How Christina Kim built her cult brand dosa
Long Reads 08.10.2018
Words William Ralston
Photographs Christopher Sturman
Motivated by the need to keep traditional skills alive as new generations move on from their parents’ vocations, Christina Kim has built her own business into an internationally-respected brand – all thanks to a special talent: ‘I can see and mimic,’ she says…
For Christina Kim, IFAM has proved an enduring influence. Not once, she says, has she returned to her downtown Los Angeles home from a visit to Santa Fe without ‘something interesting’ or a new idea to hand. ‘It’s a unique experience, like travelling through all these different places in just a few hours,’ she says. ‘Sometimes I go purely just to feast my eyes because it’s really good to see what’s coming out of all these countries. It’s a source of tremendous inspiration for me.’
Kim is first and foremost a designer and founder of dosa, the much-loved clothing, accessories and housewares company with an international and devoted following. Her designs are distinguishable by their rich colours and extensive use of traditional materials. The foundations for her work lie in her many relationships with scholars and textile experts across the world, with whom she works closely to research, develop, learn, and then apply various ancient techniques. ‘It’s an exchange of knowledge – a creative and cultural exchange,’ she says. ‘I want to develop these traditional techniques into new ideas. The idea is to have them learn from it and instil change.’
Kim’s story begins in 1957 in South Korea, where she grew up, before moving to the USA in 1971, aged just 15. She had learned to sew from an early age, in part through observing her grandmother, but continued to develop her skills in America, where she became ‘fluent’ in making garments of all sorts. She appreciated clothes that looked handmade – or ‘imperfect,’ she says. ‘[At that time] people were into this industrial production and I just wasn’t interested, because it felt too monotonous.’ Graduating with a degree in fine art, aged 26, she began working under the dosa label, first with her mother. What she lacked in professional skills she made up for in ideas; she began making garments using handcrafted processes, reforming designs ‘to make them look just a little off’, as she puts it. ‘I brought this creativity to the table.’
Kim’s mother retired in 1995, and since then Kim has continued in her explorations of handcrafting processes. She began collaborating with communities all over the world, aiming to learn and adopt these ancient traditions before incorporating them into her own handcrafted items. She also appreciated the importance of keeping these techniques alive for future generations. Her first project was in Oaxaca, Mexico, where she went to work with cochineal, the red dye made from insects, and indigo, before applying these techniques to her clothing line, which was picked up by Elle Decoration magazine in London. Her products were soon on sale in Japan and also London, a rapidly emerging market for Kim at the time; while she has always maintained a store in SoHo, New York.
The list of artisans with whom Kim has collaborated is a long and growing one. She has always travelled, and continues to do so with regularity, and this forms the basis for her inspirations. She maintains close ties to India, Italy, China and Mexico, in particular, but her artisan connections are dotted far and wide – including Kenya, Japan, Nigeria and even Bosnia, where she was invited to work with some knitters just after the war. Techniques include hand painting, weaving, badla (traditional metal work embroidery), dyeing, embroidery and quilting, to give just a few examples.
Once a relationship has been established and a dialogue opened up – important, Kim says, because communication is fundamental to the design process – Kim will work closely with the artisan to learn the techniques herself. She’ll often spend prolonged periods by the artisan’s side, refining her techniques. And then comes the design: ‘Technique is a large part of it; once I’ve learned the basic skill, I have to then see how I can morph it into a design,’ she says. Much of the work involved is labour-intensive, but ‘they love teaching you,’ she says. ‘I think that’s the natural skill I was given: I can see and mimic,’ she continues. ‘They understand that I am just exploring; we just spend time doing it together.’
These techniques will then be drawn on for many years to come; and once a new design has been established, production of handwork is done locally and completed in dosa’s spacious headquarters in Los Angeles.
In terms of new artisans, many of them are recommended to Kim by her friends and colleagues. Often she’ll discover new objects or ideas at museums and then return home to research them before identifying someone from whom she can learn more. ‘It can be very random or it can come through some exotic story that I hear,’ she says. Portobello Road in Notting Hill, London, in particular, has been a reliable source of ideas – not to mention IFAM, where she’s had the fortune of connecting with many artists with whom she would not otherwise have crossed paths.
The past 24 months have seen Kim and her team place more focus on art, accessories and housewares – rather than just clothes. The reason, she explains, is that young locals in the regions where she works have other job possibilities, so have fewer reasons to continue with their parents’ traditions. Naturally, many of these ancient skills are at risk of disappearing, and so Kim wishes to invest more time in their documentation. She also recognizes that her team can add more value to these domains. ‘If we charge more then we can pay more [to the artisans].’
As for the reasons for dosa’s success, Kim is quite clear: ‘I think people miss [the feeling of handmade crafts] even though they don’t know it yet. And then when they see the products, they automatically want to have a relationship with them,’ she continues. ‘I think that’s what draws me to do what I do, and I think that’s what makes people intuitively want to buy dosa.’