Jessica Harrington traces the
origins of Caravana, a label that wowed the crowds at Australian
From issue 20 of
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 hadnt
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 events
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 isnt 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
mans 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 didnt have gloves or sunscreen.
My wrists became so swollen that one of the porters poured hot water
over them and I didnt 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
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 doctors 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 Martins 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 seasons 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 wouldnt 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 hasnt been through lack of trying.
I dont know why we have not managed
to penetrate the market. We would love to sell in New Zealand,