Long before eco became chic, Los Angeles clothing and housewares designer Christina Kim sought ways to reuse her leftover textiles: the scraps of a delicate jamdani blouse might be reborn as a patchwork dress, and in the third generation of recycling, as an embroidered shawl. The cuttings from African wax print skirts might return in a bracelet.
Though time-consuming and costly, the process was and is necessary, insists Kim, who founded Dosa in 1982 and has since earned a global reputation as an earth-friendly designer. Kim’s conscientious approach and unique products have won fans in celebrities Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Aniston. TIME magazine named her one of its 2003 Innovators of the Year. Also a staunch supporter of fair labor practices, the 52-year-old is equally concerned about the human hands who produce her label’s products.
“It’s important to understand how things are made, what they cost,” says the petite and expressive Kim from her downtown Los Angeles factory as a cutting machine droned from another garment-maker nearby. She’s wearing a black tunic, jeans and woven leather sandals, along with dangling earrings—her style chic and bohemian.
Something intricately made, yet cheaply priced, means the workers who made them were likely paid very little, she explains. “People need to question low prices and high prices. It’s about conscientious production, from beginning to end. We don’t cut corners. We try to think about the final impact we are making.”
And Kim wants her customers to think about it, too. Her company’s website features a glossary of terms—with words like paat, chutka and zari—along with stories behind the fabrics and the designs. Dosa uses natural ingredients like black tea and fruit to dye cloth, “non-violent” silk (the silkworms aren’t killed during the process), and organic cotton, grown from non-genetically modified seeds. Her line includes a $30 patchwork bracelet and a $1,850 reversible coat.
Dosa’s spacious, light-filled headquarters in Los Angeles’ fashion district is on a single floor, filled with art installations, racks of clothes from the upcoming line, desks, the plastic-wrapped inventory stacked on shelves and sewing machines. Discards from the cutting table are sorted into bins and stored by material and weight—sometimes for years—until Kim can find a use for them. She estimates that up to 70 percent of her scraps are reused.
There are no cubicles and no offices here. Not only does Kim want to put her employees on equal footing, she also wants the process of production to be transparent.
It’s a philosophy she takes with her whether she collaborates with artisans in Oaxaca, Mexico, or workers in Calcutta, India. “I want to know how much people are paid,” says Kim, known to compensate her workers twice as much as the local rate. In fact, she’s committed to setting down roots in the communities where her workers live and building long-term relationships that outlast a single fashion season. Kim teaches them how to produce quality goods and tries to tailor the process, and even the products, to their circumstances. For example, in Saraspur in the Indian district of Ahmedabad, the village artisans who do their work at home have trouble transporting larger pieces back and forth, so instead, she has them make bracelets, which are easier to carry.
Kim’s sensibility is, in part, informed by her upbringing in post-war South Korea, where she learned the importance of making do with the materials at hand. As a child, she learned how to knit, sew and embroider from books and from her grandmother, who sewed elaborate hanboks and traditional socks. Kim, who comes from a family of scholars, was exposed early on to art and to other cultures—two loves that continue to influence her work.
In 1971, at 15, Kim moved to Los Angeles to join her parents, who had left South Korea to attend graduate school in the states. She studied fine art at the University of Washington, and lived in Italy before settling in New York. On a whim, she made boxer shorts from Liberty Cotton and African print cloth she found on the Lower East Side. The order she placed at high-end retailer Henri Bendel quickly sold out—not once, but twice—and she launched her company with the help of her mother soon after. The company’s name is a nod to her mother, a master pattern-maker whose nickname means “expert” in Korean.
“My life has been like that,” Kim says with a chuckle. “Nothing has been planned.”
The Dosa label has two stores in the U.S., in Los Angeles and New York, and sells in up to 80 retailers in 20 countries. And that’s enough for Kim. “I don’t dream of being a big global brand or on a billboard,” she says.
While traveling, Kim loves to sit down with workers at meals. She raves about a recipe she recently learned from locals in India: of thinly sliced eggplant, dried in the sun and coated with cornmeal and masala spice. There, she adds, the workers may be segregated by profession, religion and caste, but her mingling enables them to come together. “For me, it is about the human relations I am building,” says Kim. “You really share in the moment.”