If there is an apt synonym for Caroline Poiner it would be ‘incredible’, as this lithe Australian has provided livelihood to thousands of artisans, specially women from the most backward and poverty-stricken areas of the country with her organisation Artisans of Fashion.
By Asmita Aggarwal
Where were you born and raised and what are your educational qualifications?
I was born and raised in Sydney, Australia. I studied have a degree in Interior Design from the Sydney Institute of Technology.
When and how did you start Artisans of Fashion?
I started Artisans of Fashion in 2012 following many trips to India. Textiles have always been a passion for me, both my parents and grandparents were in the textile industry, importing some of the most luxurious, hand loomed and embellished textiles from across Europe, India (of course) and South East Asia and supplying many of Australia’s top designers back in the 70s and 80s.
My background is in branding and design and at the time I was working with two of Sydney’s most prestigious retail centers, one being the Strand Arcade which was known as the “Home of Australian Fashion” where I would see many of the garments that were presumably produced with textiles sourced from India, however there was no evidence of their provenance. I had already fallen for and was spending a lot of time in India, so I decided to look into the source of these richly embellished yet undervalued textiles.
What were you fascinated by within the country?
It was my passion that took me on a journey into the back laneways of Varanasi where I met the Ansaris, one of the families with the longest history of weaving extraordinary silks and Jamdanis and the beautiful Tibetan Brocades. It was from here my understanding of the plight of the artisans and endangered skills of the weavers started to unfold. It was then that I decided there must be something I can do, even in some small way by connecting designers with artisans; so that not only could the designers have access to some of the most beautiful textiles and techniques, but also use the power and influence of fashion to change the outcome for the artisans, we could bring attention to the extraordinary skills and give the artisans the acknowledgement they are entitled to.
You have mentioned that you work with women who have suffered extreme poverty. What are the areas that are plagued by such problems that you have owned and the crafts that emerge from there?
Many women are marginalised in rural communities and suffer from the impact of poverty on an everyday basis. One such community is the women up in Almora, who I have had a long association with through Mukti Datta of Panchachuli Women Weavers. These women had endured back breaking labour in the fields for most of their lives and when Mukti saw the opportunity to provide training and then ongoing employment through the traditional skills in weaving she embarked on recruiting the women from the surrounding villages. Panchachuli became a thriving enterprise where the women could get regular incomes, support their families and ensure an education for their children; although it was not without its challenges. I was fortunate enough to meet Mukti back in 2012 and have developed a strong friendship over the years cemented in our mutual determination to change the lives of these women.
Artisans of Fashion helped Mukti fund the establishment of a weaving centre for the survivors of the Kedarnath Valley landslides, which was the foundation for Mandakini Women Weavers. We worked on designs, mainly using the beautiful cashmere and wools that are traditional from the Himalayas and sold them through our retail brand Cloth & Co.
You have also worked extensively in Rajasthan…
One of my first experiences working directly with village communities was in Rajasthan, I was involved with an NGO that at the time was focused on orphaned and destitute children living on the streets —– the same organisation identified a significant issue in the women’s health and well-being which had a direct relationship to the lack of education, abusive relationships with husbands and in-laws and the impact of living in extreme poverty. Artisans of Fashion developed a Block Printing Training Program utilising local craftspeople to educate and train, sponsored workshops in design and quality control with trainers from NID and ongoing management skills for the team.
We continue to work with marginalized women through small SHG’s and organisations such as Project Thrive in Delhi where women who live in slums on the outskirts of Delhi or have been trafficked or displaced are trained and given work in various skills including stitching, embroidery, hand painted textiles and crochet in a safe working environment and paid a living wage.
Through these organisations we also connect designers and brands wanting to support women’s empowerment and ethical, sustainable work practices.
Do you think many crafts are dying due to lack of enough patronage?
Yes it is without a doubt that the crafts are dying, it’s not sustainable for the next generation and mostly they are getting an education and are not interested in enduring the hard work and poor return that their forefathers have suffered. We see the possibilities through the incredibly talented designers in India, who have grown up with access to the crafts people, but the sector needs more. There is a growing appreciation for hand-craft and artisanship world wide which will give some of the artisan population opportunities but will that be enough? I don’t know but I certainly hope so.
Which are your favourites and how much of these do you have in your wardrobe?
Yes I have lots of favourites, I’m absolutely in love with the exquisite Jamdanis from West Bengal, these and the superfine, 300 count khadi cottons that are just so beautiful. We are working on a collection for Cloth & Co. using these divine fabrics woven by a beautiful family of weavers in Katwa, West Bengal which I am so excited about.
The Silk Cotton Ikats from our weavers in Telengana are also a favourite, we have been working with a young weaver who is just amazing, he is on a mission to support his community and keep the weaving techniques alive – I am a huge fan of his and I just can’t wait for Cassandra Harper’s collection to be available. Kit X, one of our designers working with the Bandhani artisans has also done a gorgeous collection in ikat which is now available in Selfridges which is very exciting.
I have a beautiful dress from Kit’s original Bandhani collection which I love as well as quite a few pieces from Indian designers 11:11 which is one of my favourites as well as Maku in Kolkata who is also a go to for the most exquisite Indigo dyed Jamdani which I also own a few pieces…
I have a stunning Rahul Mishra dress from his collection he produced for the Woolmark Prize, Chanderi woven wool with the most exquisite French knots and embroidery.
I have some of Injiri’s gorgeous Khadi and a couple of gorgeous dupattas from Sanjay Garg’s Raw Mango which I absolutely love.
Does your family support your endeavours and will they carry it on?
My family is the reason I can keep doing what I do. It’s a passion project so my husband has been the provider in the family I would not be here without his support and belief in me. Actually I am always working or travelling and he has stuck by me all the way, he’s a good man. My eldest daughter Daisy is my business partner in Cloth & Co. and with a Masters in International Business, she’s definitely the brains behind the business & totally believes in what we are doing with our artisans in India. I have a younger daughter, Hattie who is my rock, her love and support for anything I do makes it much easier to ride the challenges and rough spots of which there have been many and continue on.
What do you think about the five designers who are showing this time at India Fashion Week from Roopa to Cassandra?
I’m quite honored to work with these designers, they’re incredibly talented and also their belief in AOF and me has been really humbling. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to see their collections using our artisans’ textiles come to life on the runway at India Fashion Week.
I’m also incredibly honored to have been entrusted in the role of curator for the Indo Australian Project – a collaboration between the Ministry of Textiles, Government of India and the Australian Government from which this runway show and exhibition has culminated.