Designing the narrative

With Austria’s far-right Freedom party coming within a whisker of the presidency last month, the climate for migrants – like in many other European countries at the moment – is heating up once again.

Having arrived in the country from Romania 11 years ago, Andra Slaats wanted to counteract the prevailing negative spin around immigration and celebrate the success stories. In one of her early jobs, she experienced how difficult true integration can be: “In regular life, I was surrounded by Austrians, and I was, like: wow, these people are so nice and so welcoming. And then all of a sudden I come into an office, and Austrians don’t like me now.”

It’s migrants’ positive experiences and productivity that her company Younited Cultures takes and weaves into beautiful scarf designs.

“I want people to see who we are, not read in the newspapers that [migrants] are a bunch of beggars on the street,” says Slaats. “That’s why I want to tell [their] stories – in an elegant way, a non-provocative way, a non-political way.”

Here’s how Younited Cultures transforms their stories into a unique design.

Adela being interviewed by the Younited Cultures team
@ Younited Cultures

“Younited Cultures is part of the Impact Hub Vienna, a co-working space for social entrepreneurs. There are so many people here with inspiring stories. We try and go for people from countries that are badmouthed in the press – often eastern Europeans in Austria.

We have a set of questions that we ask, and see where we go from there. It’s a very flexible process. We trying to understand the identity of this person and what shapes them, and that’s why we go to the roots: what was your childhood like? What inspires you? What moves you? What was the funniest thing you ever did? Or the craziest? We discuss their cultural heritage, and what it is they think they do that most inspires others. How they contribute to society.”

A preliminary sketch for Adela's scarf
@ Younited Cultures

“Julia, my business partner, does the graphic design and I am good at conceptualising the ideas. After we hear the whole story, we come together and select the key points they requested: should it be colourful? Simple? Showing certain images? Or abstract? Then we’ll go away and draw something. The process can be very therapeutic. It’s beautiful to see what comes out of someone’s story: you take their life and put it in a drawing”.

The Vlad scarf
@ Younited Cultures

“My first question to Vlad was: what brought you to Vienna? And he said: literally, my car. He thinks outside the box. After three and a half years in the city, he’d successfully started Ted X Vienna with only three volunteers – he’s very inspired by doers, researchers, people who challenge the status quo.

So as well because of Ted X, he said he liked the X symbol – which ended up on the scarf – because it represented the unknown variable in mathematical formulae. For him, solving the formula means finding the right people and giving the answers to new questions. If you look at the whole scarf, the big Xs become a kind of column, which represents the sculptor Brancusi’s Endless Column. It plays into Vlad’s vision of who he is: always aiming high, with the journey, not the end, being what counts.”

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Improve the image of migration by turning their success stories of immigrants into scarf designs. Wear a story!

“The print is taken from a photo of a particular area in Turkey, where trees grow out of rocks. Selma came here after the Bosnian war broke out, and she had a lot of international experience as an expert in marketing. But after becoming a mother, she couldn’t find a job – despite her diverse background and being able to speak five languages. So she started her own consultancy advising the development of new companies.

Back then, the word ‘entrepreneur’ didn’t exist in Austria. Her idea was very pioneering; she was starting from zero finding customers. The tree growing from rocks symbolises exactly that: the rigidness of the society she came into and the growth she tried to encourage. With her companies, she plants trees. She’s an authority in Vienna on entrepreneurship now.”

@ Younited Cultures

“Adela arrived here from Poland without knowing any German, which only gave her access to the lowest jobs. Back home, she worked in marketing, but here she became a cleaning lady and a babysitter. She learnt German from the children, studied law and ended up doing so many jobs, certain institutions started to consult her on Polish society in Austria.

Her German was perfect by then, and she started to teach Poles the language. She became an expert in how to integrate other migrants into society and into the job market, and created a career fair for international people in Austria.

The scarf is drawn from traditional Polish elements, because she’s still very close to her heritage. It has a lot of flowers - the four in the middle represent her key values: family, friends, career, and the entrepreneurial spirit. She grew up in the Tatra mountains, so the curves in the corners are meant to look like those. She sees mountains as an opportunity to climb up, but also as an obstacle. She wanted the scarf to be black and white, because she’s like that: no compromises.”

Making scarves
@ Younited Cultures

“We wanted to stay local, but it was very difficult. Our original manufacturer in Innsbruck didn’t specialise in scarves. They could print the material, but we had to have it sewn and cut in Vienna. But it was too expensive. Now we print digitally with a company in Italy, who specialise in scarves, and the packaging comes from Poland.”

@ Younited Cultures

“We discovered last year when we were researching our target market that we didn’t sell anything at fashion fairs, because we didn’t follow the latest trends and the latest colours. We’ve chosen to follow people and personalities instead."

Now we go to organic and fair-trade fairs, because the people want to know where the stuff comes from, and they want to hear the stories. I don’t want people to buy them because they’re, like: oh my gosh, the poor migrants. I want them to buy them because they’re, like: wow, what a great story, what a great product.”

For more on Younited Cultures see here

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