20 years ago, I realized my dream of UzbekAlive and started an incredible journey with a suitcase full of ideas.
“UzbekAlive is a socially responsible brand that offers unique textiles and home decor using traditional hand-woven silk cotton ikat fabric.”
In 1999, I was a newlywed who had just arrived in the United States from Uzbekistan, my home country, and was taking my first tentative steps in the business world. I was deeply missing my friends and family back home. Having to spend so much time away from my family and friends from Uzbekistan, made me miss my country and culture. Hence, it also inspired me to create some day-to-day connection with Uzbekistan which would fill the void of missing home.
UzbekAlive Is Born
In December of 2001, my now ex-husband and I were traveling to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for the Christmas holiday. On the way, we came up with several ideas for potential domain names for a website that we may create in the near future. Although, it seemed more like a harmless play of banter to me.
Truth be told, I wasn’t really prepared to roll up my sleeves and start doing something. Not until when I opened my email a few days later that I realized I was the proud owner of the domain name www.uzbekalive.com. On December 23, 2001, my ex-husband bought the domain for me as a Christmas present. It was a unique and thoughtful present that has stayed with me to this day. The website gave me a place to express myself creatively while also providing me with a platform to connect with some very amazing Uzbek artisans and promote their work.
It All Started with Hand-Painted Jewelry Boxes
UzbekAlive got its start by offering hand-painted jewelry boxes. A true artist of the ornamental art Koshib Omonov helped me and performed a small miracle.
When 2000 began, the United States was in the midst of the dot-com boom, while Uzbekistan, which had only been independent for nine years, was struggling with significant social and economic issues. When circumstances are tough, people’s interests in creative pursuits like arts and crafts tend to slip by the wayside. Life becomes more about survival rather than surrounding yourself with beauty. So, my artist friend Koshib Omonov who was based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, was the one who originally proposed that I bring some of his pieces to America for an exhibition.
While living in the United States, I had access to a market of people who admired beautiful things, and I used this opportunity to help artisans in my home country of Uzbekistan. I decided to utilize my corporate salary to purchase some works created by Uzbek artists, photograph them, write detailed product descriptions, and then list them on eBay and my website. By doing so, I learnt the market and gained valuable experience in photography and e-commerce.
Uzbek Textile Heritage
During one of my trips to Uzbekistan, my mother, who has a deep appreciation for all things handmade and artisanal, brought me to see an exhibition of handwoven textiles in Uzbekistan. As a matter of fact, I owe my mother an immense debt of gratitude for many influences and experiences, but above all else, I value the way she broadened my horizons.
Again this time, I felt something in me start shifting and expanding when I was brought to a whole new world of handloom woven ikat fabrics. I also got to know fabulous artisans who have been perfecting their skills for generations, designing unimaginable ikat patterns and bringing them to fruition. It was a really fascinating period in my life!
The First Online Ikat Shop
The exhibition’s success laid the groundwork for UzbekAlive to become the first online store to sell authentic Uzbek ikat fabrics. Since I was running an online business, I was in the unique position of being able to connect with both Uzbek textile artists and the global market.
UzbekAlive was a great platform for me to advertise Uzbek ikats. However, it also felt like fashion designers and interior decorators were waiting for ikats. It felt like something that was well documented in books, displayed in museums, and sold in antique shops now, once again, became available to the public.
Uzbek Ikat Revival and A Historical Detour
Although this was a great time for me learning ecomerce, it was also a golden age for artisans who worked in handwoven textiles. Because after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the industry of hand-made textiles went through its very own Renaissance.
For the seven decades that the Soviet Union was in power, handmade textiles were produced discreetly in insignificant numbers. The Soviet regime, which assumed that everyone worked for the State, moved all artisans to State-owned textile factories, simplified ikat designs, and often replaced ikat weaving with ikat printing.
Artisanal handwoven fabrics were not on the development agenda of the Soviet government. The Soviet philosophy was to industrialize the textile industry and to mass produce fabrics. Who needed limited quantities of luxurious handloom woven fabrics when a huge population was primarily poor and needed to be fed, dressed, and educated? Where would you find a state budget for such luxurious textiles when basic needs were hardly met?
This is why the state funds were channeled towards industrialized textiles. Handmade textiles were banned. Some artisans who secretly made handloom woven ikats risked their lives. Some of them were sentenced to time in prison for working for themselves – remember, under communism, everyone was supposed to work for the State, and the State decided how much who got paid.
We Have Always Been in A Slow Fashion.
In a time and age when things have become so fast and easily replaceable, we thrive on taking things slow. All Uzbek ikat fabrics offered in my online store are hand-dyed and hand-woven genuine ikat fabrics. However, there is only so much a human can produce with their own two hands. Given this natural limitation, thankfully, there is no mass production of ikat fabrics. As a result of this, we at UzbekAlive simply carry everything in limited quantities.
Ikat Fabrics and Home Décor
I really like decorating rooms, and as a result, I’ve come to appreciate the dramatic effect that pillows can have. They can totally transform a space by adding a needed vibe and color. Not only are pillows visual decoration objects, but they are also convenient home objects. They take cuddling and snuggling to a whole new level of comfort. The thought of snuggling up with a soft pillow drove me to seek out tailors who could help me make ikat pillow covers using our own ikat fabrics.
Since our main market was and still is the USA, we followed standard pillow sizes widely accepted in the USA. Nevertheless, UzbekAlive currently offers its customers ikat fabrics and matching ikat pillow covers. In addition to that, we expanded our selection of home décor also to include ikat quilts.
Covid-19 And Ikat Table Runners
Covid-19 changed a lot of things. Some of those changes, in my opinion, have been for the better. For instance, people started cooking and eating healthier at home. Covid-19 gave us a break to slow down and to review our lifestyles. We finally got a chance to sit down at a table with our loved ones regularly and share a meal. Is this not an incredible change?
Seeing this trend in 2021, we introduced ikat table runners. We brought the exotic ikat fabrics to a dining table, which transformed the dining experience. Our very first ikat table runner was designed with a Thanksgiving dinner in mind. We wanted to create something that would bring joy and a feeling of togetherness after months of lockdown and isolation.
When I brought UzbekAlive to life it was immediately clear to me that I wanted to take a different path with my brand. Sustainability and social responsibility is my top priority. And I take great pride in being able to accomplish this.
Our ikat fabrics, for example, are made by hand in small workshops. Only natural fibers such as silk and cotton are used. We pay fair prices for these unique pieces and thus enable the local workers to continue their centuries-old traditions.
They are individually manufactured under fair working conditions and in an environmentally friendly production process. Despite their extravagance, they are timeless. The dresses made from our Ikat fabric cannot just be worn once; they can be worn often and for a long time. And their wearers are always enchanted and admired by others. It is an honor that dresses made of our fabrics were worn for Nobel awards ceremonies, and our pillow covers decorate beautiful homes around the world. We take great pleasure in customizing our jewelry boxes to be given as unforgettable wedding gifts or as an engagement ring box for a special occasion. Our silk scarves are worn by style-conscious ladies from Tokyo to New York.
However, one of the most amazing things for my times about Uzbek ikat fabrics is that they have been produced entirely of locally grown cotton and silk. If tomorrow all borders closed – as they did during the pandemic – the production of ikats will continue as if nothing happened. Since the Uzbek ikat fabrics are hand dyed by local dyers and woven by local weavers.
There is only one component in which we started partially relying on external sources – Dyes! If before all dyes were made locally, these days, they are imported. This is how the local artisans made Uzbek ikats washable. For example, on our website, we offer ikat runners, which are perfectly ok to be hand washed.
We Plan to Remain Small, Customer-Oriented, And Flexible
We don’t have mega goals of bringing ikat textiles to every home. This is a mission impossible because ikat textiles are a work of manual labor, and the output is limited due to limited resources. However, we aim to bring authentic ikat fabrics to people who appreciate unique textiles and do this in the most customer-friendly manner.
This journey recalls many different moments that I have experienced since it all began. We have been part of exciting projects, made many new friends and met wonderful people. However, we couldn’t have done it without our wonderful and loyal customers.
Find What You Love and Do It
As the owner of an online business, my journey to UzbekAlive may have been a source of inspiration for some people searching for different ways to launch their own business. So I’d like to share some advice based on my experience in the hopes that it will be helpful to you in the long run.
I think the best advice I could give you is to JUST DO! You can make anything happen, so plan a little bit, then do something. Go ahead, let your creative spirit loose! If you can’t stop obsessing about the idea and keep coming back to it, just go for it.
All the strategies in the world won’t matter if you choose the wrong business for the wrong reasons and it isn’t aligned with you. This is what I believe. And if you are going for it, why not go for it with a business that lights you up? So think about what sets you apart from the others, and develop your business around that.
All the best in your journey and remember – I have never met any successful person with a very easy past. Our difficulties and obstacles are our trainers that build us and make us stronger and better.