Kusuma Sparks is an environmentalist
who fought the urge to create beautiful things with textiles
Despite her youthful ambition to land a Fulbright Grant and ‘save the world’, she finally (and begrudgingly) had to admit she had a gift and passion for textiles and, in the end, she became an artisan of fine garments for women who share her vision of a better world. Maybe it was because she couldn’t stand seeing her for-a-cause friends suffer bad aesthetics. Maybe it was a rebellious act against the industry.
Whatever the reason, for nearly two decades she has devoted herself to textiles arts; wrestling with the subject throughout the US, Europe and India. She finally got the courage (and the push) to open her doors to other women who are also seeking to do good, feel good and look beautiful.
Some might have seen this coming.
Her mother perhaps, who had to suffer innumerable fits of temper and tears as a baby when food spilled on her dress; which she had to promptly change into a new outfit for her to continue eating again.
Her aunt perhaps, who couldn’t get her to wear pants because all she wanted were frilly over-the-top dresses. Kusuma had very clear and defined tastes before she could even talk. One of those peculiarities was her obstinate aversion to synthetic fabrics. Since infancy, any time she touches or hears the rubbing of synthetic fabrics it is like a tactile bolt of painful electricity shooting through her jaw and teeth, like nails running down a chalkboard.
By age 6 she had a whole sketchbook catalogue of dresses she wanted to make and sell, including their accessories and their prices.
By age 7 she invented a new style for Barbie and wrote to Mattel to offer the idea to them.
(They politely wrote back and to let her know they could not accept public submissions for legal reasons).
When she was 27 years old, in a rash moment of minimalism and ‘detachment,’ she donated her entire wardrobe, except for one suitcase (a decision greatly influenced by relocating to the US from Venice, Italy, and with no money to do so). When she arrived penniless at her mother’s doorstep, in the heart of winter, with a few cotton blouses and summer skirts, she knew she needed to get creative (though she’d never really sewn before).
She ‘borrowed’ her mother’s curtain material and reimagined some of the items in her suitcase, and voila! she had something to wear to meet the parents of her newly betrothed. It was not fairy-godmother style —she didn’t know about finishing hems or edges, so all the edges were frayed. Some people at her fiancé’s friend’s party laughed at her, some called her cool.
The jury is still out.
Opening her business feels like a minor miracle considering Kusuma retired from the industry in 2009 after learning how her decisions as a textile designer were contributing to the suffering for humans, animals and planet.
Before retiring, she tried to ‘green’ the luxury brand under her charge but eventually became disgusted and disheartened by the industry; leaving her position to pursue a feel-good ‘career’ in yoga. →
“There are wonderful brands out there exploring natural dyes, local fibers, and sustainable manufacturing. I want to see more of that in the boardroom, the bedroom and the party. However, the more I talked to women, I realized I was not alone- the aesthetics just don’t fit. Sustainable need not be drab or hippie. And beautiful need not be toxic, kill a human or a polar bear.
In a quest to demonstrate these, I realized just how messy the inside of the fashion industry is with lies, cheating and closed doors. Combine this with hyped-up advertising and clothes shopping is a walk through a war zone. Most of us know this on one level but in today’s world we are called to know so much about everything and it’s exhausting and overwhelming.
I felt disgusted and disheartened. The modern fashion industry is the cause of so much suffering, toxicity, corruption and utter destruction. For me it was the difference between ordering meat from a menu and killing an animal face to face with your bare hands. When it is removed, far away, out of sight and out of mind, most people can easily turn a blind eye, but I cannot. I face my decisions as if I am doing it with my own two hands, looking straight into the eyes of the people and the animals. The textile and fashion industry is a huge engine machine we’ve built and the train is like a bullet force. It’s not easy to step off or stop it. You’re either in or you’re out. As a small designer and maker, I cannot stop the train by myself. And if I chose not to be a part of that train ride, my options are extremely limited. The doors are closed because ‘goodness’ just isn’t profitable (yet).“
After her time in the textile industry she became hyper sensitive about textile purchases in her own life, struggled with not buying anything at all, and, in a moment of desperate reality admitted she doesn’t want to be a nudist, or go braless, and neither does she want to wear an ugly brown sack for the rest of her days (even if it was an eco-friendly, cruelty-free and fair-trade ugly brown sack).
So, after a decade of searching far and wide for a better way, she decided to succumb to her interest in textiles and help benevolent women discover and wear beautiful and elegant clothes in line with their values.
Kusuma currently lives in Sonoma county, California with her musical husband; well on their way to growing old together.
Actually she has been planning this business since age 6. This image is from the original sales catalogue. (Material: Silk; Cost $90; Date: 1989)
She enjoys domesticity and cooking up a storm. Her friends regularly pressure her to open a restaurant.
She speaks Venetian
(but only in Venice)
- Her favorite place to shop is the farmer’s market.
- She believes meditation is the #1 thing we can do to save the world.
- Her favorite hobby is laughing.
- It wasn’t the Fulbright but she spent a summer digging & installing latrines for a Costa Rican Village when she was 16.
- Her mother, grandmothers and great grandmothers were all accomplished seamstresses and she thinks they put a spell on her.
- Her dedicated study in psychology should probably earn her an honorary degree from Harvard.
Wearing heritage pieces that are hand-crafted, meticulous and refined is like wearing a living work of art and to be a patron of that feels wonderful. Knowing that my patronage helps keep rare (and often endangered) heritage arts in existence for future generations feels just as rewarding as supporting an elephant sanctuary. And now I get to combine the best of both worlds: artistic heritage with environmental conservation.
Art museums, Chopin, William McDonough, dance and theatrical performances (especially bhutoh), Canoeing in the Adirondacks, Lisa Kristine’s photographs, hot chai on a cold day, Ashes and Snow by Gregory Colbert, BBC Masterpiece, the puppet performer in Venice Italy, David Attenborough’s Planet Earth, exploring the wetlands in rubber boots, the words of Thich Nhat Hanh and Ramana Maharishi and John O’Donohue, Japanese Taiko, Rumi read by Coleman Barks, Ludovico Einaudi on piano (especially Elegy for the Arctic).
On my bookshelf: Upcycle by William McDonough – Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by O’Donohue – Seductresses: Women Who Ravished the World by Prieleau – Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski – Women Who Run With The Wolves by Estes – the Scientific Publications of Marta Meana -The Sacred Tradition of Yoga by Shankaranarayana Jois
Hello, my name is Kusuma.
What you’ve read above is my official bio for this website and, if you’re interested, I’d like to share some more stories and tell you a bit more about myself.
I’d like to start with…
The Tale of Three Nighties:
I’ve oogled and adored lingerie for most of my life. Never did I imagine I would make it myself. But here is how it happened, how I was coerced into it, starting with a lingerie emergency….
Nightie #1: My Wedding
It wasn’t until my wedding night that I stumbled into making my own lingerie. I wanted something natural and beautiful to wear that night, and decided upon a really lovely cotton voile nightie handed down from one of my aunts. It was very feminine and flowy with a ‘virginal princess’ feel to it. That night when I sat down next to my new husband, he seemed pleased and we started talking about what I was wearing. Very shortly it came out that the garment was previously my aunt’s… and he had an immediate repulsion, objected to it, and asked me to ditch it. I felt shocked and dejected.
I went into the changing room and faced a big problem I needed to solve. It felt like an emergency. I didn’t even have a bra and I didn’t want to just walk out naked. That’s not my style. And since we were in a hotel room, my options were very limited. I had one white silk scrap of fabric that I had used to wrap my wedding clothes and I had another golden silk scrap of fabric that I had used to wrap a wedding gift for my husband. They just barely made it around me and I tied one piece around my waist and another around my torso. It was like a wedding tarzan kinda look, but still sexy in a funny way. He loved it.
Nightie #2: Date Night
The second time I wanted a nightie was for a special date we had planned, the first time we wanted to try conception. I didn’t want just anything, and we both hate synthetic fabrics. I wanted something really special and natural and decided I had to make it myself because the options to buy what I wanted just didn’t exist. Surprisingly, the act of making it, of trying different ideas in front of the mirror, playing with how I wanted to appear and imagining his reactions to the different looks opened my world up completely, and it turned into a solo kind of foreplay in itself for me! I was over-the-top excited to show him my surprise. The look of love and longing in his eyes combined with the build up I had been going through led to an unforgettable night.
Nightie #3: Shock and Awe
A few months later, he was ‘making the moves’ on me when suddenly he stopped and said “Go downstairs and put something on for me.” I wasn’t feeling much in the mood for love but decided flow with it and to go do it. Because I sew, I had lots of fabric scraps and decided to make something up, to have fun with it and not just put something sexy on but to fully out try on a new persona, something I would never ever wear normally and to shock him.
I had a large thin cotton piece I had dyed with indigo shibori technique that looked a bit like tiger stripes, and I made it into a halter dress. I took another indigo piece I made and made a head-wrap turban. I put on striking make-up and perfume and jewelry. I was going for shock and awe effect and was having incredible fun doing it and thinking about how he would react to my surprise.
By the time I re-appeared, I was in such a state of excitement and fun, and he was thoroughly taken aback and enjoyed the drama and novelty of it. Completely unexpectedly, I ended up discovering a way to excite and express different sides of myself, surprise and delight him, and keep our intimate life creative and fun.
After those three events it all became clear to me. I went on to make other undergarments also, but I have the most fun with nighties.
Other Biographical Tales:
Most women in long-term relationships can attest to the ups, downs and sheer struggle of keeping intimacy alive in a fulfilling, exciting and inspiring way.
The same time that I discovered making nighties for myself, was also the time when I discovered loving as an art form, as a practice in relationship, not a by-product of it.
An eager student I dove deep into learning how to spark the sizzle in a long-term relationship, and I became an apprentice to the art of love. I am not interested in mediocre clothes nor am I interested in mediocre love. Perhaps it’s my latin blood, but I tend to enjoy things vividly, passionately, intensely.
The playful nature of dressing up and trying out different lingerie ideas became closely intertwined with my feminine journey.
Internal dialogues ensued, asking myself questions like
- What does it mean to be feminine?
- What is feminine power?
- What about masculinity attracts me?
- What creates that erotic charge between a man and a woman?
- What makes me feel beautiful and empowered and what disempowers me?
- What can I do to improve our intimacy?
- What role do I play in the dance of love?”
- If I am going to spend the next 50 years together, I damn well want to be happy, so what are the keys to a happy union?
My nighties, this site, this business is all a tribute to that,
to the feminine journey towards self-discovery, love and passionate union.
Part of that journey is about comfort, with ourselves, with our beloved, and with the objects and environment that contain us, like clothing. I had a devastating experience of comfort being pulled out from beneath me as a young child and came to understand how we can spend years limiting and cutting ourselves off from freedom of expression, from intimacy, and from our power when we lack the comfort in our bodies, in our clothes, in our environments and in our relationships.
The idea to make modest everyday nighties came directly through this craving for comfort. It came from the desire to send messages to him that tonight’s not the night without wearing stained, frayed and plain old ugly clothes. I wanted a comfortable natural garment that I still felt was elegant for myself, without feeling like a calling card for sex and not finding it anywhere (especially in natural fibers).
I have a strange quirky ‘talent’? Since I was a child you could lay out 10 different renditions of black velvet pants, 10 different diamond rings, 10 juicers, any spread of nearly identical objects, and without fail I always pick the one that is the most beautifully and quality made.
Last month I walked into a woman’s home for the first time, and there was one piece that stood out to me above everything else so I complimented her on it, and she said “You have good taste, that is a Tiffany lamp that I inherited.” This ‘talent’ is the reason why my garments are meticulous and have received a lot of praise from my mentors about the beauty, craftsmanship and quality. I always see and strive for the best.
I felt very insecure taking my first sewing class at age 31, but both my teachers and myself quickly realized the speed and depth at which I grasped the material. I was like a sponge, and like any toddler, I was very eager to ride my bike without training wheels. I dreamed of the day when my skills would reach the level of my ambition.
In freshman year of college I took an intensive drawing class that pushed me so hard I would cry, throw my board across the room, stay up 24 hours drawing nudes…the quintessential tortured artist. I wanted perfect execution of my vision so badly. But I was not the top student in my class. Not once. There was one girl who always performed better than me. Her technical skills surpassed mine, every single week throughout the entire year. And my teacher would give me the same feedback every week: “Very Ambitious”. My compositions were good, but my skills never achieved the level of my ambition.
So, when I took up sewing, pattern drafting, beading, embroidering, I took it up with a single goal in mind. My ambition hands down is Haute Couture (‘high sewing’). My dream and ambition was to meet my creative vision with the same level of skill and meticulousness that I admired. I felt scared and depressed that my youth had come and gone and I did not pursue my dreams, did not learn from the masters in Paris, that I was tied down to a place that boasted no particular fame and skill in textiles. The most I found locally in learning opportunity was how to felt your own scratchy wool vest and dye it brown with oak galls.
Far far from my vision.
I supplemented my local college classes with books and videos, and apprenticed with a local wedding gown alterationist who admired my hand-work skills. Eventually I had the good fortune to cross paths with a mentor who shares a passion and knowledge of couture sewing.
Just after meeting this woman, and at a heart-wrenching life junction, I decided I was ready to try my hand at making the most ambitious design in my sketchbook. If not now, when? I spent over a month trying out different construction methods, design ideas, etc. Two weeks alone were spent constructing and deconstructing the ‘ruffle’ in every possible way I could imagine a ruffle to be so that I could capture the exact styling of the ruffle I wanted on my piece.
I invented a new method to obtain the ‘perfect ruffle’ I was seeking without using plastic. I would not settle for mediocre. I would not accept another “ambitious” comment. I wanted it to be perfect, or nothing at all. I got to a stage where I realized that I needed someone else’s feedback and opinions. I had questions, technical ones about the best way to construct my vision.
I’ll never forget the day I brought my mannequin to meet the woman who would become my mentor. I did not show her a drawing, just my scrappy trial-and-error piece. I wasn’t trying to get her opinion on the full picture, just some pointed questions. But stepping back, it looked like I was a half-wit who could barely use a sewing machine. Because sewing takes so much time, I cut a lot of corners, used gawdy scrap fabrics, my seams were all over the place. I was just trying things out quickly like a three-dimensional charcoal sketch, not an oil painting.
The real vision was in my head and I could see it so clearly.
And I’ll always be grateful that she took me seriously. Though she had no clue what my skills were like nor my vision, she entertained me and gave genuine and valuable advice to my inquiries. She helped me reach my goal. That piece took 6 months. A single skirt. And I am so proud of that today. I receive a lot of compliments on my pieces, though I have only done a few, and I am excited to have my goals within reach, finally.
My visions are very textural and employ many mediums like painting, embroidery, lacework, ribbonwork, tatting, beadwork, etc, not to mention the original pattern development and fitting.
Each one of these techniques could be a lifetime career in itself to master them. I quickly realized that I cannot perfect every one of these trades in my lifetime, and I need to make some decisions about where to place my attentions.
Ultimately it is the design I want to convey, a story I want to tell, and I learn just what I need to know to get me by in the story, the vision I want to make. I am an expedient learner and train myself for each design in the techniques I need just for that piece.
Lace, for example, is very difficult to find in natural materials. The cotton options are clumsy, bulky and scarce. So, I learned enough tatting so that I could make lace buttonholes out of the finest cotton sewing thread, even organic cotton thread. Surely this is not the ideal method to learn an art, but it works for me and I enjoy it.
I do not want to be a seamstress sewing the same garment over and over again, some sweatshop in California. For this reason, all my pieces will be made as limited editions.
Above all, I love the handwork. Like a painter dipping his brush into his palette and pushing the paint at his discretion across the canvas, I feel a surge of joy and creative expression when I dip my needle into a pile of beads and pause for a moment to see just where they should land for the best composition of shape and color.
I love bringing a garment, a vision to life. I know enough rules to bend and break them, and what I don’t know I dive headfirst into learning and exploring. It is a blissful and deeply satisfying experience. After so much trial and error to arrive at the final piece, it seems a shame not to make more than one.
And at the same time, I don’t want to be imprisoned by that vision, like a rock star singing the same hit song on stages for 30 years. It grows old. I work more like a painter who finishes a piece, makes a few limited prints, and then on to the next vision.
Then there was one day that altered the course of my life. It was one of those pivotal moments when you look back and think ‘Everything would have been different, the people I met, the person I married, the values I hold, everything, if that one moment had been different.’
I was about 10 years old, in Manhattan celebrating my birthday with my aunt and uncle. I looked up to my uncle as an idol because he was living my dream. He was a fashion designer who manufactured and sold his goods across the country. Not only did he do what I wanted to do, he went from rags to millions doing it. So, I knew he would be a good person to share my dream with, someone who could understand…
I said to him one day, “Uncle Irv, I want to do fashion when I grow up”. He shocked me and rocked my world when he said, “Don’t do it”. He told me to pick another career, just not fashion. He told me it wasn’t a good business to be in. My child brain could not understand why, as a successful man of fashion, would he say this to me?
The deciding card was my trust in his advice, my belief that he must know what he is talking about. So, I set my heart’s compass to find what could be my passion if it wasn’t fashion.
Today, in retrospect, I understand where he was coming from, and the truth behind his words. His business after all was entangled with the NY mafia (That’s right, and I even dined in their ‘family’ restaurant on Coney Island, no joke). And, the fashion industry was as bad as Wall Street, thieves and cut-throats abound.
But I never found my place. I tried architecture, ceramics, painting, industrial design, jewelry making and interior design as alternatives and ended up swinging into textile design, basically getting as close as I could get to fashion without actually being in fashion. Until 20 years later I finally succumbed, and decided “To hell with that advice, this is what I want to do and hopefully it’s not too late.”
One day, I came across a book that tells the stories of the real hands and minds behind haute couture.
Though we are led to believe the exceptional talents of the runway lies in the minds of superstar individuals like Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel or Christian Dior, the truth is that most of those brands were built on the backs of creative geniuses and masters who still, to this day, don’t receive recognition. (In the film credits the names of drivers are credited but not the embroiderers, nor seamstresses, not the patternmakers, nor the feather workers).
This and similar books deeply impacted me.
These people are my true idols, these are the masters of the craft. And their stories break my heart, because they are going extinct. There is one such man, Bruno Legeron, who is the last independent silk flower maker in Paris from generations of flower makers, from times when there were streets lined with flower makers. He is the last one and he has no children to pass it on to.
I became so enamored with the dying art form that I started to learn it myself, and to apply my own inventions to make it natural and non-toxic. I don’t know what dyes he uses but the ones I use are brilliant plant-based dyes on non-violent silk. I use his old world techniques and pair it with my own, like using a laser machine instead of the costly and rare die cutters.
These skills and their knowledge is our inheritance and it is slipping through our fingers.
I happened to run into an old friend of mine who alters high-end wedding gowns and she saw the flowers I was making. Her face melted into a warm smile and she reminisced to me that she hasn’t seen flowers like these in a long, long time. She said a shop in San Francisco used to import them from France, but not anymore. She was thrilled to see these silk flowers again, realistic ones, not cheesy factory-made ones imported from China.