Ethical, artisanal, and Tunisian, Tūniq’s pieces gently journey from sheep to shop, made by hands that have honed their craft through generations.
Hidden in the lush green suburbs of Tunisia’s capital, in an office with blush-toned walls and terrazzo floors, an emerging brand has developed a business strategy that packs a punch. Tūniq – founded by Iman Masmoudi, a student at Harvard Law School – is on a mission to determine whether creating an ethical business from top to bottom is truly possible. Fashion has been ranked one of the most harmful industries to the planet, produces over 80 billion garments a year, and leads to an estimated 92 million tons of clothing ending up in landfills annually. A disproportionate amount of that waste comes from consumers in the Global North – with the burden falling on the Global South. For Masmoudi, an opportunity presented itself to challenge this, and create a home-grown North African carpet brand that is ethical and earth-conscious “from sheep to shop.”
It was on one of her family trips from the US to her native Tunisia that Masmoudi’s first stroke of inspiration came about. She met artisans from around the country, women who for generations had sheared and spun wool to make rugs, clothing, and chechias – Tunisia’s traditional headwear. There were also silk weavers, leather workers, fabric dyers, and metalsmiths. These were the people who had intergenerational knowledge, made high-quality and biodegradable items, and kept the country’s intangible heritage alive. Yet, with fast fashion outlets and globalization taking over much of the landscape, not only were these skills getting lost, but few people remained interested in supporting local artisans. This made it difficult for workers to earn a living.
Then came Tūniq. With the belief that sustainable fashion is age-old, Masmoudi worked with these artisans to create the brand’s supply-chain, keeping it all domestic. Every loom, thread, textile, button, tag, and even the packaging comes from within Tunisia. The leather is sourced from Moknine and the wool from Bizerte and Tataouine, which is dyed in Remada. This was vital to Masmoudi. “I quickly learned that ethical violations in fashion went all the way back to the beginning of the supply chain, and doing it differently meant building something from the ground up,” she says.
Masmoudi and her team work with and know everyone, from Amm Ryadh, the carpet weaver, to Si Tarek, the metalsmith who makes buttons and jewelry for the brand. Tawfiq is the shepherd and Leila, the hat maker. For the most part, Tūniq identified artisans who were already working in their respective trades and created a cooperative network between them. However, as with any initiative, sometimes certain links are missing and where there was a gap in the supply chain, the brand’s team created their own workshops and hired people to prepare their raw materials. For established Tunisian artisans, there was an opportunity to work within a new cooperative and secure a steady and fair income and for others, the opportunity to join the Tūniq family meant gaining not only a vocation but also new skills. For all workers, the founding team makes it a point to not negotiate the asking price of the artisans, sometimes “offering more than the quoted rate [if believed] to be too low.” Masmoudi also offers 50% of the annual revenue to the artisans within the cooperative “so that they can share in the fruits of their labor.” Members of both Tūniq’s founding team and its office staff keep in constant contact with the artisans and regularly travel to the cities and sites within the cooperative to maintain quality control and a familial connection.
One need not travel too far in Tunisia, however, to meet some of the artisans behind the brand’s wool coats, its leather totes, baskets, and prayer rugs. On any given day, one could go to the heart of Tunis’ bustling Medina to see one of the few remaining chechia-makers in the region at work. Amm Abdellatif receives the looms of wool from Moncef in Sfax and crafts them until they become the beloved traditional headwear worn around much of the Arab Mediterranean as well as many countries throughout Africa. Visiting Abdellatif’s shop, you can see variations of different shades of red chechias that distinguish between the Tunisian and Libyan versions. Masmoudi entrusted Houda and Aisha in Remada with the task of creating and naturally dyeing her brand’s special versions, which come in red, olive, and tan.
The brand’s attention to quality and its ethical intentions don’t stop there. When a piece is ordered from its online shop – which doesn’t show the faces of the models so as not to commodify their physical attributes – the garment is folded with care and placed into eco-friendly packaging. No plastic, polyester, or any synthetic material is used throughout the process. What clients receive is an heirloom to keep forever – one that took several villages to make, and which will have several afterlives.
Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2023 issue of Vogue Living Arabia