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Tina Kalivas’ Bold Desert Vision

Australian designer Tina Kalivas explores the Afghan desert landscape and finds it bursting with colour and passion.

Knowing first hand the challenges facing ethnic minorities in Western countries, having come from a Greek background and grown up in Australia, Tina Kalivas found inspiration for her A/W 09 collection in the most unlikely of places. Turning to what most would discount as a barren wasteland, the Afghan desert, Kalivas uncovered a community of women whose creativity was both inspired and inspiring.

Working with Afghan refugees in the outer-suburbs of Sydney’s West, Kalivas’ collection directly reflects the experiences of this isolated community. Muted canvases in earth tones reflect the harsh conditions of an unrelenting homeland environment, with highlighter bright embroidery betraying the rich culture hidden away in mountain caves and violent sandstorms.

Yet Kalivas’ is not a limited talent- not only does she mastermind her own burgeoning label, she is also fostering a passionate career in costume design. With a new movie about Ancient Japanese ninjas due to hit cinemas this year, Kalivas’ love for design is as inexorable, boundless and fervent as the places she finds her inspiration...

Dazed Digital: How did your career in fashion begin?
Tina Kalivas: I was working at Angels and Bermans Costume House in Camden. It was an amazing huge monstrous building; 5 floors of costumes from all periods of all time, military, ethnic, fantasy. I assisted the Costume designers and Stylists when they came in to choose clothes.  I helped Katy England (who I was a massive fan of) and during a crazy two week count down prior to a McQueen show she got me in to help out. I continued on a freelance basis there for a while working primarily pattern cutting and making showpieces which was so much fun! Parallel to this I continued to work on movies etc…

DD: What is the Tina Kalivas signature style?
TK: Bold, graphic, tailored, organic with a sense of other-worldliness.

DD: Your collections are always charged with colour. How/why is colour so important to you?
TK: Colour to me means optimism. Although I like to use neutral backgrounds, bringing colour into a collection gives it it's voice. 

DD: What inspired your latest collection?
TK: I was fascinated for a while with Afghani culture just though movies I had seen like Kandahar. I was amazed at the creativity that comes from this culture considering they are living in such a harsh environment. The desert landscape itself is so confronting let alone living in caves within the mountains. When I looked more and more into the textiles that came from Afghanistan I became obsessed with getting closer to the culture. I had met a journalist in London who spent a while in Afghanistan as a spokesperson for the United Nations and since then the meeting with her stuck in my mind.  I bumped into her in Sydney at a book launch and she told me about a group of Afghani refugee Women here in Sydney who were known to have amazing embroidery skills. So through numerous phone-calls and research I met the community workers who look after them and we drove way out to the Western suburbs to meet them.  That first meeting with them opened a gateway to a very unfamiliar form of creativity, but very exciting. Making something from nothing, enduring a war zone and keeping a craft alive.

DD: What did you learn/how did you find working with Afghan women for your current collection?
TK: In the beginning it was a little confrontational as I was dealing with a culture I was unaccustomed to. We had a translator so we communicated ok but by the end it was mostly eye contact, facial expressions and talking with hands that got us through. Coming from a Greek family at least I could relate to them on that cultural level! We had a good time- I would give them a drawing and they would present me with an embroidery of it the following week. I ended up embellishing my collection with many of these embroideries. They really enjoyed working on this project as they really aren't allowed to work. This was a job they could do from home, which was both expressive and enjoyable. I continue to work with these women.

DD: What kind of woman do you design for?
TK: Individuals with a sense of originality and fun.

DD: What do you think sets Australian fashion and style apart from the rest of the world?
TK: Just being so far away instantly creates a challenge. A lot of Australian fashion is based around the local market as it is so easy to get comfortable with the lifestyle here. There is a whole different side of Australian fashion as well where the designers actually travel a lot and tune in on more of an international level. I think it's very diverse.

DD: What are your aspirations for the label? 
TK: Last year I spent 6 months in Japan designing costumes for a Fantasy ninja movie called Goemon set in Ancient Japan.  It was wild... free reign on creativity- no boundaries and I learnt so much about Japanese traditional dress and culture. I realized, although I love fashion, I want to continue working on costumes too. It's really stimulating- one informs the other. So I look forward to designing clothes as well as costumes and get to enjoy both worlds.