Precious Textures
June 2011

The DOSA collection of exquisite limited edition clothing represents designer CHRISTINA KIM's worldview: venerable cultures and wise hands bring richness of texture and experience into fashion meant to be cherished for a lifetime.

I MET CHRISTINA KIM on a sunny afternoon when she was presenting her Spring collection at Raymond Meier's beautiful loft in Soho. The space had been staged in a serene sequence of veils and textures that represent the essence of Dosa -- a simultaneously gorgeous and sustainable fashion brand. Dosa is Kim's creation, a brand rich with the heritage of many artisan partners from around the world whose cultures are treated with respect, empathy and joy. Christina Kim is a thinker, a philosopher of conscious consumption who for more than two decades has researched materials and traditions -- always artisan-made. Her creations are limited editions of precious pieces that tell stories made to last. Her responses to my questions are as gorgeous as her work.

HAND/EYE: How is Dosa's work sustainable?

CHRISTINA KIM: For many years Dosa has incorporated into our creative process a number of aspects of sustainability. We are a small company of approximately thirty full-time employees. Most of the employees have been here an average of fifteen years. Outside of our Los Angeles factory and office, we have cultivated long term relationships with a number of artisanal communities around the world. Some of these relationships have existed as long as Dosa and some are newer, but we always try to work with a group for a minimum of five years. Our intent is to help keep different traditions alive and to broaden markets for the goods. To this end the production process is more labor intensive than resource intensive. In this way, we are investing the human hand with more or as much value as the material itself.

Because many of Dosa's fabrics are hand woven, throwing away scraps of handmade material seems disrespectful -- a disregard for the time and energy of the individuals who labored to make it. With this in mind, we make a huge effort to conserve and recycle materials.

This consideration begins in the design process before the materials are even in hand. The garment is conceived in terms of engineering so that "scraps" generated during production can be utilized for other projects. When the garment is cut, the leftover fabric scraps are collected in bins in the cutting room. Every scrap is saved, sorted, weighed and recorded on an inventory chart so that it can be used for future projects. Over the years, Dosa has made many textiles by patch working or appliquéing scraps that might have been waste in another cutting room. We use even the smallest of "scraps" to make amulets and jewelry.

H/E: What is your current obsession? Any particular place or texture?

CK: Inspired by my friend Alice Waters, who encourages working with local resources, my current intention has been to find more and more artisans here. America is a melting pot of cultures and so many people come here from all over the world, bringing with them their own traditions and skills. For the upcoming Traveler 2011 collection, I made an effort to source local suppliers -- especially those who bring an outside perspective, a set of traditions or skills they are eager to teach or share with others.

I wanted to use natural dyes, and I was lucky to find Jane Palmer of Noon Design Studio, the only natural dye production house in the United States. It just happens to be located nearby in the Hollywood Hills. Jane Palmer wanted to dye using natural pigments on a large scale so she invested in an industrial washing machine and registered her project on kickstarter.com to raise money to do it. As Jane explains, "I love natural dye because of its beauty; it has a luminosity and presence of hand that cannot be reproduced with chemical dyes. I also love it for its sustainability with the earth and its connection to thousands of years of history. Natural dye has a long and rich history stemming from almost every culture."

In the Traveler I group, Jane dyed the cotton jersey and organic cotton canvas groups with natural pigments. To dye the color sahara, she used pigments extracted from mimosa and pomegranate. For olive, she combined pigments derived from myrobalan fruits, weld flowers and iron oxide. Moro is composed of pomegranate, iron oxide and logwood. For "Mood Indigo," the Traveler II group, Jane dyed fabrics with natural indigo from Central America.

Gasali Onireke Adeyemo also dyed fabrics for the Traveler II group. Gasali 's mosquito coil pattern is made using a stencil and the pigeon eye pattern is made using a tying technique.

Gasali was born in a village in Osun State, Nigeria. Realizing his own artistic potential as a young man, he paid for his own education and worked multiple jobs while achieving a high school education. In 1990, he discovered the Nike Center for Arts and Culture, where he mastered the arts of indigo dyeing, batik, embroidery, quilting and appliqué. He remained at the Nike center, teaching these crafts to new students and visitors from all over the world who were interested in the arts and culture of the Yoruba people. After an exhibition of his work in Germany, he was invited to conduct workshops and exhibit at the University of lowa. He currently lives, works and teaches in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

H/E: How are food and textiles connected?

CK: I have always enjoyed food and been inspired by its colors, but I became more interested in food through my work with artisans around the world. When I go to a small village to work, we work in the artisan's own home, where there is no separation between the working space and the living space. The kitchen is right there in the same room, so I observe both men and women cooking. Often, I am invited to eat with the family. Somehow, that simple act of sharing food changes the work relationship and it becomes more intimate and open.

H/E: Can you tell us about your work with artisans? What are some of the challenges, opportunities?

CK: Working with artisans around the world is a cultural learning experience for me. First, I see what they do, what traditions or skills they may have and then, I use their skills and resources as a point of departure. As a designer, I bring new ideas and materials to them, but I carefully consider what I bring into their world. In 2009, we did a project using vintage handkerchiefs and the women at SEWA [a vast Indian non-profit, the Self-Employed Women's Association] who were working on the project were delighted by the variety of the one of a kind handkerchief.

Even so, I questioned myself: "is it okay to introduce a foreign material like a handkerchief?" Before we begin any project, I consider what the potential impact on the artisan's own tradition will be. My original intent is to help keep the artisanal community's traditions alive so I am very careful, almost hesitant to bring materials from outside their culture. For example, in India, I try to use traditional hand stitching techniques.

At the same time, I think it is important to introduce novelty and spontaneity into these labor-intensive processes. I want the experience of working to be interesting and fun and to that end, I will use materials that, although they may not be traditional, offer visual or tactile interest or a sense of play for the artisan. The women at SEWA appreciate the variety of colors, patterns and textures and enjoy having interesting materials to choose from as they stitch.

The opportunity for exchange or synergy is one aspect of working with a different culture's traditions, but there are also many challenges that I must navigate carefully. Often, I see that manual labor is not valued and I would like to see more of a balance between the infrastructure and the individual worker. In other areas of the world, businesses operate by archaic social standards: there is a separation between the designer and the maker and no direct communication between them. But that is not how I work. I am a hands-on person, so I sit down on the floor with a group of women and we work together.

Somehow in India, unlike many other places, artisans not only bring a level of expertise to their traditional skills, they take it one step further by engaging in a creative dialogue with me so that a Dosa project becomes more collaborative. Often as we sit in process, the artisans have their own ideas or solutions and this dialogue is a valuable part of the whole experience.

When I consider the human conditions for workers in different countries, I have an inner conflict regarding the way things are and they way I think they should be. As a visitor, I have to ask myself, "Who am I to come to a foreign culture and think it needs to change?" Ideally, I would like to think that the next step is for the individual to have a voice in their own governance.

Also, I consider the potential longevity of a relationship before beginning a collaborative project with artisans. It can be challenging to predict how long a project will continue at the outset, but my goal is to support a community of artisans for at least five years.

H/E: Can Dosa be defined by one texture? One color?

CK: One color I revisit often is white. Starting with my own Korean heritage and the ceramics of the Yi dynasty, I have been inspired by varying shades of white. Artists who have worked in monochromatic fields of white like Cy Twombly, Robert Ryman, Robert Irwin, and Agnes Martin have also been very influential. And over the years I have explored the variations of white as seen in snow and the different shades of various salts as inspirations for different collections.

Perhaps most enduring is my ongoing relationship with India, which began with an appreciation for the beauty of handspun and hand-loomed khadi cottons in all different textures and shades of white. To this day, white khadi clothing is still a staple item in Dosa's standard issue collection.
Christina Kim's journey is one of openness, collaboration, embracing and understanding diversity as the source for a sustainable future. 
text: Marcella Echavarria
photo: Raymond Meier