Photo by Marina Lnakina
Fashion is often trend based, lacking originality, limited in sizing, and void of sustainable initiatives, but Karelle of KRELwear bucks the standard with her completely unique, inclusive, colorful, hand-made sustainable concoctions.
Karelle Levy, the designer behind KRELwear, has found a way to seamlessly blend and balance textile art and fashion for every body and age. Her work, ranging from large-scale site-specific installations to mini dresses, is a perfect encapsulation of the city it was founded in: the sexiness, the vibrant colors, and the playful simplicity unique to Miami. Karelle's designs can effortlessly be worn to a casual outing, the office, or a party and defy being defined by any age group or trend. Karelle's designs are both custom and sustainable, by making custom pieces based on client preferences, using left over materials for accessories, children's toys, and art installations, and sticking to primarily natural fibers and dead-stock yarns in an array of colors and shine. Karelle, like her designs, is inviting, vivacious, generous, and genuine. We are lucky to have had KRELwear participate in our Miami Design District show where she showed off her sustainable knitwear and to have her as a pillar of the local design community.
Our Executive Producer, Pangea got a chance to speak to Karelle about the evolution of her brand, her dedication to sustainability, the importance of textile art in design and the community, and inclusion for all her in her brand.
a chat with Karelle levy
founder of sustainable knit brand, krelwear
how would you describe your brand?
KREL is ”Tropical Knitwear”. Fun, sexy, colorful, comfortable, and breathable fabrics made from predominantly plant based fibers. The clothes I make are meant to work with the body, taking the shape of the body, no matter what body shape or gender. I spoke to a model as she described the model world as "walking hangers". My clothes don’t have much “hanger appeal” but thinking of the idea of the body with curves and all as the canvas was an exciting idea.
how has your brand evolved over the years?
When I first started my company, I made all the pieces with a Passap DM80 hand operated knitting machine. Each piece was created one at a time and was developed as I was producing it. I had the colors and the idea in mind, but it was rare to repeat what I made. They embraced flaw, so when the yarn didn’t catch and they created runs, they became part of the conversation between the yarn, the machine, and then the wearer and the audience. The designs were an explosion of color and fibers. Over the years I worked with various manufacturers locally and also in California and Peru, using similar tubular techniques and making multiples as well as toning down the color ways and variations. I now am completely self-reliant. I purchased my own Shima Seiki industrial knitting machine, and now produce all the collection in-house. My style has become more refined. I’m not as wild as I once was and this refinement is reflected in my current work. I have more flexibility and ease in production with a rainbow wall of yarns. I’ve been actively working on new programs that mimic my past hand loom pieces. Bringing back the top styles and developing them into programs has really been an enjoyable process. I can work closely with my clients and boutiques to customize their orders and that is really rewarding.
During these times of Covid 19 and social distancing, I've brought back a style from 2005, the face cover/mask. Since this is a necessity these days, I've worked on my version of a tubular face cover that is easy to breathe through and stays on your face. What's great about this design is that it can be also used as a beanie, head band, and neck piece when the time comes where face covers won't be a necessity any more. $10 from each mask sale goes towards charities that feed our frontline workers and hungry families due to Covid-19.
what inspired you to take a sustainable approach to fashion design?
I’ve always been a collector of yarn, but equally find it hard to throw things away that would end up in land fills. I buy a lot of mill ends, because not only doI get a better price, but I use very little in comparison to large factories. I grew up Jewish and Swedish, both cultures use what they have and also recycling in Sweden had a big effect on me since I was a child. Having so many beautiful yarns, it felt wrong to just throw away what was left, so I found ways to use and reuse the items I have that would normally be thrown away. If a piece fell off the machine, or had an error I would have to start all over again, these pieces would end up becoming either another garment in our not so perfect LAB selections at a discount, but sometime they would end up becoming a shopping bag, or a large scale patchwork art piece.
can you describe some of your favorite sustainable krelwear pieces?
The Rainbow Tank Maxi Dress because it encompasses my past practices with my current production capability. I used the ends of many cones of yarn and arranged them in a rainbow. As the dress was being knit, I would stop the machine, change the one of the yarns from a usual 3 yarn combination, and start the machine again, until one of the yarns either ran out or it was time to change the yarn for the color gradation. It came out beautifully. The rainbow is my favorite color. I believe in unity and rights for all humans, no matter what color, gender, sexual preference, or religion. So this dress is also a symbol of that ideal.
Also, the Rainbow Tank Maxi Dress is one of my top selling silhouettes. It’s a tube of fabric, wider on the bottom, narrow at the top, the neck line cowls and the arm holes are created by knitting the front and the back separately simultaneously. The dress fits every size and body-type. As a body-con piece it embraces the curves, the slimmer the lady the longer the piece, the curvier the body the shorter the piece. There’s no front or back and it can be worn inside out.
Where do you find your inspiration and how does miami influence your brand?
Miami has some of the sexiest people in the world. The women here are more free to wear what they'd like and be who they want to be, which is glorious. With this freedom, we can be sexy no matter what our body type is. I believe that comes from our Caribbean and Latin neighbors. We can wear color like no other and can wear fewer clothes because it’s so hot. There’s a sense that you can play dress up anytime. I was raised in Miami, and I was a regular club goer for at least 20 years. I originally made clothes to go out in, before it evolved into the business it is today. Some collections have been inspired by nightclubs, like DiscGlo, where the collection was seen in many clubs around the world, with models dancing in UV reactive clothes. There is a story to most of my collections. Lately it’s just been about the resort wear as a whole and what I want to wear too.
What inspired you to become a fashion designer?
I made so many pieces, I had to sell them. It was a very scary beginning. I’m pretty shy by nature and putting myself out there to get boutiques to buy my clothes was a big deal when I started. I have always been surrounded by fashion. My mother was an avid shopper, textile artist, boutique owner and wholesaler when I was growing up. I didn’t really think I would be a fashion designer, but rather an artist. I grew up with a weaving loom in my basement and was also a dancer. My mom passed away when I was 16 years old. When she got sick my interest in her loom grew, so I took a weaving class at University of Miami that was part of their continuing education program. It came really easy to me, so I knew I wanted to make fabric. I attended Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) with the intention of studying Textile Design. My woven textiles started becoming performance art costumes. I really enjoyed working with non-traditional materials, like plastics, metals, and elastic, changing the texture of the fabrics as a whole. The sculptural effects later became the foundation for corset like dresses used as an element of performance in a dance piece. One of these dresses was worn by Nicki Minaj in the FLY music video 15 years later.
I am fascinated with making fabrics, the basis of the material via texture, color, and flexibility inspire my final pieces. During my RISD days, I took a knitting machine class and it changed my entire direction from being a weaver to being a knitter. I then started working with elastics and plastic yarns; dying them and making them into large body tubes. The theory behind those pieces was to hide or change the human figure by using fabrics to manipulate the body’s movements. As a performance artist, what you wear is another form of expression. The way you dress says something about you as an individual, or how you feel. And the best way to use textiles was to wear them! Realizing most people couldn’t use these fabrics, I wanted to make more usable fabrics, I started making tubes with openings for the head, body, and arms and that started to become a collection to sell. The idea of tubular fabrics started in my final year at RISD, the idea that fabric goes around your body, hence tubes made complete sense to me. I was addicted to knitting.
what are some of your favorite miami spots?
My studio is like my vortex. It’s inside Ironside, which is a beautiful oasis tucked away close to the railroad just west of Biscayne Blvd. I’m thankful it’s in an area that has low traffic, especially these days, when a pandemic is still happening, being around people freaks me out these days. I also love the beach, as it’s calming and brings me back to nature. I used to be very social. This Coronavirus has made me very anti-social, which is an enormous change for me. I’m enjoying it thoroughly. I feel like I have years of catching up to do. Under normal circumstances, I love the Bass and PAMM Museums, going to the Miami City Ballet, and Upper Buena Vista.
where can people find krelwear?
At the moment, I’m taking private appointments at my shop located in Ironside, 7520 NE 4th Court, #107, also my website www.krelwear.com. I’m doing a 50% off sale with the code SPRING2020 (offer till June 20 last day of Spring). As well as a few locations nationwide.
what would you suggest to an emerging designer getting their start in miami or elsewhere?
It’s important for a young designer to understand the business side of things. I would suggest working in a boutique, to see how it is to deal with clients. Working for designers and learning from already established clothing designers is great. Learning who their client is by doing Pop Up events and meeting potential clients. I learn so much from my clients. How they like to wear their clothes really helps when it comes to designing the collections. Also consider how your designs stand out from the vast sea of designers out there. It’s so hard to make a mark, but if you are passionate, it's worth it.
do you have any advice as to what people can to do be more sustainable on a day to day basis?
Make better choices with what you purchase. Buy local, buy smart, buy fewer non-recyclable items. Compost when you can. Thrifting is great and donating your clothes rather than throwing them away helps a lot. We are in a world of over consumption. How can we as individuals make a difference? Every little bit counts. Being conscience is a major part of it. Use alternative forms of transportation like a bicycle. Sustainability can become a daily practice. We have so many years of bad habits and forming new ones with consciousness is a great way to move forward with out stressing out about being perfect at it. We are humans, we love to invent, produce, etc.
Pangea Kali Virga is Executive Producer and co-Founder of Miami On Sight and is a full time fashion designer, stylist, creative director, and producer. She is fiercely dedicated to radical sustainability, veganism, and social justice. Her design work is focused on hand-made textiles and experimental texture using upcycled materials. You can learn more about Pangea at www.pangeakalivirga.com and on Instagram @pangeakalivirga.