Carolina Kleinman founded her lifestyle brand, Carolina K, after traveling around the world and settling in the small town of Tepoztlán, Mexico. Although the Argentinian-born designer now resides in Miami, she still works closely with artisans in remote areas of Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, and India to achieve her eclectic and distinctive embroidered designs, rooted in tradition and culture. The artisans she works with uphold traditions like ancestral hand-crochet and looming practices, which eschew the use of electricity and dangerous chemicals. Sustainability is of the utmost importance to the brand and in an effort to help the environment, Carolina K has enacted a ‘Zero Waste’ initiative in which all scraps of fabrics are recycled. She speaks to us about her career, brand values, and what’s next for Carolina K.
What made you want to get started in the fashion industry?I’ve been immersed in the fashion industry since I was young. I have a family lineage in textiles and design, my grandfather worked with artisans in Bolivia, and I grew up playing amongst fabrics in my mom’s store in Buenos Aires. Fashion was always around me and intrigued me since I was a young girl.
What kind of sustainable practices does the company implement?
Sustainability has always been at the root of our brand since the very beginning. We work with cooperatives of artisans in different regions of Latin America, which gives them work year-round. We create handmade pieces using ancestral techniques without the usage of any chemicals or pesticides, or even electricity. Our collections are created with intention and respect for the environment. To create our prints, we use digital printing on organic and recycled fabrics and our swimwear is created out of Ecocean material which is made of 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 striving to use the most responsible materials with the utmost love and respect for the environment; we keep evaluating our materials and practices to ensure we continue to improve as time goes on.
Tell us about your Zero Waste initiative.
To continue our commitment to circular fashion and our brand’s mission to reduce our environmental impact, we created the Zero Waste initiative to make use of every fabric scrap. This project was born in 2018 when I was in our factory in India and found bags full of leftover fabric from our past collections. I had the idea to create art-like, one-of-a-kind pieces out of all those fabrics that would otherwise ultimately be discarded in a landfill. The Zero Waste initiative allows for fabric scraps to begin a new lifecycle as a part of a unique collection. Each of the fabrics is carefully handpicked. Sometimes, one dress could be made up of fabric from seven past collections!
What in your life inspires your designs?
I draw inspiration from everything around me and the collections I create are inspired by the places I travel to and the people I meet. The cultures I’m immersed in while I collaborate with communities of artisans to create our pieces serve as constant inspiration. I love getting inspired by nature, books, art, architecture, and spirituality. It’s all part of the journey in making our pieces. I like to be surrounded by textiles, trims, and fabrics; it fills me with creativity and wonder.
You have worked closely with artisans in remote regions of Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, and India. What goes into the craftsmanship of Carolina K pieces?
In working with the artisans we are dedicated to preserving the ancestral techniques that they have been using for generations. Our handmade dresses, beaded jewelry, hand-loomed pieces, ottomans from our home collection, and beach bags are made in Mexico. Our knits, bed throws, blankets and shoes are handcrafted in Peru. Our hats are made in Ecuador, our rugs in Guatemala, and our upcoming ceramics collection is made in Colombia. We work with two factories in India which only work for our brand. Skilled artisans embroider our pieces by hand and we use all organic or recycled materials. Our tags even include the name of the artisan who made the piece and how many days it took to complete it.
What is your go-to Carolina K outfit?
It really depends on my mood. I always wear something that lifts me up and feeds my soul. Right now I’m loving the Valerie kaftan, a swimsuit as a bodysuit with palazzo pants, and when I’m at home I wear kimonos and kaftans.
Carolina K works with approximately 300 artisans worldwide. This must have been difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic. Did you do anything differently? How did it affect your business?
With such a large network of partners in remote regions across the globe, there were definitely challenges when staying connected to them throughout the pandemic, and also because they were on lockdown. During the height of the pandemic, we pivoted and began working with our artisans to make masks to donate to those in need. This allowed us to continue to support our artisans while giving back to our community in a time of crisis.
My favorite part of the business is being able to connect with them in person, witness their craft firsthand, and work through the creative process together in the most authentic way possible, which I haven’t been able to do for quite some time. To ensure I’m still connected to our artisans and we are able to create together, I’ve delegated a lead in each community to keep in contact with me; we send them new designs, they frequently send me photos and videos and I provide feedback. This way of communication has worked for now, but I’m so thrilled to get back out there with them as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, along with most of the fashion industry, we did see orders canceled and delays across the board. It was a challenging time as we didn’t really know what to expect or how long things would last.
We used this as an opportunity to really concentrate on our direct-to-consumer business, which we wanted to do for a while. As this challenging moment presented we decided to use it in our favor and ensure we had everything in place to serve our customers and create the best shopping experience possible online. It has been really good so far, and now with the opening of our new store, customers will be able to walk into our Universe and feel everything in person again. As consumers are becoming more hopeful and stores are opening again, we have seen more orders come in and are extremely grateful for our retail partners as well.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to start their own clothing line?
First, I would advise planning what your strategy will be. I didn’t do that and it made everything much harder earlier on. Also, think about what will make you unique and different from other brands. There are many brands out there but if you are passionate about it 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 being as ethical and eco-friendly as possible across the entire business development.
What has been your pinch-me moment since launching Carolina K?
Seeing how many different types of women wear our clothes and how it empowers them has always moved me and makes my job meaningful. We are opening our flagship store in Miami which is a really monumental brand milestone. Seeing the brand come to life in a space that allows for everyone to come in and experience our universe firsthand is so rewarding.
How did you first launch Carolina K and what were some of the challenges that came with it?
While living in LA, I was working towards becoming a musician but was always still involved in fashion. I worked with a fashion designer while also styling for shoots. I returned to Buenos Aires for a short time and created my first collection with fabrics that people I knew offered me on a 90-day term payment because I didn’t have any initial investment. This was my first collection in 2003 that was designed under my brand. I headed to New York with a one-way ticket, stayed in Williamsburg where I had some friends, and to my surprise, I sold out the entire collection in one week.
Considering that to this day Carolina K is a self-funded brand with no partners or investors, I had to really jump in and learn the business side of running my own company. I learned and grew from a lot of trial and error; it has been hard but very rewarding.