Karenine Arraya is a long time fashion designer who grew up in BraziI, but now resides in New York. She created Nineh—a fashion line that works direct to consumer—when she saw the need for quality work that featured artisans and less of the corporate mainstream area where the art tends to get lost. I had the privilege to talk to Karenine about fashion, owning your art, and setting yourself apart in a world that can get drowned out with corporate noise.

How did you get into the fashion industry?

I came to study fashion design in New York in 1999. After graduation, I dove into the fashion industry and worked for mass market brands. In less than a year, I was traveling to China to work with denim wash factories, and I saw first hand what it was like to work in these factories. The abuse and awful conditions factory workers were submitted to, working 16 hour days with no breaks, being exposed to toxic fumes all day, and even seeing little toddlers helping their mothers with nowhere to go. That was traumatizing!

I switched jobs after four years and went to LA. I worked for BCBG and had the experience of working for a corporate environment. The pace was so intense and the work hours were insane, but it was a huge learning curve for me. The market crash happened in 2008, and I ended up moving back to New York. I started working for other young contemporary brands and went back to my China travels and later India. I gained enough experience that I had the chance to start a contemporary brand from scratch, and it gave me freedom to create what I wanted. But it was still mass market. There was still very little visibility, and the owners still wanted to sell it out no matter what the cost and that ultimately sacrifices the quality and the design. After that, I was itching to create a line of my own and go against everything fast fashion is all about, including the fashion calendar that most brands are forced to follow. I was wakened by the ‘Slow Fashion’ movement and there was no going back for me.

“I want a safer planet for my two little girls, and I want to secure them a better future. I’m only one person, but, if we all do our part, we can move mountains.”

Talk to me about your love for India, and why you chose to predominantly work with them.

I fell in love with their craftsmanship because it’s still so alive there, and it’s a huge part of their culture. Mass market brands in the US and Europe still take advantage of these artisans that they have never met. Their work is outsourced from big factory agents that pay them cents on the dollar for their very special and intricate work. I could have gone to other countries, but I was already familiar with the Indian way of working, and I felt really inspired by them.

What was your biggest misconception?

When I started working in fashion, I thought there was definitely a more of a glamour side to it. Obviously I was young and ready to take on anything they gave me, which was all really exciting, and I was also getting paid a decent salary and living a comfortable life. It was a vicious cycle, and it took me years to have the guts to finally break away from it. It finally hit me, and I realized that unless I had my own thing, I wasn’t going to be happy.

Obviously, corporate isn’t going to stop being a player in fashion, but what do you think brands can do to help these issues?

I think it has to do with transparency. Brands need to be educating the consumer. Millenials are making money and are taking notice of companies’ practices. More than ever before, Millennials are interested in where products are coming from and who made them. They are holding big conglomerates accountable for the amount of waste and reckless consumerism they have created.

For the last 20 years, clothes have gotten cheaper and cheaper to the point of being disposable after 2-3 wears. Factories can’t keep up with the demands of buyers, but they need the money, so they continue to hire more workers and pay them even less to stay under their desired price point.

You have such a fresh perspective on the industry. What were some strengths that you gained by starting the brand entirely on your own?

I just kept looking ahead. I want a safer planet for my two little girls, and I want to secure them a better future. I’m only one person, but, if we all do our part, we can move mountains. I’m hoping that a lot more designers follow the same path and that consumers start listening.

I’m not trying to follow a trend. I want my collection to be special and to last forever. I keep my quality really high and my styles timeless. I am now working with a small factory operation that works within a nonprofit organization that trains disadvantaged rural women in India. They empower these women through education, health care, and financial stability and train them to be independent, instead of being married off and living under their husband’s shadow.

What advice was useful for you when creating your brand?

Be true to yourself. Believe in your work and follow your heart. It’s a saturated industry, and the competition is intense. There will be mistakes and heartbreaks along the way, and it is easy to get side tracked, but it is important not lose focus on your ultimate goal.  

You’ve given me so much insight. I have one more question for you: what makes you feel powerful?

The idea that I’m helping create something bigger than myself and that I’m able to help other people as well. That I’m here to make a change in someone else’s life. I don’t think of my brand as just mine—I try to think of the brand as everything that encompasses it, from the fabrics sourced to the people that made the clothes, and where they came from. These are the true stars of my brand!

Check out Karenine’s clothing line at https://www.nineh.com/