THE JOURNEY TO LAUNCHING HER OWN FASHION LABEL, KHÒLÒ
Over cups of chai on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I connected with Karishma Kasabia, creative director of Australian woman’s clothing label, Khòlò. With roots in Fiji, Karishma speaks of her journey to becoming a successful fashion designer, the challenges along the way and her candid outlook on life as a businesswoman, wife and mother. Tell us about the name of your label, Khòlò – what is the meaning behind it? After a lot of contemplation, I finalized the name which is something my son Aarav says all the time. It is the Gujarati word for ‘open’ – such a basic word. But really, it has been a journey for me personally to “become open”, to unravel, to unlearn and to be open to what comes. Hence, Khòlò. Did you always want to be a designer?
I kind of stumbled into it when I started schooling in New Zealand, which was half way through fifth form, and in my last year one of my friends said to me : why don’t out try graphic design? I used to do physics, chemistry, history, none of the arts but I would doodle in my physics exercise book because I hated the subject. So I listened to my friend and enrolled into design in my last year and ended up getting the best marks. I loved it so I applied to study design after high school but I initially didn’t get in because I only started my portfolio for application half way through the year, which meant I only had six months’ worth of work to show. It was my sister Darshana who opened up my papers when we were in Fiji over school break and saw that I got high distinction in design. She urged me to just give them a call and told me I had to let them know how good I was. And it worked! I came back to Auckland to do a face to face interview at AUT and they accepted my application. Tell us what your first stint with fashion designing or is this your first?
I actually did a little bit when I was in AUT doing the graphic design degree. You had an option to do an elective on fashion design. Although I think the main idea in my mind at that stage was a bit of a barrier for me. I had this mindset that the fashion industry was about perceived artificial beauty. I was never slim or felt particularly pretty so I didn’t feel like it was my industry. It wasn’t until years afterwards that I started designing scarves under the brand name Kish & Evie with my husband Vivek. Then when my son Aarav was born, I could not deal with that and the design agency I was also running called Kish & Co. I think your body goes through shifts when you have a kid, I read a book by Mia Freedman called Work, Strife, Balance. She says in the book that after each of her three children she had a massive year long period where her interest in career dropped. I think that happened to me and it was an opportunity to reshuffle my life and make it authentically what I wanted. During my first stint with fashion design, I was doing things I didn’t know I was unhappy about. In a workplace you should be going into it happy as much as you can on a realistic level. With Kish & Evie, my passion was diluted. I was happy with the
product, but with each piece my first instinct was: will this make me money to not? So I just closed everything. I told everyone we’re selling Kish & Co and we’re closing Kish & Evie. I wasn’t going all out, taking big risks, taking massive leaps and I think a part of me which is an artist felt surpassed because I wasn’t allowing myself to be that way. Is that the main difference between Kish & Evie and Khòlò? Yes, definitely! With Khòlò, it’s all guns blazing - no holding back. We could go to hell or we could end up creating something truly amazing. It is absolutely terrifying. A friend of mine recently told me that if you’re not scared, you should be worried. You should be in so deep that you have to stand tippy toes to keep your head above the water. I am not comfortable at all and that’s a good place to be. I feel people should have that nervousness about what they do. What is the design aesthetic behind Khòlò? I think it is hugely influenced by two predominant things, first is my graphic design history which is entered in minimalism. I remember learning that you throw everything on the page and then take out everything. It was about how much excess you could eliminate. So with the collection I feel like that’s what I am doing every time I design a piece. Do we really need this here? Can we leave it a solid colour? It is something you can definitely feel in the undertones of the collection. Where there is something super heavy on a fabric, the rest of the fabric will be plain. You can see it in the Frida Khalo blouse which has absolutely packed embroidery work on the cuffs. That is two days worth of hand embroidery if not more on a single cuff. But then, on the rest of the blouse there is nothing. There’s this a quietness which lets the embroidery speak. You can also see in the Leela Lehenga Set, the top has front and back embroidery and the skirt is just layers of quiet and sedate chiffon. The second aesthetic is rooted in the importance I place on the experience of wearing a piece from Khòlò. For me, when I design a piece, I am always thinking about where someone’s eyes will go. I think about that a lot. When I first sketched the Leela Lehenga, people were like: you don’t need this embroidery in the back as well, it would still sell with embroidery just on the front. But for me, when you walk away from the man you want to be checking you out, he should see that embroidery. There should be something for his eyes. I feel the same about the Anita dress which on the collar of the front has a little bit of embroidery. I think the most beautiful part of a woman is the décolletage and this dress is all about that. At the back of the dress though, I have placed a zip. The experiential aesthetic was key to the decision because a lot of women would ask their lover to do up the zip and I’ve included this really beautiful beading work there for his eyes. I always think about things that way: does this give you the sensation of beautiful? And what is that beautiful? Is it in the way something flows around your hips, or the way it doesn’t? My pieces have been thought about very holistically. It is not a twodimensional sketch when I am designing it. I think of what it would feel like with all the sensations engaged. Can we see any influences on the collection from your upbringing in Fiji? For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why I kept going back to florals with this collection. I spent days just looking up different kinds of floral designs and each piece in the collection has heavy hand embroidered floral patterns. I only realised this recently and
shared it with my husband Vivek: that florals remind me of the serenity I feel every time I go back home to Fiji. Even the simple task of making the marigold garlands from flowers our garden as a child, I feel was the earliest form of meditation we didn’t even know we had. I think the florals in my collection are a pursuit of my childhood. How integral is your relationship with your husband, Vivek, to Khòlò? It is fundamental. You know how they say don’t have a child until your relationship is steady because a child will highlight all the cracks? It’s the same with a business. I think this time around we can see a huge difference compared to when we started Kish & Evie. We have both always had our own businesses and his trajectory of growth when working with an artist was challenging in the beginning. He comes from a double Masters degree in finance background and his family own a textile business in India. In the beginning he would look at a business purely from a financial value perspective, and I would only look at it from a creative value perspective. With Khòlò, he will look at pieces I have designed, and watch the hand embroidery in motion and say: Karishma, this is beautiful. Similarly, for me, I now have a better understanding of the numbers to know how many pieces I need to cover my photoshoot, trips to India to visit the embroiders, marketing and production. So there is a part of me that has become a realist and a part of him that has become an artist. Owning a business is like renovating a house — your budget is going to blow out and you can’t have a partner who gets scared, or takes over or doesn’t have faith so I feel very fortunate to have Vivek. He believes in what I do and just hangs in there for me even though the risk is there for him as well because our mortgage is on the line and time with our son is on the line. There have been so many times he has filled in gaps like doing my stock takes for me or giving me financial advice. Having that buffer place is so important, because that’s where you come home to rest your head every night and you can’t have the opposite of that — you don’t want to be walking on eggshells. Having a business is an all consuming thing and not having that safe place to land would be really hard. You mentioned your son, Aarav — how do you balance a young family with that of a new business? The truth is, there is no balance. Some months you will be really into work and some months you will be really into your family. It’s about flexibility where some nights you are an amazing wife and you will have dinner ready and some nights you will just have to get take-out. Pursuit of that balance on a day to day basis sucks and I have learnt to just let go. Do what you love and strive to stay happy and that’s the goal. And if you can’t achieve that goal, that’s okay, let that go as well. are not good enough but if you just change the voice in your head to ‘you are amazing, this is beautiful’, then you change the energy around it. Surround yourself with women who raise you. Think of how you feel when you meet someone: do I feel crap or do I feel good? Do I feel hopeful or do I feel beaten down? Ask yourself those questions because then you know whether that person is good for you or not on this venture. Be ready to live on less. You may have people around you who are going on holidays, or are carrying designer handbags, and all the things that you might want. Just be patient and remind yourself that it is your not time yet. When you start a business you start to notice all the people around you who are earning good, fixed incomes. You will not start out making that money and you cannot hold that against yourself. You just have to wait it out. On the contrary, you will have to get ready to invest money. If we didn’t make the money that we made when we sold Kish & Co, I don’t think I would have had the courage to take this kind of risk with Khòlò. You have to make product beforehand, you have to make samples beforehand, you have to spend money on packaging, marketing and branding. You can’t launch without that so get ready to save up, and start putting money aside. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other designers and reach out to the other cultures for influence. It is really diff as an industry. I’ve had to do a lot of that. Starting from the bottom, I was doing everything myself with this collection. PR agencies wouldn’t touch me, buying agents and selling agents wouldn’t touch me because I was unknown in the industry. So there is an awful early on stage where you will have to do it solo and suck it up. As you know, design isn’t a subject which is offered or examined in Fiji’s external exams. Do you have any advice to young people in Fiji who aspire to become designers but don’t have the same opportunities as you had once you moved to New Zealand? I don’t think we should ever misguide a child and say you shouldn’t be doing this, and you should be doing that. By doing so we could potentially discredit something they could be amazing at. Everyone is born with something which intrinsically feels right to them. They might grow up to be an amazing doctor, but if they don’t want to be a doctor, they are living a really unhappy life. By limiting the options of what young people can and cannot pursue, we are creating unhappy lives, putting them in boxes and that is a really scary and detrimental place to be. The really cool thing now I that it is almost like education is so 1950s. My advice for anyone in Fiji who has dreams of doing something in the design industry is to start online. If you don’t have much money to start on, just buy a $30 course and try it out. The other piece of advice is to learn off other people. Nothing I’ve actually learnt in my degree has to any degree made me. It has been all the things I have done afterwards, so I feel like young people in Fiji shouldn’t use the system as a crutch to not pursue design. You should take it upon yourself to go and be what you want to be, take the risk and don’t worry about what other people have to say about that.