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.”
If anyone knows what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, it’s Una Kim.
After graduating from Princeton University, she found herself clad in stiff heels, working in marketing, branding and trend forecasting in New York City, a world she didn’t belong in.
So she kicked off her pumps and did some sole-searching.
Now she has a career that’s much more her style. Kim is the founder and CEO of Keep, a Los Angeles-based lifestyle company that originated as a women’s skateboarding shoe line and expanded to include men and children’s garments and accessories. The project launched in 2006 out of her frustration with the fact that whenever she wanted to buy cute skateboarding shoes, she had to look in the men’s aisles. Today, Keep is not just a fashion company, but as the website explains, it’s “an amalgam of interests, a way of being, a force, a language, a family and many other things.” All products are cruelty-free (Kim monitors conditions in her factories) and 99 percent vegan.
Lounging about her trendy West Hollywood boutique in a breezy purple sundress and matching Keep sneakers, Kim looks more like a college co-ed than the owner of a burgeoning shoes and apparel company. It’s clear she’s a woman who steps to her own beat. “I went to Princeton, I went to Stanford,” Kim explains. “I’m like the Korean American immigrant wet dream. I could do anything I wanted and make a ton of money, but I’m really not interested in just making money.”
Growing up in the multifaceted Baltimore with parents who always encouraged and supported her, Kim felt like she had “really rad formative years.” “My mom let me shave my head,” she recalls with a chuckle. “Nowadays, that’s very common, but in the early ‘90’s?” As long as Kim was able to get into Princeton, she was allowed to play in punk-rock bands and skateboard to her heart’s content.
Post-college, feeling uninspired in her New York marketing job, Kim decided to enroll in business school at Stanford University. After earning her MBA, she launched Keep.
“When I first started this business, I was so excited,” she recalls. “I’d be up late in the night planning with all these elaborate decision trees. I’d work all these scenarios out and try to be really prepared, but every week, we’d have a disaster. It was a wake-up call that the world doesn’t exactly do things your way and on your time.”
What Kim can control are her company’s philosophies. Feminist ideals peep through the tongues of the sneakers (priced between $30 and $100), which come in silhouettes such as hi-tops, loafers and skinny slip-ons, and in vibrant prints like argyle, herringbone and plaid. All sizing is in women’s. If men want a pair, they’ll have to do their own math. “I don’t understand why people would trip about that,” Kim muses. “[Converting to guy sizes] is something I’ve had to do my entire life.” The styles are universal, she explains. “There are the hardest thugs in New York who will track down and wear our shoes or 65-year old Korean ajumas who like them ‘cause ‘it’s soft and light.’” Adding to Keep’s list of fans are celebrities such as Jonah Hill, Vanessa Hudgens and Ellen DeGeneres. The company has been featured in Glamour, Lucky, Teen Vogue, Elle, Nylon and Bust magazines.
Most improtantly, Kim wants her company to promote a higher qualtiy of life, whether it be through encouraging people to find daily inspiration (“It’s everywhere. Go to the library. Walk around the city. Take a look around you.”) to raising awareness on cruelty-free and vegetarian products (“I just want to make sure we made our footwear the most conscious way that we could with the resources that we had.”).
For Kim, it’s all about the fit, in business and beyond.
“I just think having balance in your life, making decisions about what you do and being aware of the world is awesome,” she says. “You owe it to yourself, not to anyone else.”