It all began in the valleys of Peru. It was 2005, and Argentinian-born fashion designer Carolina Kleinman decided to create a ready-to-wear label that would do more than just put pretty clothes on bodies. Here, situated in the charming city of Cusco—known for its Incan history—Kleinman sought to preserve the cultural and ancestral techniques long performed by its artisans. Traveling through the rural Andes and visiting market after market, she found that many of these methods of making crafts and textiles were being lost. So, on the cobblestone streets of Cusco, Kleinman had an epiphany: She would build a brand committed to protecting these authentic traditions through contemporary fashion—while empowering artisans across Latin America.
Almost two decades later, Kleinman’s namesake label, Carolina K, has evolved into a global fashion brand that is sold in more than 100 stores worldwide. Dedicated to the preservation of Latin American crafts, cultures, and communities—and devoted to the use of eco-conscious materials—Kleinman goes beyond designing simple clothing to make a difference. Through her thoughtfully curated silhouettes, Kleinman turns old-world looks into something new. Each item is detailed in a riot of colors and handmade by artisans from indigenous communities in Mexico, including Oaxaca, Puebla, and Chiapas.
“I work with a lot of different communities,” says Kleinman. “Some of them we found while I was traveling to Oaxaca. I would go to [festivals] and then I would approach someone there at a market. It would end up, me in a town two hours away from Oaxaca, putting together a cooperative of women weavers that we’ve now been working with for all our Oaxacan tops and dresses.”
In San Juan del Río, Mexico, Kleinman has partnered with 40 female artisans who hand-produce many of her crocheted designs. Outside of the walls of this aged city—with its pastel-washed stone homes—Kleinman is also working to engage female artisans who have experienced violence at the hands of their domestic partners. Kleinman hopes that in connecting with these women, she’s not only instilling a sense of pride as they create beaded earrings and necklaces—many of which reflect the Wixarika spirit of the Huichol artisans from Mexico‚—but also empowering them to move beyond situations of abuse.
Each of Kleinman’s handmade pieces—from her crocheted, patchwork crop tops to her maxi, robe-style, embroidered dresses—are adorned with a tag that’s hand-signed by each artisan. “Each woman [who] is creating a piece signs her name and puts how many days it took her to make that piece,” explains Kleinman. “It says 30 days. But of course, she’s not spending 15 hours a day because she has to cook and pick up her kids from school. But that’s how much it takes.”
For Kleinman, it’s all about building relationships with her artisans. So, in-between spending 10 to 50 days constructing the pieces, the artisans are also forging bonds with Kleinman and her team, creating concepts for her upcoming collections, and designing new silhouettes.
“The way I’ve done it, usually, is by spending time with them and getting to know them and going to their homes, learning about their crafts, eating at their houses,” says Kleinman. “Really learning how they do their embroideries and crochet.”
Sometimes, Kleinman admits, she’ll play it safe. “The first season that I work with them, I order something that they already know how to do,” she says. “Once that phase has passed, I start giving them new threads and new embroideries and something totally different than what they have been doing.”
Kleinman has been partnering with artisan communities for more than 15 years—first in Bolivia and then expanding to Peru, Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, and India. And she says many of those artisans she first began working with are still part of her team today. Sometimes, they enjoy meals together—either at their homes or at Kleinman’s home in Tepoztlán, a town an hour away from Mexico City.
With a growing passion to do something meaningful on a global scale, Kleinman has also built sustainability into the DNA of her brand, using eco-conscious materials and prioritizing natural and recycled fibers. She also embraces slow fashion, choosing processes that don’t use electricity, pesticides, or chemicals. Even Kleinman’s printing process is environmentally friendly, utilizing a dry print instead of water and relying on ecological and certified inks. And when it comes to swimwear, Kleinman incorporates Econyl and Ecocean, which are made from recycled polyester from PET bottles, industrial polyester wastes, and even discarded clothing. Constantly researching and seeking new initiatives that make an environmental impact, Kleinman hopes to eventually collaborate with companies that remove fishing nets from the ocean, so she can transform them into fabric.
Kleinman uses a replacement for silk in all of her ready-to-wear clothing, in addition to implementing organic cotton and linen in all of her kimonos. While on a trip to India in 2018, Kleinman came up with a “Zero Waste” initiative after finding bags full of leftover fabric scraps in one of the factories. “We started making one-of-a-kind dresses and pieces by mixing all of the prints,” says Kleinman. “Then, nothing goes to waste. Everything gets reused.”
Kleinman’s commitment to sustainability “goes beyond production,” she says. Her brand’s shopping bags are made from organic cotton, her packaging is compostable, and her tags and hangers are made using recycled cardboard.
Beyond her philosophy of using eco-friendly materials and responsible fabric choices, Kleinman’s collections are propelled by specific points of inspiration. In her upcoming Resort 2022 collection, Kleinman explores Africa: the Ndebele people and their painted villages. Another focus is on sea-themed elements inspired by biologist and painter Ernst Haeckel. Her Pre-Fall 2021 collection—which was made entirely from organic materials and detailed with hand-embroidery, custom prints, and appliques—stands in juxtaposition to the geometric folklore that’s rooted in Latin American heritage.
Although she impacts people across the globe, Kleinman splits her time between homes in Mexico and Miami. At her flagship store in the Little River district, it’s clear that Kleinman has made this bold boutique—accented with colorful furniture, sustainable decor, and personal photographs from her global travels— the heart of her ever-expanding universe. «