Carolina Kleinman founded her lifestyle brand, Carolina K, after traveling the world and settling in the small town of Tepoztlán, Mexico. Even though the Argentine-born designer now lives in Miami, he still works closely with craftsmen in remote areas of Mexico, Peru, Bolivia and India to achieve his own eclectic and signature embroidery designs, rooted in tradition and culture. The craftsmen she works with uphold traditions such as ancestral hand-knitting and towering practices, which avoid the use of electricity and hazardous chemicals. Sustainability is of utmost importance to brands and in its efforts to help the environment, Carolina K has implemented a ‘No Waste’ initiative where all fabric waste is recycled. She told us about her career, her brand values and what’s next for Carolina K.
What made you want to start in the fashion industry?I have been in the fashion industry since I was young. I have a family lineage in textiles and design, my grandfather worked with craftsmen in Bolivia, and I grew up playing among fabrics at my mother’s shop in Buenos Aires. Fashion has always been around me and has made me curious since I was a kid.
What types of sustainable practices does the company adopt?
Sustainability has always been at the root of our brand from the very beginning. We work with artisan cooperatives in various parts of Latin America, which provide them with jobs year-round. We make handmade items using ancestral techniques without the use of chemicals or pesticides, or even electricity. Our collections are created with the intention and respect for the environment. To create our prints we use digital printing on organic and recycled fabrics and our swimwear is made from Ecocean materials which are made from recycled fibers. Each piece is packaged in compostable and biodegradable packaging and our tags and labels are made from recyclable paper. Our team is constantly investigating and trying to use the most responsible materials with love and respect for the environment; we are constantly evaluating our materials and practices to ensure we continue to improve over time.
Tell us about your Zero Waste initiative.
To continue our commitment to circular fashion and our brand mission to reduce environmental impact, we created a Zero Waste initiative to make the most of every leftover fabric. This project was born in 2018 when I was at our factory in India and found a bag full of fabric scraps from our previous collection. I had the idea of making art-like pieces out of all the rags that would eventually be dumped in landfills. The Zero Waste Initiative allows fabric scraps to start a new life cycle as part of a unique collection. Each fabric is carefully selected. Sometimes, one dress can be made from fabrics from the previous seven collections!
What in your life inspires your design?
I get inspiration from everything around me and the collections I create are inspired by the places I visit and the people I meet. The culture in which I immerse myself as I collaborate with a community of craftsmen to make our work serve as constant inspiration. I love to be inspired by nature, books, art, architecture and spirituality. It’s all part of our journey of making work. I like to be surrounded by textiles, trim, and fabrics; it filled me with creativity and magic.
You have worked closely with craftsmen in remote areas of Mexico, Peru, Bolivia and India. What is the work of the Carolina K cut?
In working with craftsmen, we are dedicated to preserving the ancestral techniques they have used for generations. Our handmade dresses, beaded jewelery, hand looms, backrest from our home collection, and beach bags are made in Mexico. Our knits, quilts, quilts and shoes are handcrafted in Peru. Our hats are made in Ecuador, our rugs in Guatemala, and our upcoming ceramic collection is made in Colombia. We work with two factories in India that only work for our brand. Skilled craftsmen embroider our work by hand and we use all organic or recycled materials. Our tag even includes the name of the craftsman who created the work and how many days it took to complete.
What’s your favorite outfit from Carolina K?
It really depends on my mood. I always wear something that lifts me up and nourishes my soul. Today I love Valerie’s kaftans, my swimsuit as a bodysuit with palazzo pants, and at home I wear a kimono and a kaftan.
Carolina K works with about 300 craftsmen around the world. This must be difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic. Did you do something different? How is this impacting your business?
With such a large network of partners in remote areas around the world, there are bound to be challenges in staying connected with them during a pandemic, and also because they are locked up. During the height of the pandemic, we turned around and started working with our craftsmen making masks to donate to those in need. This allows us to continue to support our craftsmen while giving back to our community in times of crisis.
My favorite part of the business is being able to connect with them in person, witness their craft firsthand, and work on the creative process together in the most authentic way, which I haven’t been able to do in a while. To make sure I am still connected with our craftsmen and we can create together, I have delegated leaders in each community to stay in touch with me; we send them new designs, they often send me photos and videos, and I give them feedback. This mode of communication has worked for now, but I am very happy to be back there with them as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, along with most of the fashion industry, we do see canceled orders and delays across the board. It was a challenging time because we didn’t really know what to expect or how long it would last.
We’re using this as an opportunity to really concentrate on the direct-to-our-consumer business, which we’d like to do for a while. When this challenging moment was presented, we decided to use it in our favor and made sure we had everything to serve our customers and create the best shopping experience online. So far everything has been going well, and now with our new store opening, customers will be able to enter our Universe and experience everything first-hand again. As consumers become more hopeful and stores reopen, we’ve seen more orders come in and are very grateful to our retail partners as well.
What advice would you give someone looking to start their own clothing line?
First, I’m going to suggest planning what your strategy will look like. I didn’t do that and it made things more difficult before. Also, think about what will make you unique and different from other brands. There are many brands out there, but if you are passionate and believe in your vision, you will find your own voice and identity. Always consider the well-being of the planet when making any type of product and make sure you are ethical and environmentally friendly throughout business development.
What’s your pinch moment since launching Carolina K?
Seeing how many different types of women wear our clothes and how it empowers them always touches me and makes my work meaningful. We opened our flagship store in Miami which was a very monumental brand milestone. Seeing brands come to life in a space that allows everyone to enter and experience our universe first-hand is immensely rewarding.
How did you first launch the Carolina K and what challenges did it entail?
While living in LA, I worked to be a musician but was always involved in fashion. I work with fashion designers while also styling for photo shoots. I returned to Buenos Aires for a short time and made my first collection with fabric offered by someone I know with a 90 day payment because I had no initial investment. This is my first collection in 2003 designed with my brand on it. I headed to New York on a one-way ticket, lived in Williamsburg where I had a few friends, and to my surprise, I sold the entire collection in one week.
Given that to this day Carolina K is a self-funded brand with no partners or investors, I had to really dive in and learn the business side of running my own company. I learned and grew from a lot of trial and error; it is difficult but very rewarding.