CARAVANA – Over the Mountain
Jessica Harrington traces the origins of Caravana, a label that wowed the crowds at Australian Fashion
CLIMBING OVER a snow-covered mountain pass wearing a burka and plastic sandals with seven porters and 16 suitcases of clothing samples, Australian designer, Cath Braid, might have cracked a joke with her business partner, Kirsten Ainsworth, that the name of their fashion label Caravana was pretty apt, that was if her hands hadn’t been so cold.
It was late April 2005 and Ainsworth was thousands of miles away in Sydney where the sun was shining and the organizers of Mercedes Australian Fashion Week were gearing up for the event’s 10th anniversary celebrations. Caravana was part of the show. A significant buyer had delivered the ultimatum that it would to cancel its order unless Caravana delivered by the end of the week. That called for desperate measures.
Two years earlier, the Australian women had jumped on a plane carrying only a dream to work with local lady artisans in the remote village Chitral, Pakistan, 40 km from the border of Afghanistan. The dream is now a reality. Caravana employs 400 women in Chitral and Karachi who produce exquisite hand-woven garments and accessories that have since been snapped up by prestigious London department store Liberty.
Basing business out of Chitral has been logistically challenging. The lower road to the village is closed for six months of the year due to snow, cutting off access to the nearest airport. This isn’t normally a problem in April but there had been a lot of rain, and the road was closed.
Faced with cancelled orders, which meant no work for the women, Braid telephoned Ainsworth to tell her she had made the decision to illegally cross the border into Afghanistan, travel around the mountain and re.enter Pakistan through an area of no man’s land. Disguised as a local woman, Braid and her party set off in the morning. On the way they were told there was another way, over the Lowari Pass, and that it was only half an hour. It was also legal so she decided to brave the snow. It took five hours.
‘We started at the bottom of the mountain and walked to the other side. I didn’t have gloves or sunscreen. My wrists became so swollen that one of the porters poured hot water over them and I didn’t feel a thing. I thought I was going to lose my hands,’ Braid said.
Fast-forward one year to Australian Fashion Week, April 2006 and once again I am sitting in front of Braid and Ainsworth in their Sydney hotel after the presentation of yet another beautiful collection.
No adventures getting here from Pakistan this time. ‘The road was open,’ explains a relieved Ainsworth, who has spent the past six months working with Braid in Pakistan.
This coming summer, the pair have put the embellishment and handwork into a range of mini carpet and doctor’s bags, that buyers at April’s Australian Fashion Week went mad over. Inspiration was taken from carpets and truck art in Pakistan where trucks are heavily painted and adorned with reflectors and colourful “jingle jangles”. It takes approximately three weeks to embroider each bag, another day to hand-print the lining and two days to construct the bag itself. This is reflected in the price tag: the cheapest items are wallets retailing for approximately $290, up to $800 for a doctor’s bag.
The clothing itself is lighter and less embellished than usual, although each piece is still constructed with care. Metal embroidered on to silk and screen prints are done by hand.
Braid, who studied fashion design at Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design and completed a 12-month internship with Burberry, works with the women and oversees the design process. Ainsworth splits her time between Pakistan and working short.term contracts around the world with the UN, injecting the money earned into the business.
They let the women decide what they get paid and agree on a price by taking the same item to three different women and asking how long it will take make and how much they think it is worth. Whichever quote is the highest they pay, and that becomes the set price for that garment for that season’s production.
‘It is important to us that the ladies are paid properly. We could get it done for a quarter of the price in Bombay but we wouldn’t have this feel-good aspect where these women are wearing new clothes and can afford to send their children to the doctor,’ Ainsworth said.
It was an interest in the trade and labour laws in regards to the production of fashion in developing countries that initially led Braid to Pakistan where she was invited to study the principles behind the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme. She worked with the women for several months, and on a return trip to Sydney and by chance met up with Ainsworth, her old boarding school roommate, and a former journalist who had spent time in India working with Tibetan refugees. It was a meeting of minds and they decided to launch Caravana.
Caravana is available from Strelitzia, 327 Darling Street, Balmain, Sydney. It is not yet available in New Zealand, though that hasn’t been through lack of trying.
‘I don’t know why we have not managed to penetrate the market. We would love to sell in New Zealand,’ Ainsworth says.