On Radical Traditionalism

Explor­ing the preser­va­tion of crafts­man­ship with Kalau­rie Karl-Crooks.

Words Kathryn Carter

We are today dressed, most­ly, by machines. The tech­niques once taught by dressmaker’s hands teeter on the verge of redun­dan­cy. It’s a real­i­ty that is of lit­tle con­cern to some, but one which is of great con­se­quence to the con­ser­va­tion of crafts­man­ship. As long as mass-man­u­fac­tur­ing con­tin­ues to over­shad­ow the place for tra­di­tion­al tai­lor­ing, the art of mak­ing machine-made clothing—at the pace present­ly employed by count­less factories—shall per­sist as a dan­ger to our plan­et and to our­selves. There is, how­ev­er, a way to return to the roots of the rag trade so as to return to the rich­ness of the cloth­ing craft. A return that may result in more rig­or­ous recon­nec­tions with our bod­ies via the sim­ple act of dress­ing our­selves with greater care and con­scious­ness. 

‘Well, I must say that my imag­i­na­tion will stretch no fur­ther than to sug­gest rebel­lion in gen­er­al as a rem­e­dy,’ British tex­tile design­er William Mor­ris once pro­posed as our defense against machines that threat­en to dimin­ish the integri­ty of hand­made designs. ‘The end of which rebel­lion, if suc­cess­ful, must needs be to set up some form of art again as a nec­es­sary solace of mankind.’

One woman whose work aims to rebel against the tox­i­c­i­ty of an indus­try gone wild is Kalau­rie Karl-Crooks. Inspired not by the glam­our of the con­tem­po­rary indus­try but rather the enchant­ment of fashion’s long and com­plex his­to­ry, Karl-Crooks is an Aus­tralia-based artist whose prac­tice is cen­tred around the mak­ing of her pieces by hand to hon­our not only the wear­er but the gar­ment itself. 

‘What is the rem­e­dy for the lack of due plea­sure in their work which has befall­en all crafts­men, and for the con­se­quent sick­ness of art and degra­da­tion of civ­i­liza­tion?’ Mor­ris once con­tem­plat­ed. It is this rem­e­dy that Karl-Crooks seeks as she—by hand, in her atelier—crafts her clients pieces to be worn in the present, using time-hon­oured tech­niques root­ed in the past. Cre­at­ing not gar­ments to be for­got­ten, but mod­ern heir­looms to be trea­sured. 

KATHRYN CARTER: Describe your phi­los­o­phy? 

KALAURIE KARL-CROOKS: Beau­ti­ful things, hand­craft­ed to last. 

You hold a Bach­e­lor of Fash­ion Design but were also once upon a time accept­ed into a Fine Arts program—your road not trav­elled by. Do you con­sid­er your­self a design­er or an artist?

I think of myself more as an artist than designer—fabric just hap­pens to be my cur­rent medi­um for expres­sion and sto­ry­telling. 

Do you feel there’s a rea­son why the title of ‘design­er’ fails to res­onate with who you are as a cre­ator? 

I think the title of ‘fash­ion design­er’ is some­what lim­it­ing, where­as as an ‘artist’ you can have many dif­fer­ent medi­ums for expres­sion. The life of an artist is expan­sive, [your] cre­ativ­i­ty is not lim­it­ed. My cre­ative jour­ney began with draw­ing and paint­ing; for now, I use fab­ric and cloth­ing. My very being is cre­ative.

It must be lib­er­at­ing to know that you can lay down your nee­dle and thread, metaphor­i­cal­ly speak­ing, know­ing that you can always chan­nel your cre­ative ener­gy in a mul­ti­tude of ways. 

If the time comes for me to do things oth­er than fash­ion, I will not be idle. I have to cre­ate to live. As an ‘artist’ you live and breathe cre­ative expres­sion, it’s a part of your soul. I am deeply unhap­py and unful­filled as a per­son when I am not being cre­ative. Art is my men­tal health life­line. That sounds cheesy, but it’s how I feel. 

Not cheesy at all, authen­tic and true. You’re clear­ly incred­i­bly open-mind­ed when it comes to work­ing with new medi­ums, what mate­ri­als have you been most drawn to late­ly?

Woven cloth speaks to my heart the most as my work is focused of fine fin­ish­ing and tai­lor­ing. I like the struc­ture and secu­ri­ty of woven fab­rics as com­pared to stretchy knit­ted fab­rics. I also lean more towards nat­ur­al fibres; wools, silks, cot­tons and linens are my favourite. These mate­ri­als make up what I con­sid­er to be a holy col­lec­tion of tra­di­tion­al fibres that I can rely on. 

Many brands world­wide con­tin­ue to man­u­fac­ture gar­ments designed to be dis­posed of after one or two sea­sons. Instead, you cre­ate mod­ern heir­looms designed and craft­ed to be trea­sured for a life­time. What led you to this deci­sion? 

When our ances­tors first devel­oped cloth to make clothes to cov­er our bod­ies, it was a very pre­cious resource. Cloth­ing was a mat­ter of sur­vival. As life became eas­i­er, cloth­ing became more about expres­sion and sta­tus, but it remained pre­cious. Back then, cloth­ing wasn’t dis­pos­able, it was cared for and repaired until it could no longer be worn. Only in recent his­to­ry has cloth­ing become so read­i­ly avail­able, due to mass man­u­fac­tur­ing. But to me cloth­ing is still pre­cious, it’s some­thing that I trea­sure. I say look after it and it will look after you.

And how would you describe your aes­thet­ic? 

Fem­i­nine, roman­tic, demure but at the same time a bit play­ful.

Vir­ginia Woolf once wrote: ‘Vain tri­fles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more impor­tant offices than mere­ly to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us…’ What do you per­ceive the role of cloth­ing to be dur­ing a time in his­to­ry when many who get dressed in the morn­ing do so with views of a world that is large­ly cloud­ed by fear? 

I think our cloth­ing can be a per­son­al armour as we nav­i­gate our sur­round­ings, but I also believe that cloth­ing can­not hide the dark­ness in one’s soul. I used to think you could dress to be some­one else, but you’re ulti­mate­ly still you. I love this line from a poem called ‘Clothes Chap­ter X’ by Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran: ‘Your clothes con­ceal much of your beau­ty, yet they hide not the unbeau­ti­ful’. Cloth­ing is a pow­er­ful tool for expres­sion, but when you look at the details [of the peo­ple beneath them] the truth can­not be cov­ered. 

So pow­er­ful­ly-put. In your prac­tice, you work with what you refer to as rad­i­cal tra­di­tion­al­ism. Could you tell me more about this design phi­los­o­phy? 

For me, it’s a phi­los­o­phy which revolves around prac­tice focused on crafts­man­ship. Every­thing I do is done from scratch in a slow tra­di­tion­al way, to cre­ate some­thing beau­ti­ful and pur­pose­ful. I do not out­source to fac­to­ries, every­thing is done in-house just like in tra­di­tion­al Euro­pean ate­liers. As a crafts­man, I am able to per­form all roles across the cre­ation timeline—designing, pat­tern­mak­ing, grad­ing, cut­ting and final assem­bly at the sewing machine. If I can­not do it in my ate­lier, then it’s not done at all. In this fast-paced indus­try, I think that’s rad­i­cal. 

Giv­en the preva­lence of mass pro­duc­tion meth­ods used in the indus­try today, your way of work­ing is cer­tain­ly more rad­i­cal than not. This approach brings you much clos­er to the cloth­ing, too, in a way. 

Mak­ing cloth­ing is a very labour-inten­sive job. Most of the indus­try is run in an extreme­ly oper­a­tional way, but I see the work as cre­ative labour and from that comes a great sense of per­son­al sat­is­fac­tion and joy. For me, the process of mak­ing cloth­ing is deeply per­son­al; I like to think of myself as almost a fab­ric whis­per­er as I han­dle the mate­ri­als and ask them to give in to my whims. As a stu­dent of thought of the great tex­tile design­er William Mor­ris, I don’t believe that mak­ing cloth­ing has to be mun­dane. 

Indeed, Mor­ris had a deep under­stand­ing on the divin­i­ty of what many oth­ers may dis­miss as dull. I believe it was he who once said: ‘For sure­ly there is no square mile of earth­’s inhab­it­able sur­face that is not beau­ti­ful in its own way, if we men will only abstain from wil­ful­ly destroy­ing that beau­ty…’ This sen­ti­ment could arguably be applied not only to spaces on earth but to the time-hon­oured tech­niques that are today seem­ing­ly endan­gered.

I fun­da­men­tal­ly believe that in order to be a good design­er, you should know how to prop­er­ly put cloth­ing togeth­er, and there­fore I am also con­stant­ly prac­tic­ing. I sew six days a week and have been doing so since I com­plet­ed my Bachelor’s degree six years ago. Still, there are design­ers out there who don’t even know how to use a sewing machine. As a stick­ler for tra­di­tion, I think that’s a ter­ri­ble thing.  

Mean­while, the indus­try at large cur­rent­ly seems quite pre­oc­cu­pied with inno­v­a­tive tech­nolo­gies that promise to tran­scend the way we cre­ate and inter­act with cloth­ing. What has work­ing with the roots of the rag trade taught you about the val­ue of how things were once done, as opposed to how they could be done dif­fer­ent­ly? 

His­to­ry shows us how to be the most mind­ful and resource­ful with the mate­ri­als avail­able to us, and teach­es us the val­ue of crafts­man­ship and qual­i­ty. For this rea­son, we can look to the past for the answers to the prob­lems of the present in the fash­ion indus­try. The glob­al scale of the indus­try, though won­der­ful and pow­er­ful in many ways, has caused a lot of destruc­tion. One of the ways the indus­try is explor­ing over­com­ing the destruc­tion is by tak­ing every­thing dig­i­tal. But, with fash­ion being tra­di­tion­al­ly tac­tile, I fear it will lose its true essence if we con­tin­ue down this path. Fash­ion is already on a very slip­pery slope of no longer being ‘fash­ion’ and instead being ‘prod­uct’. What hap­pens when the ‘prod­uct’ isn’t even phys­i­cal? Then we will, I fear, tru­ly lose the mean­ing­ful­ness of fash­ion. 

In July 2021, Fash­ion Rev­o­lu­tion released the sixth annu­al edi­tion of the Fash­ion Trans­paren­cy Index. The report states that despite over­pro­duc­tion and over­con­sump­tion con­tin­u­ing to harm the plan­et, major brands and retail­ers are still not doing enough to address the prob­lem. As a small busi­ness, how do you cre­ate cloth­ing while keep­ing the health of our plan­et in mind? 

I’ve struc­tured my busi­ness around a made-to-order man­u­fac­tur­ing mod­el, so I only use what is needed—every gar­ment has a des­ti­na­tion with pur­pose. Mak­ing cloth­ing slow­ly like this allows me to be resource­ful with mate­ri­als and elim­i­nates a lot of waste, espe­cial­ly on the cut­ting room floor. I also use dead­stock mate­ri­als when­ev­er pos­si­ble. Unlike oth­er brands, I nev­er go on sale and I run designs until their fab­rics run out. This ensures that the cloth­ing and its crafts­man­ship are nev­er deval­ued. It also ensures cus­tomers have time to col­lect the pieces they adore, with­out feel­ing pres­sured to make impulse pur­chas­es. 

The report also states that: ‘infor­ma­tion over­load, data dump­ing and fluffy sto­ry­telling remains a prob­lem among many major fash­ion brands’. How do you feel about the depths of decep­tion that stain the indus­try, and why have you made it a pri­or­i­ty to prac­tice your craft with greater trans­paren­cy? 

Green­wash­ing in rabid in the fash­ion indus­try. I keep my busi­ness as trans­par­ent as pos­si­ble because for me sus­tain­abil­i­ty isn’t just a mar­ket­ing buzz word, it’s a way of life. When it comes to my val­ues, there is a huge crossover between how I live my life and how I run my busi­ness. I am always try­ing my hard­est to lessen my impact, be resource­ful and mind­ful with how I use and pro­duce things. Of course no busi­ness is per­fect but I think it’s impor­tant to try your hard­est to do what you can to ensure you’re not harm­ing the plan­et. 

Fash­ion Rev­o­lu­tion, Fash­ion Trans­paren­cy Index (2021) page 10

It’s true that so many gar­ments today are still cre­at­ed either behind a veil of green­wash­ing or in out­right uneth­i­cal con­di­tions. Do you feel these prac­tices influ­ence how an indi­vid­ual feels in their body when they slip into these pieces that were made under ques­tion­able cir­cum­stances? 

To be hon­est, I think the major­i­ty of folks don’t con­sid­er where or how their cloth­ing was cre­at­ed, about who may have suf­fered, or at what expense it has cost peo­ple and the plan­et. In a per­fect world, every­one would know the true cost, but mod­ern life has dis­con­nect­ed us from so many aspects of life and caused us to become so out of touch. You can­not blame peo­ple for hav­ing oth­er things to wor­ry about. 

And yet, dis­cus­sions around improv­ing sus­tain­abil­i­ty so often place the onus and respon­si­bil­i­ty on the wear­er mak­ing more con­scious choic­es, not on busi­ness­es being man­dat­ed to make cloth­ing eth­i­cal­ly. 

It’s true, there is a lot of talk about the ‘con­sumer hav­ing pow­er to make change’. That is true to a degree, buy­ing pow­er can be the guid­ance for change. How­ev­er, I per­son­al­ly think the com­pa­nies sell­ing the prod­ucts must ensure that they are pro­duc­ing under the best pos­si­ble cir­cum­stances. But of course for those who have the priv­i­lege to invest in mean­ing­ful brands, I think there does come a feel­ing of sat­is­fac­tion. Know­ing that you are wear­ing a beau­ti­ful gar­ment that has been made with the health of the plan­et and its peo­ple in mind. 

It is often said that some­thing can be made with love. As kitschy as the phrase itself is, do you feel there’s an ele­ment of truth to it? In that, a gar­ment made con­scious­ly by hand with well-sourced, sus­tain­able mate­ri­als may hold a dif­fer­ent ener­gy to gar­ments stitched in bulk at rapid speed? 

Absolute­ly, I believe in the phrase ‘made with love’. I love fash­ion, I love the process of mak­ing the cloth­ing, I love beau­ti­ful fab­rics, and I love my plan­et. I hope that all of that [love] can be felt when some­one wears one of my pieces.

Mass-pro­duc­tion is essen­tial­ly the man­u­fac­tur­ing of large quan­ti­ties of stan­dard­ised prod­ucts made to look alike and per­form in the same ways. It could be argued, thus, that the philoso­phies under­pin­ning mass-pro­duc­tion have infil­trat­ed oth­er realms of con­tem­po­rary exis­tence, includ­ing med­ical and polit­i­cal par­a­digms. Today, patients and cit­i­zens, it some­times seems, are treat­ed and gov­erned much as gar­ments are on the assem­bly line—as stan­dard­ised sub­jects as opposed to indi­vid­ual souls. Do you feel that the ongo­ing real­i­ty of fast fashion—an unsus­tain­able sys­tem that cham­pi­ons sameness—threatens, at least to some degree, the evo­lu­tion of the indi­vid­ual? 

Fast fash­ion is huge­ly con­nect­ed to prof­it and the same con­nec­tions can be seen in the realm of pol­i­tics, so I can see the link there in regards to the sac­ri­fice of the indi­vid­ual. Those who shop at fast fash­ion brands are real­ly just being told what to wear and dress­ing like every­one else. Per­son­al­ly, I am not attract­ed to hav­ing some­thing which every­one else has, nei­ther are the women who wear my cloth­ing. My clients are not afraid of being dif­fer­ent and they are con­fi­dent in their own aes­thet­ic, con­fi­dent enough to know what they will get the most wear out of for years to come. I believe as time goes on, more peo­ple will seek more indi­vid­u­al­ism as they seek more ful­fil­ment in their lives, com­ing to under­stand that per­son­al expres­sion ampli­fies spir­i­tu­al sat­is­fac­tion.

What (or who), in recent times, has most influ­enced your own artis­tic prac­tice? 

For the past few years, I’ve been research­ing the work of British tex­tile design­er William Mor­ris. His philoso­phies around cre­ative labour and his advo­ca­tion for crafts­man­ship dur­ing the rise of the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion is very inspir­ing to me. 

You your­self seem to advo­cate, by exam­ple in your work, for the con­tin­u­a­tion of crafts­man­ship. 

I do often feel like I am advo­cat­ing for slow crafts­man­ship in this mass-pro­duced world. I have also always been very inspired by Flem­ish fash­ion design­er Ann Demeule­meester. I love how she approach­es the cre­ation of clothes and I believe her to be more of an artist than design­er. 

What cre­ative projects are you cur­rent­ly work­ing on? 

I just wrapped up this year’s col­lec­tion, so I can now ded­i­cate myself ful­ly to my next. I don’t like to speak about col­lec­tions before they are fin­ished as things change and evolve, but I’ve been con­cep­tu­al­is­ing my next one for some time. What I can say is that it will be my response to every­thing that has hap­pened to the world in the last two and a bit years.

I can’t wait to see it. And what do you hope to offer the world with your prac­tice? 

I hope to offer a mag­i­cal world of beau­ti­ful things made with deep con­sid­er­a­tion, for peo­ple to trea­sure. 


Kathryn Carter is a free­lance writer and edi­tor who spe­cialis­es in imag­i­na­tive con­tent cre­ation, copy­writ­ing, brand sto­ry­telling, and edi­to­r­i­al direc­tion.