more expensive than they would be in a factory, but I don't consider this cost too high to pay. Any less would be unfair and undervalue the artisans' skills - I will never compromise on this. Customers value the artisanal production of the ZH product too. I hope that ZH provides an alternative option for those wanting to buy affordable luxury without supporting unethical production.
Do you see a brick-and-mortar store in Zwina Habibi's future?
It is difficult to say. I think the Zwina Habibi woman is busy; she shops online while eating her lunch at her desk. At the moment, an e-commerce platform suits her best as her buying choices tend to be swayed by the images seen on Instagram or flicking through the pages of SUITCASE on her iPad!
How should we spend 24 hours in Marrakech?
Wake up to a delicious breakfast on the roof of Riad Timila - on a clear day you can see the Atlas Mountains that run along one side of the city; it's a wonderful view to wake up to. If I'm not working, I'd spend some time on the roof under the sun before heading out into the souks around midday.
There are some great little food joints throughout the souks. Marrakech has recently had a wave of Moroccan fusion restaurants pop up too. My favourite vendor for msemen (Moroccan fried pancakes with either spices, tomatoes and onions or cheese and honey) is a short walk away towards the Bahia and Al Badi palaces so it's likely I'd head there to meet friends.
It's great to get out of the medina, so I sometimes rent a car and go up into the mountains (a full day trip) or take a taxi to one of the hotels outside of town with enormous gardens and pools to hang out in.
The evening would either be spent going to Gueliz (the new town) or into the square to have dinner at one of the food stalls. I like seeing Marrakech this way - half touristy, half local - because you feel much more a part of the city and culture if you take time to do as Moroccans do.
Do you see Zwina Habibi expanding into more categories in the future?
We are keen to launch men's raffia shoes this coming summer as we have been inundated with requests for them. Otherwise suede jackets and coats are on the maybe list too… you'll have to wait and see!
We've really pulled out all the stops for the latest summer collection and I'm particularly excited about the new brand imagery. Shot on the outskirts of Marrakech and foothills of the Atlas Mountains, the campaign was created by an extremely talented, all-female team including actor and model Lily Newmark (who's previously worked with McQueen and Vivienne Westwood) and Mimi Kaz, stylist Lucy Upton-Prowse and photographer Charlotte Ellis. They were all amazing.