Karina Michel: Blossoming in India

Karina MichelView slideshow 

Karina Michel only graduated in 2008, but she's already making waves internationally. This CCA Fashion Design alum is in the middle of an intense five-month internship designing for Pratibha Syntex, a 4,000-employee Indian company that produces organic cotton yarn, fabric, and garments for export and local markets. Michel is working on site in India, creatively devising new strategies to reuse and redirect the company's waste as part of a concerted effort to increase sustainability.

Among her several projects is the creation of brand-new fashion lines using fabric and yarn waste. Her latest, A Blossoming, debuted at the "Go Green, Save the Planet" event in Delhi on May 17. Coordinated by the organization Apparel Brain Connect, the show was attended by more than 650 representatives from all parts of the Indian textile industry, from manufacturing to retail, government, buying offices, and media. Her creations appeared alongside those of six established Indian designers, and she received excellent coverage in the Delhi Times and Hindustan Times newspapers.

A Blossoming is made entirely from defective knitting, panel rejects, excess ribbing, unevenly dyed items, and small scraps. The concept is not based on substituting organic for non-organic, but rather on redefining the value of waste—what designers call "upcycling"—via thoughtful design and hand skills. Michel made one of the skirts, for instance, using a technique called reverse-appliqué: sandwiching together several layers of colorful fabrics, stitching all the layers together, and then selectively cutting pieces away to create a pattern.

After the show she was introduced to the prominent British designer Katharine E. Hamnett (creator of the iconic FRANKIE SAY RELAX T-shirts and a speaker on sustainability at the event), who told her, "Darling, I thought your collection was stunning!" She later heard that Hamnett had wolf-whistled at her designs on the runway.

Michel grew up in the small town of Canutillo, Texas, and attended CCA on a scholarship—actually several scholarships, including a major CCA academic scholarship and the Post Memorial Scholarship. "Karina is a self-initiator, a demon for hard work, and always upbeat and energetic," observes Fashion Design faculty member Lynda Grose, who has served as her advisor since her early years at CCA and is herself a pioneer in the sustainable fashion movement. "She always pushes herself and goes far beyond what’s expected." Pratibha Syntex visited CCA while Michel was still a student here and immediately expressed interest in her work.

She is now expanding her collection in collaboration with local Indian women’s empowerment groups. The women participants are learning fabric hand-working skills, embellishing and creating new items out of garment waste from Pratibha Syntex. The company sells these items for a profit, the women earn an independent income for the first time in their lives, and thus a mutually beneficial and sustainable solution to poverty is created.

Michel is also helping the company ramp up its recycling program even further as it works toward its goal of zero waste across the board. When a garment is manufactured, waste is generated every step of the way, from spinning to knitting to cutting to assembly. "They call it droppings," Michel says. "That's right, like little poo droppings! I am taking these little poos and making something beautiful out of them. This coming week I start fabric development—spinning, knitting, and dyeing a new commercial line to promote the use of recycled cotton and polyester fabric.

"Working here can be very disorienting. I feel like I'm building the plane while flying it. I have to learn everything on the spot. I walk into a meeting with almost no idea how cotton is spun, and walk out yelling orders: 'No it should be a 20s 30s count at 150 GSM and 50-50 PC, thik hai?' [thik hai means "OK"] It's sink or swim out here. So far, I do OK pretending that I float!"

Karina Michel
Fashion Design 2008
Born in 1985 in Midland, Texas
Currently lives and works in India
Current occupation: designer, Pratibha Syntex
Website: besosdetortuga.wordpress.com, www.pratibhasyntex.com
Influences at CCA: Lynda Grose, Amy Williams, Martha Maggos, Jean Oppermann, Melissa Leventon, the shelves and shelves of colorful yarns in the knit room, the real coconut drinks at the campus café, and the cute boys across the way in the painting studios