It’s midmorning on a Friday when Kundai Kapurura enters the sewing studio nestled in the corner of the Erb Memorial Union at the center of the University of Oregon campus.
Large spools of thread protrude from a board hanging on one of the room’s walls. An archaic-looking weaving machine rests below the back window, and shelves rimming the room hold sewing machines, bins of materials and a collection of sewing books.
Kapurura pulls out a seat at one of two worktables in the center of the room and drops her bag of materials on the other. She grabs a pair of scissors and lifts out a handful of neon fabrics. Today’s design is a custom order for a couple in California: two matching crewnecks, each with color-contrasting, hand-drawn flames sewn into their hems. She begins cutting out the pattern she had drawn the previous week, moving the scraps aside to save for later projects. Things are quiet in the studio today, but Kapurura often works in her room with music playing. She finds her creativity thrives in isolation, something she learned during the pandemic.
“I can get in a zone where it feels like nothing else exists but what I’m working on,” she says, transfixed on the fabric in front of her.
The project is one of many designs that Kapurura has taken on since launching the clothing line Philanthropy Phabrics with her friend Sophia Cobb in 2020. The brand’s mission, Kapurura says, is to create “a sustainable future through handcrafted fashion.” They take clothing donations, thrifted items or pieces from their own closets and transform them into new designs, infused with aspects of Zimbabwean and Colombian from each of their backgrounds.
But for Kapurura, the work is more than just clothing design — it’s a means of giving back to her community and being a social justice advocate. The brand donates 10% of its proceeds to local activism causes, focusing on ones that need timely support. Kapurura and Cobb are dedicated to causes that “uplift their community” and eventually hope to expand beyond local causes to national ones. Moreover, Kapurura is learning to take up space as a Black woman in business, use her voice and harness her creative abilities to spur social change. She does it all while balancing life as a full-time student and business owner.
“She’s an amazing artist with a humble heart, a passion to serve others in that social justice lens and create space for other artists,” says her twin sister, Kudzai Kapurura.
Alongside her twin sister, Kapurura grew up in a tight-knit family with her parents and older brother. Her parents moved from Zimbabwe to the U.S. in 2000, the year she was born, making her a first-generation American. From a young age, Kapurura was an artist in the making, even if she didn’t see it. She would often doodle on pamphlets in church, do origami in class or spend her free time painting.
“Kundai is one of those people who is creative in so many different senses,” Kudzai says.
Her father, Tapiwa Kapurura, heavily influenced her studious habits and strong work ethic. He attended law school and now works helping refugees acclimate to life in the states. His fearless pursuit of tasks such as writing a book showed her how to tackle even the most daunting projects.
Her mother, Victoria Kapurura, passed down a skill integral to her life in Zimbabwe: sewing. She had started sewing lessons in the third grade in Zimbabwe, so it was only natural she taught the skill to her daughter. Kundai picked it up quickly, along with coloring, drawing and cutting designs from various materials. Her mother encouraged her creativity and tried to incorporate natural resources like reeds, tree bark and various fibers they had used in her village.
Kapurura went on to take a home economics class in middle school that loosely resembled fashion design. It was some of her first exposure to the world of design. She laughs recalling the teacher explaining color theory and how “black is a slimming color.” She sees it as a testament to how far she has come with design from the early days of those introductory principles.
Her artistic interests played a large role in her decision to come to UO as a product design major. Her mother says the major “really represents who she has been all her life,” given her artistic nature as a child. Kapurura spent the beginning of her first year exploring the many mediums the program offered. She experimented with stop-motion animation, collaborative painting, collaging, 3D modeling and more. Kapurura says she loved the quiet time and getting to focus on what she was creating.
And then the pandemic hit.
Quarantined back in Salem with her family, she spent her summer creating art with whatever was lying around.
“Using household materials to create art was my passion during the pandemic,” Kapurura says. For one project, she took items like wire hangers, bottle caps and even a fidget spinner to create a sculpture inspired by “Useless Machines,” a work created by Bruno Munari.
Despite her natural talents, she struggled to view herself as a true artist. She felt she didn’t have the ability or the notoriety that comes with the title. But it was during quarantine when Kapurura finally picked up a painting set — a Christmas gift from her sister that had been confined to a corner for the previous six months.
“I was so afraid to touch that art set. When I tell you I didn’t think of myself as an artist, I really didn’t,” Kapurura says.
The painting set breathed life into her creative aspirations. It led her to start an Instagram account for her art, where she began to share it with the world. Paintings of abstract designs, flowers and a remake of a Frank Ocean album cover filled her profile page.
Kapurura then reached out to Sophia Cobb, a high school acquaintance with similar artistic interests, and proposed a collaboration: a one-time clothing line to raise money for local activism causes.
Her proposal to Cobb was prompted by what she refers to as the “complete civil unrest” in 2020 as the Black Lives Matter Movement, Oregon wildfires and COVID-19 pandemic all coincided. It ignited a desire to use her skills to give back to her community.
In the following weeks, the pair started designing a line of clothing. It didn’t take long for them to connect with Salem local and fellow fashion enthusiast Austin Herndon, who organized pop-ups — short-term shopping spaces curated by local vendors. Herndon invited them to participate as designers in an upcoming event.
When the next pop-up rolled around, they showcased their designs under the name Philanthropy Phabrics for the first time. Vibrant African patchwork, line-drawn faces, hand-painted dragons and detailed distressing adorned the roughly 30 tops, pants and jackets they brought.
They received overwhelming excitement and support in response to their clothing. They chatted with friends and family coming to support them throughout the day, took photos with people purchasing items and accepted clothing drop-offs to be turned into custom pieces. By closing, over half of what they brought had sold. Realizing their potential, they agreed to take Philanthropy Phabrics and make it a business.
“Realizing people were willing to look at the clothing and loved the clothing and saw the artistic value in it was the moment when I realized ‘Dang, we can keep doing this,’” Kapurura says.
Kapurura and Cobb form a perfectly balanced team, preferring different but complementary mediums. Cobb creates with vibrant colors and intricately painted designs inspired by Colombian fashion. Kapurura utilizes African patchwork, repetitive patterns and line drawings. More remarkable than that, she brings love and joy into each piece she creates — something she says is a hallmark of Zimbabwean culture. Her work with the brand has helped her redefine what it means to be an artist.
“Just the way that she sees things, the way that she creates, has been very inspiring for me,” says Cobb, a third-year business student at Oregon State University. Living in different cities, Kapurura and Cobb work independently on many of their designs but come together for collaboration pieces, passing the design back and forth.
Philanthropy Phabrics has allowed Kapurura to “define herself as a designer,” and it is already having an impact. In 2021, the two women donated to five organizations, including the Black Youth PDX Movement, Marion Polk Food Share and Women’s Foundation of Oregon.
Philanthropy Phabrics’ mission is to be a sustainable brand, but Kapurura says the meaning of sustainability far surpasses just planetary health; it includes the people who live on the planet. She says donating to causes that uplift people and showing that the brand is there for the community directly is just as important to her as sourcing materials in a way that doesn’t harm the planet.
“Kundai believes that what she is doing, anybody else can do it, but she doesn’t realize how much talent she has,” her mother says.
Since launching the brand, Kapurura has fully embraced her title as a designer. She works as an art curator for a gallery in the EMU, takes on graphic design projects, expresses herself through fashion and experiments with mediums that may have seemed intimidating in the past.
Having peers and those younger asking her how she came up with the brand, if they can collaborate and admiring her work has helped her overcome doubts. It’s “one of the few markers of ‘you’re doing something right,’ and you’re showing people they can do it too,” she says.
She hopes to create space for people like her in the world of design, emulating the trails blazed by some of her biggest inspirations.
“I wouldn’t have the audacity that I do today if we didn’t have people like Virgil [Abloh] or Andre Leon Talley,” she says, “just people who are Black, who are women, who are first-generation Americans in the industry.”
Nearing the end of a busy term, Kapurura sits across the table in a study room located just a short walk away from the sewing studio. She explains how as a Black woman, and one in business, there were certain things she felt that she couldn’t do or space she couldn’t take up in the past. With vibrant blue strands woven into her hair — something she would have considered too bold merely months ago — she says she feels like she’s learned to take up that space.
“I used to think that it took a name, or it took a famous piece to be an artist,” Kapurura says.
“But I think art is everywhere. It’s inside of us, and so everyone is an artist.”