Christina Kim’s 20-plus years of hand-dying blouses, sourcing organic fabrics from India, and recycling leftover materials and garments into new, one-of-a-kind treasures puts her way ahead of her time. That said, her low-key success—she still has a shop on Thompson Street and sells her collections to specialty boutiques like Tiina the Store—mostly comes down to the fact that she never actually intended to be an eco-designer.
“I’ve always just been interested in materials,” she said. “When I started working in Oaxaca [in the ’90s], I realized what I love are the fabrics that are very labor-intensive and handmade. So I thought the best thing I could do as a designer is honor the time they’ve spent making the fabrics, and reuse them as much as possible. That’s how it all started.” She and her teams in New York and Los Angeles have been saving rolls of fabric, old samples, and scraps from the factory floor since 2003; they now have a sophisticated system in place for sorting the leftovers. The materials are then upcycled into pillows, textile panels, jewelry, and even entire garments, if there’s enough yardage. Kim pointed out the tiny fabric beads on her necklace and called them the “fourth generation” of recycling: First, leftover fabric is cut for clothing, then pillows, then eventually these amulets (even the stuffing inside is made of scraps!). “A group of women make these at home in India,” she added. “They’re on their own in terms of the design, and each one represents zero waste.”
Over the past few years, Kim has found a way to expand the concept even further—and on a much larger scale. In 2016, she piloted the exhibition Scraps: Textiles and Creative Reuse at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, which focused on the life cycle of jamdani—the plain-weave sari material Kim sources from West Bengal—and how scraps of it are saved, sorted, and repurposed at Dosa. After a successful run, the show traveled to George Washington University and was supposed to make its way to the Palm Springs Art Museum, but the Cooper Hewitt decided to add it to its permanent collection.