The unofficial uniform of New York is all black, all the time, but some of the city’s more adventurous dressers are beginning to sport splashes of color—in pompom form.
Garlands of dyed cotton balls have begun to pop up in New York thanks to Ubuntu Market, a Brooklyn-based boutique selling artisan-made goods. Working with a network of collaborators, Ubuntu’s co-founders, Kytzia Bourlon and Yoana (Yoyo) Cortés, have made it their mission to put handcrafted, responsibly produced goods in front of the public. According to Yoyo, “The main objective is creating consciousness about what people are buying in this industry.”
Kytzia and Yoyo are lifelong friends. The two met in kindergarten in Mexico City and remained close thereafter. In 2011, Kytzia moved to New York to attend the Parsons School of Design, while Yoyo remained in Mexico. Four years later, as Kytzia was close to graduating and unsure of next steps, she and Yoyo attended a wedding in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
The trip would prove auspicious.“We spent all our free time in the markets there,” explains Kytzia, “and that’s when we realized we wanted to start a project.” The duo began to collect goods made by the communities around them and sell them in America.
What started as a hobby has since blossomed into a full-fledged business. Ubuntu now works with almost 40 partners and has matured from a series of pop-up shops to its own showroom on the fourth floor of The Assemblage John Street, a co-working space in New York's Financial District. Though Kytzia and Yoyo are regularly approached with new requests to collaborate, their two-person team is at full capacity.
Many of Ubuntu’s collaborators are in Mexico, where Yoyo was based at the inception of the company. That localization is more than just a matter of convenience, however. The country has a long tradition of crafts-making rooted in the 62 indigenous groups that constitute over 20% of the country’s population.
“In Mexico, we have a rich culture of artisanal work,” says Kytzia. “Even in Mexico City, we had markets all around us.”
The pompoms, by far Ubuntu’s most popular item, originate from Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico. A two-hour flight from the capital, the state is filled with dense jungles and dramatic waterfalls and is the site of several Mayan ruins, including the remarkably well-preserved cities of Palenque and Yaxchilán. Home to twelve indigenous ethnic groups, Chiapas retains a strong connection to its heritage as one of the so-called “cradles of civilization."
Chiapas is famous for its textiles, a reputation it has in common with Guatemala, with which it shares a border. Though textiles made by indigenous communities can be found throughout Mexico, Kytzia estimates that 70% of the ones sold throughout the country are from Chiapas.
Despite their simple design, the pompoms are deceptively tricky to make. Each ball is individually shaped from a spool of cotton thread before it is connected to the rest. A strand of twenty uniform balls takes two to three hours to complete.
In Chiapas, pompoms are used for decoration. The families of indigenous peoples who craft them use them as part of their traditional dress or as “curtains” that hang along the walls of their homes. Kytzia and Yoyo are bringing that practice to America, where, in The Assemblage and elsewhere, the brightly colored garlands adorn furniture, hang from lights, and—yes—have even become fashion accessories.
Viting the artisans in Chiapas and beyond is how Kytzia and Yoyo form connections with new collaborators. On a recent visit to Oaxaca, the pair met a girl who had amassed an impressive collection of huipiles, the loose dresses worn by indigenous women throughout Mexico and Central America. Some of the hand-stitched pieces were over 40 years old.
The interest Kytzia and Yoyo have taken in traditional crafts runs counter to a troubling trend in Mexico. Yoyo recounts an incident in which a father in one of the villages they visited lamented that his son was no longer interested in handicrafts. As technology allows once-secluded indigenous communities to be more connected to the rest of the world, younger generations are forsaking the customs of their ancestors in favor of the clothes, mannerisms, and styles of urbanites. By creating a market for pompoms and other similarly produced artisanal goods, Kytzia and Yoyo are providing a source of income to families who would otherwise abandon the craft. In so doing, the pair is reviving a dying art.
Ubuntu’s co-founders are optimistic about the social impact that their business has. “We think that if people have a connection and they know a little about the person who made it, they will take better care of their dress or poncho and keep it for a longer time,” Kytzia says. She and Yoyo speak frequently about the “energy” imparted to each item by the person, which they believe can be felt and appreciated by the consumer.
As Ubuntu grows, it is undertaking new initiatives. One is expanding its presence online; unlike the recent proliferation of digital-native companies, Ubuntu began as a physical space and is only now venturing into the Internet world. Kytzia and Yoyo plan to release an online retail store in the coming months.
Ubuntu has also expanded into events. A forthcoming one is a collaboration with chefs and artists that will take place in Casa Mezcal, the popular Oaxacan restaurant in the Lower East Side. Merging food, music, and visuals, the experience is an attempt to unify the various aspects of Mexican culture.
At the core of Kytzia and Yoyo’s work is a love of their culture and the craftsmanship that it has nourished. You hear it when they describe the many artisans with whom they work: “What they create is pure magic.”