(Editor’s Note: To call Christina Kim of Dosa a clothing designer just doesn’t do her justice. Yes, she’s that, but she’s also a thinker, maker, entrepreneur, artist, and social activist. We love her sense of humanity and ethics and utter connectedness…between the making and designing and the people who make and buy her work, between her convictions and her life.
Just a few of the more intriguing highlights of Christina’s life: moved to the US from Seoul, Korea. She worked with her mother, creating the Dosa clothing label, which has become well known (and beloved) for its extensive use of handcrafted materials and traditional textile techniques. An early advocate of the worker in the clothing production process, she created an innovative space/workshop where the production spaces predominated, rather than the studio.
Along the way, she worked with textile makers around the world, helping keep their indigenous craft alive. In addition to continuing to design for her line, she’s shown her artwork and collaborations across the world (such as a stunning 300 square meter curtain at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, and a jaw-dropping exhibition of Dosa recycling projects at the University of Bologna), created a luscious housewares line, and has garnered kudos from the great and the good (finalist for the Smithsonian’s National Design Award), and intense loyalty from her legions of fans.
If that isn’t inspiration, what is? We asked Coralie Langston-Jones–writer, design maven and long-time friend of Christina’s– to delve a little deeper into Christina’s world.)
You studied fine art before becoming a clothing designer. How did you make the transition from fine art student to clothing designer? Throughout my life, I have always sewed. I’ve never made a distinction between clothes and art. When I first started sewing, after I left art school, it wasn’t a conscious decision. I started by helping my mother with sewing, when she made clothing under the Dosa label.
I didn’t think clothing design was going to be my career. I’m so glad I continued exploring my work through clothing design. Clothing design has given me a way to express my personal values.
Your interest in working with handcrafted garments, did this approach evolve when you first started Dosa, or did it come later? The handcrafting process came much later. I spent my first twelve years learning how to sew garments, helping my mother with the Dosa factory. At that point, I started to explore the idea of making garments using handcrafting processes.
My very first handcrafted item was a “Story” scarf collection, using waterproof ink and a manual typewriter. I worked with a couple of friends, one who was a poet, the other a writer. I bought every cartridge of washable typewriter ink I could find.
Together we typed directly on to the scarves, portions of their own stories. The effect was remarkable. At that point, I became enamored with the way something created by hand, its simplicity could be so beautiful.
Your process seems to be as important as the finished product. What inspires this fascination? My interest in the handcrafting process started when I took over the Dosa factory and my mother retired. I realized how much time was spent making garments, and how many creative decisions are made along the way. It is during the initial process of making samples that you can enhance the product, introducing handcrafting ideas at various points of the process.
Tell me about SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association): when did you first start working with the organization? How many women do you work with from this organization now, and what do they do for Dosa? I first started working with SEWA about five years ago. It is a trade union organization in India, which aims to organize women workers for full employment.
Depending on the size of my projects, I work with about 50 to 200 women at any one time. They work with me on projects that require large units and a lot of handiwork, such as embroidery, weaving or fabric dying.
What part of the process do you maintain in your Los Angeles factory? I maintain about 50% of the production process in my Los Angeles factory. It tends to be those items that are more sculptural, for example, bias cuts.
In India, clothing tends to be flat, so it is hard for sewers to work with techniques they are not familiar with, such as bias cuts. When handiwork is completed in India or other outside sources, we receive the garment pieces and finish and wash them here in Los Angeles.
You have explored many different traditional Japanese and Indian techniques, such as tea or indigo dying, handpainting on silk, and khadi handspun textiles. Are there any techniques that are dying out, or ones you’d like to revive? Why? Khadi is an Indian cloth, hand spun then hand woven on a simple treadle loom. It is one of my favorite types of handwoven fabrics. Unfortunately less and less khadi fabric production takes place, because the cost of making it has risen too high.
People don’t want to pay a premium for this fabric. In turn, families who once relied upon this form of work can no longer support themselves. Their children don’t want to be khadi fabric weavers and are more attracted to working in the high tech industry where wages are significantly higher. It’s a sad loss and a sign of our times.
I’m pleased to say there is a great revival of indigo and tea fabric dyeing. I like to introduce new ideas and ways of working with artisans who dye fabrics with tea and indigo. I usually work in ways they are used to, and gradually over time, I will introduce changes to mix new techniques with traditional ones.
What is most important to you about supporting artisans around the world? What’s most important for me is to be able to continue a dying craft, and to be able to share it outside of the artisan’s world. I enjoy spending time with these artisans. They become like family.
Recycling has been a big part of your work for many years, before anyone else. Is this part of your Korean heritage, perhaps when you saw your grandmother sew and mend her socks and blankets? The concept of recycling is really a part of who I am. Yes, spending time growing up with my grandmother, I would watch her patch her traditional Korean socks with white piece of cotton fabric clipped from our bedding.
What struck a chord with me was the way different shades of white overlapped each other. The visible mark of a well-made repair can enhance the complexity and beauty of an object. I continue to be fascinated by the beauty of this humble process. I brought these socks with me when I left my native Korea at age 15 and moved to America, bringing one of the few belongings with me to my life new stateside.
Spending time with artisans and weavers, throwing away leftover fabrics or knits felt like throwing away a lot of effort. I felt we needed to address this.
Your reference points are inspired by what you see on your travels. For example the brightly colored outfits, mixed patterns, you see on ladies in Jaipur. Tell me about these experiences and how they influence your work. I travel a lot, and usually alone. It is during these moments I can see beauty in the every day life of wherever I happen to be. I take lots of photographs, documenting my experiences.
I worked with hand knitters in Bosnia several years ago. Initially, I planned to make hand-knitted scarves. When I saw their beautifully made hand-knitted socks on the knitters, I immediately recognized what they could do best and set about adding socks and gloves to our project, using Italian cashmere and Dosa-like colors.
Your recent art installations, such as the Berlin Brandenberg Gate and Bologna art installations: do you apply your pursuit of beauty and story-telling in the same way you do with clothing and housewares, excepting on a different scale? I approach my art installations in the same way as I do with my clothing or houseware projects. We have so many skills in house at Dosa, including an architect, that we can assemble a team to take on a large-scale art installation, as easily as we can with a clothing project.
Do you change the way you MAKE your art installations, because of a larger scale? We don’t change our approach just because of scale. In all cases, we are always conscious of the use of raw materials, its sources, and not wanting to waste anything.
What is it that you want your customers to consider when they choose Dosa? I want to make beautiful things that are experienced differently, because they are made differently.
I am fascinated by materials, their hand, texture and color, that they make you want to touch them. Multiple sets of hands skillfully work on each Dosa garment. I want our customers to feel their energy.
What recent project are you most excited about? I recently worked on creating a very special gift from Michelle Obama to the First Lady of Korea: a handcrafted shawl. For me, the commission was exciting because it’s the first time that I have made a piece of work that brought together my Korean heritage and roots, with my adopted country USA. My team of artisans are all immigrants-like myself-which also lent another dimension and meaning to this project.
One side of the shawl was inspired by traditional Korean patchwork, and the reverse is an example of American improvisational quilting. Ultimately, the shawl is symbolic of the coming together of two peoples and two cultures.
The white patchwork side, representing Korea, explores the concept of reuse of leftover materials and mending. The idea recalls my lingering childhood memories of Korea, at a time of relative poverty not long after the war. Mending, clearly visible, reflects the art and beauty of mending in itself. I consider mending an expression of beauty, no matter how modest. The shawl’s subtle shades of white, cut from swatches and sample garments, reference Korea, and the muted whites of Yi Dynasty porcelain ceramics. A hand-embroidered hibiscus, the national flower of Korea, has been applied atop the white patchwork.
The side of the shawl representing the US is hand-sewn from remnants of quilted fabric by artisan Laverne Brackens. She is a fourth generation quilt maker. Her work reinforces a style of improvisational quilt making that represents a long tradition among African-American women across the South. Using bold-colored scraps collected from Brackens’ own off-cuts, she infused her individual expression, 38 pieces, to create a striking quilted piece with embroidered roses, America’s national flower.
Describe a project you’d like to do in the future. I’d love to work on revamping community youth hostels, national parks, camp sites, a children’s hospital or any other sort of larger institutional type project. It might sound like an unlikely pairing with Dosa, but in fact, I would employ all of Dosa’s principles on a larger scale. I would feel excited to be able to make my ideas available to the public, in this sort of way.
For instance, when I first came to the US, I went camping with my friends and family. The sites were really cool, but now they need updating. I would install solar panels to generate hot water. I would keep the sites as humble and simple as possible. By using natural materials, I would create beauty in very simple ways, using a minimum amount of resources as possible.
Affordable, conscious living doesn’t have to be expensive. Price should not dictate beauty.
All images courtesy of Dosa and Christina Kim.