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Kaleidoscope Kollective: a small business run by 5 badass Latnix women

May. 30, 2017
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Nestled into the main drag of the Echo Park portion of Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, is a small storefront with a hand-drawn chalk sign reading “Shop Small!” It marks the entrance to Kaleidoscope Kollective, a small business started by five Latinx women who were merely acquaintances before deciding to go into business together. These five women had the shared goal of exemplifying traditional Latinx culture through art, cooperating with one another and learning to build a business around their passion. That being said, the Echo Park storefront is so much more than retail space; it is a creative building space where women and the community can promote cultural understanding.   

Prior to joining forces to launch the storefront, all five of the collaborators behind Kaleidoscope Kollective had their own brands. They were acquainted through trade shows and festivals, but eventually the women decided to come together to start their own business. The storefront just celebrated its first anniversary in April of this year. “We all have different strengths. I think it’s all very empowering for ourselves individually and as a collective,” says collective member Virginia Ayala. “We focused just on having a good space. We tried to not only have a space for women, but we have that energy that attracts other women. We reflect that female energy.” 

For proud Latinx women, revitalizing traditional forms of self-expression and adapting a passion project into a profitable venture can be difficult, but Kaleidoscope Kollective demonstrates that it is absolutely possible through unity, mutual respect and shared responsibility. Across the board, the wage gap between men and women is all too apparent. It’s estimated that Latinx women earn 43 cents to every white man’s dollar in California. Going into business is a risk, but the women of Kaleidoscope Kollective have weighed that risk very carefully--and so far, a year into running Kaleidoscope Kollective, it appears to have paid off. With a dedicated storefront at their disposal, the artisans of Kaleidoscope Kollective have felt liberated to fully dedicate themselves to the kind of craftsmanship that matters to them: the production of consumable artworks that draw heavily from their heritage.

Virginia’s brand is called De La Luna Designs, which translates to “of the moon”; their branding is displayed next to the register. De La Luna incorporates a pop-art aesthetic and imagery of influential POC into Virginia’s textile designs. She adorns vintage jackets, purses, mugs, wallets and everything else you can imagine with whatever she finds visually stimulating: the visages of Selena and Prince; calaveras (traditional Mexican skulls); even a variety of animals surrounded by vibrant patterns, florals and loud fabrics. The clothing items and bags she decorates are recycled and repurposed. By layering the different textiles and images, she is imbuing her wares with what she calls “the art of storytelling.” For Virginia, the creation of her art is very personal and meditative. “I don’t think when I make stuff,” she says: “I feel and combine fabrics to tell a story.” 

Her fellow Kollective member Maribel Rebelez has been sewing and creating since the age of five. On a table in the center of the shop floor is the display for her brand, Patchouli Nomad. Her collection of work features traditional African fabrics that have been repurposed into children’s clothes and multi-racial cloth dolls. All of her work is limited edition and one-of-a-kind, just like the children for whom the outfits and dolls were intended. Representation in art is important, especially in art intended for children, because it is essential to strengthening a child’s sense of identity. In that sense, Maribel’s art--which is meant to empower and uplift children of all backgrounds--is both beautiful and functional.

There are two artists who make jewelry in the collective, although their styles are vastly different. Resident metalsmith Michelle Smith Meza’s brand is called Sunqui Misti. Michelle works with materials like copper, silver and brass to make her pieces, which she sometimes adorns with stones or crystals. Sunqu Misti means “Misti heart” in Quechua, the language spoken by the indigenous people of Peru: the El Misti volcano is located in Arequipa, Peru, which is where Michelle was born. Her father also worked with metal, and growing up in his shop inspired her to craft jewelry from the same medium for which he was known.

Karla Lopez’s jewelry, meanwhile, is radically different from the work Michelle does under Sunqu Misti. Under the label Karlita Designs, Karla mainly crafts jewelry using crystals and stones. Crystals are thought to hold great power, and Karlita Designs aims to adorn and empower women with the positive energy of the crystals--each piece is almost like a good luck charm or guardian of sorts that you can carry with you wherever you go. Karla notes that men and women across cultures have always had an attraction to stones and the powers they hold: “Jewelry is transformative.” Through her craft, she encourages people to dress and feel like the king or queen that they are. 

Adriana Rivera’s section is arguably the most brightly colored display in the store, which is quite the accomplishment considering the nature of the space. Her brand is called My Style Wagon, and she has curated an enviable collection of “upcycled” vintage clothes with a very unique commonality: handmade Mexican textiles have been incorporated into all her articles of clothing. My Style Wagon is the result of Adriana’s partnership with a mother-daughter artisan duo who create unique textiles and clothing items. Of course, there’s a catch: she can only communicate with them through the family’s 5-year-old son, as he is the only member of their family who can speak both Spanish and the indigenous language of the area. Even this aspect of the process speaks to the passion underpinning Adriana’s craft: a drive to combine the old with the new in the service of her wearable art. 

It’s no mystery that women in business encounter unique struggles which their male counterparts typically don’t have to face--but, according to Michelle, the real difference lies less in the exaggerated specter of overt misogyny than it does in practical considerations. “I don’t think we are in a male-dominated world because we are a boutique,” she says when asked about the struggle to command respect as a woman in business. On the contrary, most of the challenges faced by the women of Kaleidoscope Kollective are amplified versions of the struggles that all women experience in everyday life: “As a woman, the only difficulty I can think of is having that fear of spacing and being alone in the store at different times.”

By way of example, Michelle tells a story about an unwanted visitor who entered the store one evening asking for a lighter. When she said she didn’t have one and directed him to one of the many liquor stores up and down Sunset Boulevard, he became aggressive towards her. She repeatedly asked him to leave, even using her body as a shield between him and her shop entrance. “He had this look on his face like he just wanted to beat the shit out of me! He started to threaten me like, ‘why do you gotta be such a bitch?’ and started to push his bike towards me.” It was only after she yelled for help--and a neighboring male shopkeeper shooed the man away--that the situation abated. “I walked back into the store and I was shaking,” she recalls.

Michelle isn’t the only member of the Kollective to experience something like this. The Kollective’s Sunset Boulevard location is home to some very strange and aggressive characters, so perhaps this is somewhat to be expected. “At different times, a few of us have had incidents,” says Michelle. “It makes me angry because I don’t like that feeling of being threatened and feeling like the weaker sex. It isn’t fair us to be threatened just because we are women.” In response to past incidents, the Kollective members have had to adopt a mentality of self-preservation in their business practices: “We have pepper spray and this loud alarm, and we started closing at 7:00pm instead of 8:00pm while it’s still light out. Guys don’t have to worry about that. We have to trust our instincts. I guess it’s not just business, that’s just in real life. I look over my shoulder and I try to walk around and be aware of my surroundings, but I think that’s just part of being a woman.” 

But these concerns seem to register as minor annoyances when contrasted with the many ways their endeavor has already paid off. For them, the space is so much more than a storefront: the brick-and-mortar has given them the means to foster a real, physical sense of creative community. “The space is a community space, not just a retail space. We are really grateful that this space has been able to grow into the dream that all of us had at one time; to own a store is kind of a fantasy. By coming together as five, it’s made it possible. It’s nice to share that with other people too.”

That said, their decision to join forces was more than just a fun means of community-building--it was the key to making the storefront happen. “Coming together as a collective was essentially what made this all come together,” says Michelle. “It brought all our individual dreams into fruition because this would not have been possible on our own. We are able to distribute the weight of the responsibilities. I couldn’t possibly been able to afford the rent on my own and to be able to share that is a gift. The financial responsibilities and the business responsibilities.”

And their teamwork has allowed their shared business to flourish: “There’s four other people who have my back and can catch where they might be mistakes or room for improvement. Things I hadn’t considered or thought about, the other women might.” For Latinx women, In a society where women’s art and work are constantly devalued (and the efforts of Latinx women even more so), the Kollective shows that cooperation and a shared vision can be a practical foundation for anyone looking to build a business--or an artistic community.