Carolina K: ‘The Present is Handmade’

Since its origin 15 years ago in a small Mexican town, ethical lifestyle brand Carolina K has  collaborated with and championed the work of around 300 artisans. We spoke to founder Carolina Kleinman about her desire to preserve the history and culture of local communities, all while considering fashion’s waste problem.

Having grown up surrounded by the artisanal fashion industry of Bolivia, in which her grandfather worked with textile and trims, Carolina Kleinman’s namesake brand combines that of her childhood introduction to fashion with the knowledge and inspiration accumulated from residing in the town of Tepoztlan, Mexico. Having spent the early years of her career travelling around South America in search of artisanal communities and traditional craftsmanship, ethical production and the championing of traditional practices remain central to Carolina K’s philosophy. A lot of Kleinman’s inspiration comes, simply, from the beauty of the craft. But it is also about the preservation of technique, of regeneration and natural materials and the prioritisation of practices that put the planet first. “Our planet is our only home and we, together, have to make an effort to slow down,” says Kleinman. Most recently, the brand has introduced a Zero Waste collection in the effort to do just that, combining otherwise redundant fabric scraps to produce one-off pieces closer to that of art than clothing.

How did you first get started working in fashion?

 I have been involved in fashion since my early childhood. My grandfather moved to Bolivia from Argentina when my father was just a young boy, working with artisans in the textile and trims industry – his house was always full of pre-Hispanic artifacts. My mom and aunt were also in the industry and had a clothing store which meant I was constantly surrounded by fashion. I later moved to Los Angeles to study and work as a stylist, during which time I travelled back to Buenos Aires for a brief time, where I developed my first collection. I took the collection to New York City and to my pleasant surprise, it sold out in one week!

What inspired you to launch your ethical lifestyle brand, Carolina K, in 2005?

I knew the fashion industry well. Early on I had a very clear understanding that if I ever started my own label it would have to be done in an ethical manner. It would have to have a much bigger purpose than just economic success. Carolina K began with travelling; I went to the northern part of Argentina to a little mountain town called Tilcara, then to La Paz, Bolivia. There, I fell in love with their culture, the colourful textiles, their ancestry and crafts. I realised that many of the ancient techniques were fading away, and it then became my mission to start developing pieces with them that could support the continuance of their craft. That trip resulted in my first artisanal collection.

From there, I continued my travels to remote regions in Peru and Mexico, where I consequently resided for many years. I spent a lot of time at the local markets meeting many of the talented artisans that I still work with to this day. In 2005, I spent a month in an ashram in Bangalore, India. I left feeling so inspired by the way locals incorporated meditation, yoga and nightly mantras into their daily lives. I knew I would return but wasn’t sure when. In 2013, I went back with the aim of establishing relationships with small factories for the development of the brand, who we continue to work with on every collection.

What are your sustainable priorities for your business?

Over the last 15 years, our sustainable priorities have and always will be to work with artisans, to use natural dyes, and to avoid the use of any chemicals or pesticides in the development of the collections.

From day one, the collections have been rooted in sustainability – each garment is made by hand with carefully sourced fabrics such as organic cottons, vegan silks and recycled materials. When we started to grow and began printing in 2011, we made the decision to print directly onto each individual fabric, enabling us to avoid the pollution of chemical inks leaking into the rivers. The original relationships forged with our factories are those we still use, which allows us to make sure we are implementing and demanding fair trade regulations and ethical working environments. All of our packaging is compostable and biodegradable, tags and labels are made from recyclable paper or organic materials. Additionally, my team and I continue to educate ourselves about the negative environmental effects that fashion has brought on and how we as individuals and the brand can adapt to more sustainable practices daily.

You have long been a pioneer of working with artisan communities across the world, how do you work collaboratively with the artisans?

Over the last 13 years we have been fortunate enough to work with some 300 artisans. Our communication with them spans the entirety of the year, not just during the developmental periods of the collection. At the beginning, we would develop pieces together that included techniques based on the artisanal and ancestral traditions. Now, with a stronger working relationship, we are able to explore new techniques and skills together. Many of the artisans are open to new challenges and are always looking for ways to learn new and different skills. The best part of my job is being able to visit the villages and work collaboratively and authentically together. Though the pandemic has put a pause on this, we are able to work with a community lead who can send photos and videos as often as possible. Despite the difficulties, we have managed to work well together at distance and I cannot wait to get back on the road and to work together in person again.

Why do you think it is important to preserve artisanal traditions?

After visiting and working together for so many years, I have so many anecdotes and stories. But, to put it simply, it is the beauty of the artisanal culture and heritage that I believe should be shared with the world. And so, we must properly preserve artisanal traditions. The more I visit, the more I see the fading of traditional crafts. As long as I am able to collaborate with the local communities, I hope to be able to support their traditions – even if that means pushing my brand outside its comfort zone. I’ve gone as far as to purchase textiles from imprisoned artisans in Ayacucho, using handcrafting as a means to pass the time. My work has been so fulfilling, and I will continue to make sure they are able to share their legacy.

You are known for hand-embroidered details made authentically by artisans from remote regions of Mexico, Peru, and India – how does the Carolina K brand celebrate these cultures?

Our brand celebrates culture in a manner of different ways. For us, this means opening up opportunities to artisans that they perhaps would have not had access to otherwise. Ensuring fair trade of locally produced items is just one way of supporting such communities: our handmade cotton dresses and ottomans are from Mexico, our knits and shoes from Peru, our hats are Ecuadorian, our rugs from Guatemala and our upcoming ceramics collection is made in Colombia. I’m open to keep searching anywhere in the world. This is my ‘motto’. In addition to always seeking ‘newness’, we hope to support the communities we work with in any which way we can. We consequently work with organisations that identify domestic violence, assist in helping women escape and empower them to work for their own well-being, removing potential male dependency.

Can you tell us more about your zero-waste initiative and what inspired this way of working?

I traveled to Mumbai, India, a couple of years ago and I stopped by one of my factories and saw in a corner bags of fabrics from past collections. It felt like such a waste and so inspired the Zero Waste collection of one-of-a-kind pieces. We have also created eye masks, jewellery and bed quilts from the fabric scraps. The zero-waste initiative derived from producing pieces of art – one dress can have fabrics from six different collections. It has become such a special project.

In what ways have your travels influenced your sustainable approach to fashion?

For me, travel has been an endless source of inspiration and wonderful discoveries, including the people we work with and how our daily activities can be done in the most sustainable and meaningful ways. Sustainability is a way of living with conscious consumption and mindful practices that I’ve learned along the way. For example, when I lived in Cusco, Peru, I would get milk directly from cows. Whenever I go back to Tepoztlán, Mexico, we collect rainwater and gather fruits from our garden. I try to buy produce directly from local farmers, and here in Miami, I drive an electric car. My brand is a reflection of who I am as a person, my lifestyle and my beliefs.

Where do you draw your inspiration for your collections?

My life is my biggest source of inspiration – the places I have lived, my travels, the variety of cultures I work with and their crafts and traditions. I also take a lot from nature, my beliefs in spirituality, the architecture that I see throughout my day, and the music I dance and sing to. I make sure that I am always surrounded by beauty and aim to produce garments in collaboration with artisans from the countries that I was initially inspired by.

How has your sustainability strategy developed as you have grown?

It has been a long process that we re-evaluate every day as we attain more knowledge on the possibilities of working sustainably. We started our company at a time when sustainability wasn’t something that brands did or strived to become – it wasn’t fashionable or trendy. I wanted to do it because I wanted to create something that mattered to me personally, producing something meaningful that is meant to be treasured for a lifetime. As the brand keeps growing, we regularly assess each area of the company to find the best way to maintain highly ethical and sustainable standards.

In what ways do you think fashion can be a force for good in the world?

I think that if we responsibly develop textiles from natural resources from farmers that embrace regenerative agriculture, utilize fabric waste and continue to recycle plastic, all while creating quality products that last longer, then fashion can become a positive force in our world.

What advice would you give to young designers out there who are looking to produce more sustainably?

Spend time doing intensive research, step out of your comfort zone and meet the individuals that handle the supply chain in person to better understand the working conditions. Whatever your goals may be, strive to do them as ethically and responsibly as possible. Our planet is our only home and we, together, have to make an effort to slow down and eventually stop the pollution. Stray away from making a lot of stock. Make less and use slow fashion techniques. Support as many people as possible along the way and always commit to paying fair wages. Be truthful to yourself, make things that matter and that are built to last.