MAKERS: Alexandra Senes of KILOMETRE
This week I'm introducing MAKERS. I'll be documenting makers and designers who work in the alternative realms of fashion; people working with traditional craftsmanship, natural dyers, specialist textile production. I'll give insight into their lifestyles, reasons and challenges of starting their brands and building businesses that challenge the traditional status quo.
The first in the series is KILOMETRE. Founded by the nomadic Alexandra Senes, it's a brand built around storytelling and discovery. Senes was born in Africa and about grew up in New York, and has spent her life as a journalist “peeking into every corner of the world.” She has been writing for major magazines and newspapers for the past 20 years, with stints as an editor at Jalouse and Harper's Bazaar. When she's not on her scooter in Paris she's found travelling the globe, her unpretentious attitude allowing her to travel to some offbeat and fantastic places.
Her new venture Kilometre sees her embroidering the cultural capitals of tomorrow on antique linen shirts. As a traveller myself with a penchant for vintage, I was immediately drawn to the concept and couldn’t wait to find out the story of Alexandra, the birth of Kilometre, her reasons for focusing on craftsmanship and of course, her travel destinations.
She reminds me of an astronaut of the street. An endless fascination for everything has her riffing about a club she went to the previous week in Athens, entitled Salon Bricolage and multiple times during our conversation she pauses over words she finds inspiring, crafting entire worlds from her imagination which seems to be fuelled by endless amounts of energy that let her bounce and whirl from place to idea to execution.
The start of Kilometre feels like it could have happened no other way. She found a linen shirt at the flea market; the type she always wears, she says. It's useful, and can take her from day to night, from the market to a party. It's the perfect shirt; a strong material, it can be washed. It's heavy and it wrinkles and you can wear it in between all the seasons; she even sleeps with it, that's how much she loves this shirt and how easy it is to live in. The flea market seller told her she had many of these shirts; her husband had sourced them for the film Gladiator. How many, Alexandra had asked, to which the seller had told her she had 400. Alexandra had told her “I'll take them.”
Alexandra, now the owner of 400 shirts she didn’t know what to do with, examined them. 300 were perfect; the remaining were discolored and threadbare (another word Alexandra loves). This concept of imperfection that marred the shirts became central to the story of Kilometre; with the idea that experience can't be replicated must be lived directly. She travelled to Mexico to embroider the first shirts. They showcase streets, place names, special places in certain areas, places that are the 'next' authentic place, a secret place with its own peculiar energy and authenticity. Places off the beaten path and secret nooks and crannies of cities.
It’s the antithesis to today's day and age of mass production. Working with traditional crafts seems obscure; with little funding for it, it's painstakingly slow and the process difficult, it’s completely backwards to how the world is run. It's also intensely beautiful, a meditative process that is completely irreplaceable by machines and that showcases cultural value and heritage.
I prompt Senes on her connection to craftsmanship and she tells me of a trip 5 years ago in Pakistan. She visited a famous fashion designer who showed her a very expensive embroidered shawl. As he took her through the handwork, she realized it was essentially a cartography of the country, fragments of their heritage which were fast disappearing with the death of the craft. She realized that this was similar to buying a painting; a true heritage piece.
“One thing we must never ever quit is the artisans. Even though it is the hardest thing, it is also the most inspiring.”
The death of an artisan can mean the extinction of complete aspects of cultural heritage. In many ways, working with traditional crafts is protecting these skills from the danger of extinction. Senes mentions Chanel, who 20 years ago started a group called Paraffection. Directly translated to with affection, the scheme sees the brand give financial investment to small, specialists firms. Seeing that handwork firms were dying they realized the need to support these independent ateliers. Efforts like this that realize the importance of traditional crafts for a culture, as well as the continued development of craft, an act of extreme importance today in a world that is becoming more and more homogenized.
With that, I break into asking her for some travel experiences; and I’m lucky enough to have her write me an article on her trip to Pakistan, found below.
WHAT IS THE RICHEST TRAVEL EXPERIENCE YOU’VE HAD?
AS: I went to do an article on an art dealer in Pakistan, which in itself was a surprise to me. I ended up interviewing 19 different people there for the Liberacion, a daily newspaper in Paris; everyone from the art dealer, to a footballer, to someone in the sari business. One of these people took me to the place where ships come to die; as a blonde I was not supposed to go there.
After having crossed the Indus river, cradle of 5,000 years of civilization, I found myself in a stifling mugginess, 40km west of Karachi, witnessing the execution of the world's most powerful ships.
Along the Persian Gulf, Gaddani, a fisherman's village on the Sea of Oman, has become one of the world's largest naval demolition sites.
Dying ships lay on the dunes, reminiscent of a Close Encounters of the Third Kind episode. Huge ships, as high a cathedrals and as long as the Eiffel Tower is high, seem fallen from the sky and into the middle of the desert. The sight of the beach itself explains everything. Having sailed the world's oceans, these gigantic ships, on their last legs (so to speak), are hurtled at full speed a few kilometers from the coast, so that they can wash up on the shore at high tide, as far away as possible.
We are in the province of Baluchistan, ruled by the tribal government of Quetta, near the Afghan border…
The “traditional” banditry that rages throughout Baluchistan is a real danger to visitors. My photographer friend Benjamin Loyseau and I were taken to this closed-to-tourists area by the owner of a Karachi radio station, armed with his Kalashnikov rifle. I have fallen in love with these men who, night and day and in the stifling heat, take shifts docking the monumental wrecks, and cutting them up under the blazing light of their blowtorches. From bow to stern, huge chunks of hulls and tanks are methodically cut up into vertical slices a few meters long. They are then tossed off in a deafening racket, before being winched to the top of the beach where they can be cut up more finely.
Thousands of tons of scrap metal are thus piled up in a universe whose pace is set by the comings and goings of the trucks that carry the steel up to Karachi, where it is sold immediately…
300 hundred men are needed to dismember a 200-meter, 40,000-ton supertanker—in only 45 days.
One of these supertankers, purchased for 5 million dollars, will earn a Pakistani businessman more than twice that sum, while his unseen workers will earn on average 1 to 4 euros per day, risking their often short lives on the work site.
WHAT IS YOUR NEXT TRIP?
AS: Hobart, Tasmania. There’s a museum of national art there; MONA. It was started by a guy called David Walsh, a very rich and eccentric Autistic guy who earned a lot of money through a casino. He loves love, death, shit; a true eccentric. This is a destination and a voyage and a journey; I embroidered the shirt to provoke the destination and see the mise-en-scene.
ONE DAY IN PARIS? WHERE TO GO?
I’m going to give you two!
One is very classic; I forced myself to find something in Paris; it’s the at one foot of the Eiffel Tower; it’s the avenue of Pierre Loti.
The other one is not so good for tourists; it’s a cemetery for dogs! An anthropologist told me about it and I went; my sister and I had a picnic on the tomb and were kicked out. Each tomb costs 40,000 euros; there are famous dogs buried there. It’s a cemetery between two suburbs under a bridge. It’s a very strange area and seems like something out of a spy book.