The townships of Cape Town and the refugee camps of Jordan are a world away from the Hollywood red carpet and the White House, but jeweler Kara Ross is happy to have swapped glamour for grit with her new venture, Unleashed, as she tells Laura Archer.
A qualified gemologist, Kara Ross has been making fine jewelry for 25 years, and her award-winning designs are worn by celebrities ranging from Kate Hudson to Oprah Winfrey. Known for combining natural materials with precious metals, she was commissioned by Michelle Obama to create wooden cuffs, using the wood of fallen branches of the magnolia tree on the White House lawn, which the First Lady could present to visiting heads of state. But it was while working with disadvantaged women in South Africa that Ross was inspired to change tack. Realizing that so much untapped talent was hidden in the impoverished and war-torn corners of the world, she founded Unleashed – a pending 501c3 non-profit organization aimed at giving female artisans a global platform on which to shine. Ross spoke to us from Art Basel Miami, where she’s promoting Unleashed, to tell us more.
You’re a highly successful jewelry designer – what made you want to move into the charitable sector?
I have been doing jewelry design for over 25 years and I’ve built a career out of it – one that I’m very proud of. I’ve always considered myself a craftsperson; I love things that are handmade and unique. I decided it was time to give back and I wanted to focus on other talented craftspeople, specifically women in tough circumstances who really don’t have a voice. I wanted to help them tell their stories. It’s interesting to know how things are made and who made them – people pay attention to that now.
There’s certainly an appetite among consumers to know the provenance of the things they’re buying. Do you think we’ve reached a point where brands have to address their corporate social responsibility?
Absolutely. Right now, I think there’s such a push back against fast fashion. Craft is the antithesis of fast fashion. It’s about someone using their hands to create art. It’s about individuality and uniqueness.
You’re creating a series of films called ‘Connecting Thread’ about the female artisans you’ve discovered with Unleashed. What’s the idea behind this?
Often what you find is that the women in rural communities use their art and their craft to feed and educate their children – they’re the breadwinners. We wanted to tell their stories, and the first film in our series was shot in India about two months ago. We had an Oscar-nominated director, Amy Berg, and an Emmy Award-winning editor, Sloane Klevin, because we want to make high-caliber films that we will then submit to film festivals – the one about India was submitted to the Tribeca Film Festival. We have also partnered with the media company Refinery29 to screen them online along with some other editorial coverage – Refinery29 has over 580 million unique views every month, so the potential for that is really exciting. I’d like to do six films a year, and currently I’m planning two in New York City and one each in Detroit, Jordan, Mexico and Brazil. For New York, we have lined up a director who was the recipient of an Academy Honorary Award and we will be showing this film at Sundance. When you start talking to people about it, they’re like, “Oh my gosh, you’ve got to talk to my friend so-and-so who’s working with women in Bolivia or this person who’s working with women in Haiti.” I’m actually meeting with someone who works with a collective in Bolivia. These groups of women are all around the world; it’s not going to be hard to find them.
The film centers on Gudia, who travels from her village to see her designs shown on the runway at India Fashion Week – that must have been quite a moment for you.
Yes. We first met Gudia in her village, which has no running water and no electricity. She had never been anywhere else. She didn’t know how old she was because she’d never been to school and was illiterate. She was very brave to travel with us to Delhi for fashion week. When she walked into the hotel, her mouth hit the floor. At the front desk, she didn’t know how to sign her name – she had to put an X. So to see her go from that to standing on the runway… She was so happy.
How does Unleashed help the women on a practical level?
We are now partnered with a company called Novica, which is the equivalent of Etsy but for artisans. So now, any place where we go, Novica will put the work of all of the artists that we’re working with online, so they get a marketplace in which to sell their products direct to customers, which is wonderful. The other thing we’re doing is giving the women access to capital. We’re using an international micro-financing loan organization called Kiva that allows people to choose how much to donate and to whom. You can go on to the website and read the little blurb about the person and what they need the money for. So, for example, a woman who needs money to buy yarn to make her kaftans – you can read about her, see her photograph and then invest in her business – the average loan size is $200–300. I put $15,000 into Rajasthan, which then grew to £30,000 as more people added to it through Kiva. We have more than 100 women whose small businesses are benefiting from these loans. So the idea behind Unleashed is threefold: it’s about providing access to investment, creating a marketplace in which to sell the products, and telling these women’s stories, amplifying the message, getting more people to know about them and creating jobs as a result. It’s a new journey for me, and I’m learning a lot.
Is Unleashed also selling the products?
We did for the first in the series – we took the Indian bindi as the design inspiration for these beautiful multi-colored, circular patterns which we then used on a fitted T-shirt design made from organic, sustainable cotton. The women in India did all the beading and they are sold at Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdale's and online at Maison de Mode. Going forward, we will focus on showcasing the women’s products in our films and helping them sell direct to customers.
What are you most looking forward to with Unleashed?
I can’t wait to discover all these different collectives of wonderful craftswomen and telling their stories, year after year.
Find out more at: unleashed-world.com