It is impossible to travel through South East Asia without being struck dumb by the beauty of the place. The architecture, scenery, and fashion all come together to create a seemingly endless tapestry that serves as the backdrop to both the thrilling and the mundane. It is perhaps because of this stunning environment that the poverty found throughout the region can appear so stark in contrast.
There are many reasons for the poverty that this region of the world experiences, despite thriving export industries for their natural resources and products. One that particularly affects the region’s plethora of artisan fabricators of textiles and other products, is the supply chain. Global capitalism has elevated the importance of the supply chain to lofty heights and, in turn, driven the down costs of production to keep it flowing. These low production costs mean that you can get a new t-shirt that’s been shipped halfway around the world for five dollars. They also mean that both the people that made that t-shirt and the artisans who have been pushed out of the market by it are suffering for it.
It was this realization that drove Fiona Karapis to set out on her mission to change the way that artisan communities and their techniques are valued by the fashion industry. After graduating with a degree in fashion, she had difficulty reconciling her passion with the dark side of what the industry has become globally. “The fashion industry is responsible for a huge amount of global carbon emissions, and has driven so many local producers out of the market.” While traveling through South East Asia exploring the role of artisan textile and fashion producers in the region, Fiona met John Challis, a talented web designer with a shared interest in social entrepreneurship and global change. After about a year of back and forth, born from a conversation at a hostel in Bali, the two founded Kaji X together.
‘Kaji’ comes from the Bahasa Indonesian for ‘research’. The X represents the collaborative nature of their model. With their community-forward approach, the two aim to offer artisans a way forward without compromising their quality to meet the low production cost demands of the global supply chain. “We want to change the way that textiles and fashion products are valued” John explained. By going in and truly engaging with the communities that they work with, Kaji X is able to properly address the needs of that community, and offer consumers real insight into the value of artisan products and fair pricing.
Still in their infancy, Kaji X is currently working towards the culmination of their first project: Kaji X Phrae. The northern Thai town of Phrae is known for its traditional indigo dying techniques. Fiona and John have worked with the local community of artisans to create a limited-edition fashion piece. They have given the traditional Thai workers shirt a modern spin, which they will be displaying at a festival in the town, as well as hosting workshops on textile and print uses for natural indigo. “Our goal was to get to know the community and fully understand their techniques, and their needs,” says Fiona. With the worker’s shirt, Kaji X is hoping to provide the artisans of the town with a way to earn at a premium through their traditional techniques and showcase the value of these techniques to the global fashion industry.
The hope is that, once one community has begun to see the benefits of maintaining their traditional techniques, they will be able to move on to another community. Ultimately, the two want to grow Kaji X into a global network of knowledge sharing, connecting these communities with one another and global fashion buyers that have a need for high-quality textiles. While their vision is grand, the pair remains grounded in their approach. Much like the artisans that they work with, Kaji X sees the value in taking things slowly. “We don’t want to just create one product and then leave the community to move on to the next one. We’re trying to set up sustainable connections that can really keep these techniques alive.” One community at a time, they want to change the discourse around fashion production by changing the way we see value in our fashion products. The reality is that cheap fashion comes at a social price and a loss of quality. The only way that these techniques will survive is if we, as consumers, begin to change the way we spend our money.