The co-founder of Yumi explains how an exclusive dress is bringing hope to Nepalese villagers who lost everything in last month’s devastating earthquake. By Janet Christie
WHEN the worst earthquake to hit Nepal in more than 80 years struck on Saturday, 25 April, Uttam Nepal’s thoughts went immediately to his family who live there. The founder – with his wife Clare – of London-based fashion brand Yumi, Uttam was born and raised near Kathmandu, and wasted no time in heading home. Along with him he took aid including medicine, food, sleeping bags, blankets and clothes donated by Yumi customers, and he and Clare set up the Yumi Nepal Earthquake Appeal to help the relief effort.
What Uttam found was people living in temporary camps in squalid conditions, without water or food, and in dire need. With a death toll of more than 8,500 and 20,000 people injured, bodies are still being pulled from the rubble of more than half a million houses, and if aid does not get to those scattered in rural mountainous areas before the monsoon hits next month, there is “real potential for more deaths”, according to the United Nations.
“My family is all from Dhading. It is roughly 50km from Kathmandu and then an hour-and-a-half’s trek up the mountain to the village. Both my parents and grandparents are still there, as well as most of my siblings and their families, plus extended family,” he says.
“They have all been pretty much left homeless with varying levels of destruction of their homes. My elderly grandparents had to evacuate their home in the village, and were in a field when the earthquake struck. Their home was completely left in ruins, as were most of the houses in the village. They are safe, but still not in any permanent residence. Thankfully, I was blessed not to have lost any of my family in this natural tragedy.”
Uttam is part of a relief effort taking aid to Dhading and Nuwakot, west of Kathmandu, some of the most difficult to reach areas close to the epicentre of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake.
“Entire villages have been reduced to piles of rubble and the residents have lost all of their belongings which now lie under the rubble. To see the villages reduced to this state is completely heartbreaking,” says Uttam, speaking from Nepal.
On the ground he has linked up with The Lions Club of Kathmandu to ensure the supplies are distributed directly to those affected and most in need. “We have delivered basic food of rice and daal, which will feed a family of four for one month, to 1,300 villagers. Many of the villagers who came to collect these essential supplies came from remote areas and travelled one-and-a-half hours each way through the mountains,” he says.
Already the Yumi Nepal Earthquake Appeal has raised close to £90,000 of the £150,000 it aims to achieve, and Uttam is extremely grateful, but he is thinking long-term too. “The support we have been extended by the Great British public, local communities and business enterprises has been overwhelming. Every little helps, and we’re making sure we’re doing all we can to play our part. We are trying to do as much as we are able, but the country will need so much more,” he says.
“The longer-term plans are where the appeal really needs to impact. The international community have responded with urgent needs, which is incredible. Our aims for the appeal are now focused on the longer-term rebuilding effort.”
When the aftershock of magnitude 7.3 hit on 12 May, Uttam was in Nepal and felt firsthand the terror of being caught in an earthquake.
“I was in Kathmandu at the top of a large hill surveying the destruction and felt the whole mountain moving and the ground under my feet shifting back and forth. It was a terrifying experience. I can only imagine what it was like when the first earthquake struck and the fear people would have felt at the time,” he says.
Uttam left Nepal for the UK in 1992, to study English, and began selling Nepalese clothing at a stall in London’s Camden Market. It was there he met his wife-to-be Clare. “Clare came to me as a customer and ended being my wife – best sales job of my life,” he says. “It’s the cultural clash of our backgrounds which features right across the business. East meeting West.”
The pair set up Yumi in 1994 and their hand-made ethnic clothing was an instant hit with customers – including the likes of Sienna Miller and Kate Moss – who appreciated their boho chic style. With a commitment to ensuring their clothing is ethically sourced, the brand grew throughout the 1990s, moving towards a more British street style and winning a reputation for its womenswear, childrenswear and accessories in a mix of vibrant colours and prints. Today the company has five brands comprising Yumi, Uttam Boutique, Yumi Girl, Uttam Kids and Iska which sell through their boutiques in London and St Ives, outlet stores, online and in House of Fraser, where they are available in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
As well as taking aid out to Nepal, Uttam and Clare decided to launch the Asha dress, where 100 per cent of the proceeds of the floral maxi will be donated to the Yumi Nepal Earthquake Appeal.
“The support is overwhelming and we’ve nearly sold out of the dress, which is phenomenal, but more stock is imminent. For us the floral design symbolised the positivity and new beginnings of spring. It just seemed like a natural fit to the need,” he says. “And in Nepalese, Asha means hope.” n
Visit www.yumidirect.co.uk to donate to the Yumi Nepal Earthquake Appeal, and/or buy the Yumi Asha Maxi dress, £45, online and in Yumi stores, with 100 per cent of the proceeds (net of VAT) going to the Yumi Nepal Earthquake Appeal. Yumi is also available in Scotland in House of Fraser in Edinburgh and Glasgow. For further stockists, see www.yumidirect.co.uk