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Kali Arulpragasam is Super Fertile
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Kali Arulpragasam is Super Fertile
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Kali Arulpragasam is Super Fertile
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"I hope we find a way to resolve conflict, other than by destroying and ambushing lives, cultures, land and children."
Conversations
1 October 2009

Kali Arulpragasam is Super Fertile

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Ashish

Kate Bezar on Kali Arulpragasam

Now this is a girl who has been places and is ‘going places’ too. These days Kali Arulpragasam makes extraordinary collections of jewellery. They’re not everyone’s cuppa, but they’re not meant to be.

They’re meant to stimulate conversation and thought around issues Kali feels passionate about. Being passionate about issues runs in her blood. Born into a Tamil family in Sri Lanka, her father went into politics when she was very young. It sent them into hiding during the civil war and eventually they had to leave, ending up in the UK where they finally found some stability. They are probably the most well-known expat Tamils in the world (Kali’s younger sister Maya is a very successful hip hop artist known by the name M.I.A.) and often speak up about the conflict still destroying their homeland and against wars all over the world.

This story originally ran in issue #21 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

KATE BEZAR: What are you up to at the moment?

KALI ARULPRAGASAM: Things are pretty crazy. We’re doing a show at London Fashion Week in September and I’ve got so much to do. It’s my latest Super Fertile collection, The Real Super Stars, the inventors’ heads. I’d always wanted to do a collection about those scientists who make a huge contribution to our world and yet we hardly know who they are, their names or what they’ve done. I went to do research into who these people might be and there were just so many of them. I had to narrow it down to ten and then I had to find two-dimensional images of each of them to make three-dimensional wax sculptures of their heads from. That was a really difficult thing. I had the wax sculptures made in China and, as we were pulling in the photos, my sculptor in China was like, “Look you really need to get some good shots, especially a better one of John Shepherd-Barron the ATM inventor.” We were just using an image, the best we could find, which was the size of a pea you know, and yet he’s the guy who invented cash machines and the PIN.

Something that you’d pulled off Google Images?

Yeah, yeah. He’s still alive, but there wasn’t a decent photo of him anywhere so I ended up contacting a journalist who’d written about him somewhere. I explained what I was trying to do and then before I knew it I was speaking directly to John Shepherd-Barron and he was emailing me some head shots. It was crazy.

So who else did you do for the collection? Who were some of the other nine?

Steve Jobs – the personal computer, Tim Berners Lee – the Worldwide Web, Martin Cooper – the cellphone … There’s a new inventor called Dean Kamen who’s inventing fresh water filters and there’s Kumar Patel who invented laser machines for use in medicine – he teaches at UCLA. These are people who invented lots of the things we use every day of our lives. Eight out of ten are still alive …

And fundamentally changed our lives.

Like DNA finger-printing … Alec Jeffreys, he invented it in only 1984 and now we can’t imagine a world without it, everything is hooked up to customs and it’s all his fault [laughs]! He lives in Luton and is a cool dude, but no one knows what he did. Anyway it was a challenge. It is an important collection and as long as I’ve done it and it’s there filed away … When I went to India to work with my production team they totally understood it. It’s really interesting to talk about these inventors and people totally get it, I don’t have to preach on.

This story originally ran in issue #21 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #21 of Dumbo Feather

There are a lot of people out there who really don’t want to read about celebrities every day.

We have to demand information about the important things in the world.

You don’t have a lot of choice often.

You don’t. I took the time to really go and look for this information, but it was so difficult, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack sometimes. So that’s what I’d like to change a little bit.

You said that at the end of the day you’ve done it and it exists as a collection which can be filed away, but surely you want some of them to be worn and out there.

Oh yeah, they will be worn. I’m doing smaller pieces so that anyone can wear their favourite inventor; like just one head on a chain and I’m making rings so you can have a head on a ring. It’s really quite humorous but also it’s quite important. They are kind of like lucky charms, lucky, smart charms. I wear the long ropes of heads when I go out and it’s ironic because it’s the celebs and the musicians that want to wear them.

I’m like “Yeah see, I got you to wear my stuff, the Real Super Stars.” So you’re going to be seeing them in music videos which is kind of funny. It’s kind of like everyone has their own favourite piece in each collection. I also have to say that this collection was made in three countries using most of the inventors’ inventions at some point. Without their inventions – cell phones, seat belts, traffic lights, computers, the internet, ATMs – it would have been impossible.

Have you had any response from the inventors themselves? Do they know that their heads have been forever immortalised as pieces in your collection?

Yes, John Shepherd-Barron’s assistant asked for some pieces for his friends and family, which I will give. I love this man, he’s so humble and smart. When I was researching him there was an article that just gave a really good feeling about him. He doesn’t really realise how important his invention has become, or how he has touched every human being in this whole planet, because he has a really quiet life in Bath, outside London, feeding ducks in his pond. He only realised what he’d done when he travelled to China and saw a Chinese farmer riding a bicycle with a large straw hat past the rice fields who stopped at an ATM machine and took some cash out. When you meet people like this in your life, who you become friends with, and they know who you are, it’s very special. It’s a gift. I invited him to my launch at London Fashion Week and I’m hoping to visit him at some point. These people are all so fragile, so special, like a volcano of ideas ready to erupt anytime. You have to move towards them with caution.

Each of your collections has a strong message which underpins it. Is it hard to find that balance between making something that means something, and something that people will actually want to wear?

It’s not hard, but I think that’s because I’m a very visual person. My thoughts are in pictures and so turning them into three-dimensions is simple. I was in advertising so I kind of understand how to tackle these problems. I studied art and design for six years and then I worked in advertising for eight, and it’s all about making it pleasing to the eye. It’s really good to have learnt about budgets and to know what you’re trying to communicate and what’s the best way to do that. I don’t know … Recently I was invited to the Royal Academy of Arts (in London) to dine with the President and Council. It’s a dinner that happens once a year. A very special event.

That’s not where you studied was it?

No, I studied at (Central) Saint Martins. The Royal Academy of Arts is pretty … You don’t have to mention this, but I was one of the youngest artists among some of the great British scientists, politicians, artists, sculptors, architects … It was very humbling and being invited just showed me that there are people watching my work, not just in the fashion industry but also in the arts. From the design to the wearable thing, I just try to push it. It starts with the message, then I work out the design, form and how it should all work together to communicate the image. Often I know the final look of the lookbook, or how the end product is going to look on a person, even before I put pen to paper. I don’t know if other designers design like that …

So it’s not like you go, there’s a meaning I want to convey, and then spend weeks and weeks trying to figure out how best to do that?

No it’s immediate. I know exactly what I want to do. When I work in India, the labourers are very traditional and could carve a Ganesh blindfolded, but when I give them the head of an inventor, and say, “Can you do this?” they look at me as if to say, “Are you crazy?” Every time when I go there it’s a constant battle to keep an eye on everything because they’re always coming back to me saying, “Are you sure you want it this big, is the size right, do you think it will work?” You can have six or seven people working on each piece, at different stages, so you have to have the end image firmly there and not let go of it. I definitely work differently to other jewellery designers. They mostly find a stone or look at a piece of glass and go, “This would make a great ring” and then play around with it. With me it’s more like, this is the message and this is how I want to do it, and then I just keep at it until it comes together.

You lived in India when you were younger. Is that how you’ve got contacts there?

No, I actually lived in India when I was seven for just a year, but that was a long time ago and I was dying of typhoid. It all happened about three years ago when I came back to London … from New York and LA where I was working in advertising.

You were working in advertising there?

Yeah and I left it.

Why did you leave?

I wasn’t really fulfilled. I was quite ambitious and I climbed up the ladder quickly because I took so many risks.

While everyone else stayed in one job, I would jump from one to the other and built my portfolio that way. I quite quickly became Creative Director in New York for a well known company and at that point I couldn’t have had it any better than that. I was 27, but I kept thinking there was a ‘but’ there, you know. It was very glamorous and I’d be at parties and things, but at the end of the night I would be sitting in my flat making some sculpture thingy. I didn’t really know what was going on with me, I was like, “What’s taking over?” Then I got to a point where I decided to leave, quite suddenly. I left because there was just something else I needed to do. I can’t imagine going back there, to advertising, and being in that battle and also having to battle with myself. I mean it is a battle sometimes even now. My designs have always been ripped off and I meet people all the time who want to exploit something, but that is something that happens and will continue to happen. I’m learning to deal with it, but it happens to all the good creative people, I accept that.

‘The ultimate form of flattery.’

Yeah, but there are plenty of ideas left in me. My problems aren’t very different to those I used to have, but the rewards are so much higher. It’s weird, everything else in my personal life is a mess, but in this I’m completely ok. It’s all I know and I know how to make it work – everything else is a mess! [Laughs].

The rest will come right, you probably just need to give all your energy to Super Fertile at the moment.

Yes, it’s just that it’s such an isolated industry. I work by myself a lot of the time designing and then I’m in hotel rooms by myself. Sometimes the only people I’ll see in a day are drivers and the receptionist. You make friends with them and that’s great and then they’re like, “Why you don’t have a boyfriend?” Anyway, I’ll take your word for it.

At that time in New York, did you know what that ‘something else’ you wanted to do was or did you just know that there was something else?

I’d started making pieces of jewellery by then, but just out of paper and things like that. My friends would wear them and at one point I suddenly had MTV in my living room wanting to film them for a news flash, but that wasn’t why I decided to give it a go.

I did it because I got so much pleasure from making things that lasted, were three-dimensional, artistic, personal and a challenge.

Politics and art is kind of in my blood … When I went into advertising my dad asked me, “Why are you doing this?” I was like, “I’ll have the power to go into people’s living rooms and change their lives.” But, it doesn’t quite work like that and after eight years …

Why did you go back to London to do that?

I just had support here if anything went wrong and, because I’m a British citizen, I wanted to give something back to the community I guess. It’s also easy to work with Asia and Europe from here.

So your first Super Fertile collection was three years ago?

Yeah, 2007 was the beginning of it although I’d started doing stuff in New York and some collections before that. I came back here and I was doodling designs in sketchbooks and sitting in pubs, but I had no idea how I was going to make it work.

I haven’t really told anyone this, but then I found a little investor who gave me £1000 – just an average business guy who has no idea about fashion at all. I used that money and went to India alone looking for a production company in Delhi which was quite daunting. They say that if you’ve lived in New York you can do anything, but this was crazy. Luckily I had a car so I could always drive off if it was a dodgy warehouse or work shop, but that’s pretty much how I started. I made these endangered species rings (for the Endangered Species collection) and some ear cuffs (for the Rich Girl vs. Poor Girl collection) and brought them back after three weeks. One week later, one of the judges on X Factor wore one of my rings. I texted my investor and said, “Quick switch the TV onto Saturday Live” and there was my stag bouncing across the TV screen. He said he almost shit in his pants [laughs]. The thing is, I don’t think he or anyone thought it would go anywhere much. I think he thought, “This £1000 is all you’re getting because you’re just going to go and blow it on clothes or something.”

I bet he’s really enjoying being part of it.

For £1000 yeah. So that’s it, there are a lot of risks and there’s a lot of hard work. The next collection I’m going to do is very current. I’m working with stones this time so it’s going to be completely glamour, glamour. After the Real Super Stars, the inventors, I wanted to do something quite different working with new materials which is a challenge. It’s going to be another quite ironic collection about current affairs; the economy and the recession. It’s about the truth, a sentence like “There’s 5 million people without healthcare in America,” but glamourised with stones so it looks like it’s overflowing with diamonds and things. It’s about welfare, and the economy, and unemployment, and repossession of houses, and how the value of houses is lower than the actual mortgage is, and how much the war’s cost; all that stuff.

Would it be your most topical collection to date? Most of your other collections seem to have been about ongoing issues that are quite endemic; hunger, war, caste systems …

That’s right. Even the Tourism collection is always current because wars are always in the news, but I wanted to capture this particular moment before it goes. I wanted to capture how what started in Wall Street has ended up in the Main Street. So many people lost everything and governments are having to bail the people who caused it out … and it happened so quickly. I want to capture it, the cover-ups and everything else. It’s all about the dollars and the pounds and the euros I think, but the irony is that the collection’s actually going to be really affordable.

Brilliant. You said before that politics and art run in your blood, what did you mean by that?

Well my family is very opinionated and quite expressive … and we’re very brave. Even at Christmas dinner we’ll all have our opinions and be going at it. I don’t know why. On the artistic side, for me to work out how a necklace would fit or how it would fall on a body, it just comes to me. Things like that I can’t really explain. Even if someone wanted me to do a safe subject, I wouldn’t be able to help but make it a little bit you know, uneasy …

Like if someone asked you to design an engagement ring they might end up with a statement about blood diamonds on their finger?

Yeah, it would start a debate somewhere. I just can’t help it. I remember, as a kid … My dad was a mechanical engineer before he was into politics and when we lived in India and Sri Lanka he was making these machines out of wood. All he needed was a bunch of timber to cut and make this machine that, using animal-power like a donkey or a cow on the end of it, would go round and round. It would drill a hole in the ground to be a well to provide water for villages with no running water or electricity. I remember as a kid, sitting on this cow going round and round for weeks. My dad used to give us farming tractors and ploughs and machines, not Barbie Dolls, so we know how to fix stuff and make things work.

Practically-minded.

Yeah.

It’s a good thing to be very practical because then you can make your ideas and thoughts work.

He was an idealist as well. He was always going on about sustainable developments and being eco-friendly 20 years back, only now everyone else is talking about it.

How old where you when your dad got into politics?

Oh, about two or three years old, but he was a mechanical engineer as well and that’s the part that I remember the most at the start. I didn’t really see the political side so much …

Not from the back of the cow?

No. I remember when he went into politics we weren’t around that side of things.

And what was your mum like? Who was the woman who produced two such amazing daughters?

She’s a wonderful, brilliant woman with patience and creative talents. She was the person I picked up fashion from. She’s very adventurous – she likes to see new places, new things, and pushes herself. She’s a real fighter. She’s making up time for all the sacrifices she made for us. Now it’s holiday and treat time for mummy. She’s always been the one who’ll support you, stay behind you, always there to catch you when you fall. We are really close, so I actually travel with her to see the world, just the two of us. She accompanied me to India to work with production three years ago and the people in India still ask of her. Where ever I go, I get harassed about Mum. All the hip hop rappers in the US, she hangs with them, with directors, dancers, artists, sculptors, singers, jewellers, fashion designers … she hangs.

So why did you eventually leave Sri Lanka?

Because it was just too dangerous for us to be there. I find it really quite hilarious that even now, especially in the past couple of months when the Sri Lankan war’s been at its end, my family have still been pulled into it by the media and the politics. We are quite harmless.
Even now, how many years later? 20 … 25 years later they still take the time, in between dropping bombs, to have a little pull at us, especially my sister. We get it from both sides. I try and not talk about my sister or family in my interviews, but all we want is for the problems over there to be resolved in a peaceful manner. The country needs to be fair to all nationalities who live there so they can progress, develop and thrive together, but, there is still racism existing under the surface. So much suffering has made me uneasy. I don’t like wars. I feel for the children all over the world who are growing up surrounded by violence, and hatred, and uncertainty.

What was it like when you first arrived in the UK as children? Could you even speak English or did you really have to start from scratch?

Well, we did speak some English. We were A students in India and Sri Lanka. By the time I was ten, I’d lived in four different countries, so you can imagine the number of schools we’d been to. All the places we went, me and my sister were thrown in to these strange schools. We will be always the new kids. They called us “English English”. It was quite lonely, but we had each other and we made friends that we had to leave behind.

Our lives were pretty dispensable, but I used to hold my sister’s hand very tight in the playgrounds.

So coming to London, it was new, but we were used to that feeling, we just got on with it like little troopers. Me, my sister and brother were happy that we’d reached a stable base finally and had more friends. Even though they looked very different, the feeling was warm and we did embrace it. I remember feeling safe … I was afraid in Sri Lanka. I know how those kids in the camps are feeling and those children caught up in the firing. It’s the uncertainty, the fear that consumes you. You are also around everyone else’s fear; the relatives, the neighbours, they didn’t really want us there because they were all fearful for their own safety. The government was ruthless and you had no police system, even then. If something happened to you, who would you go and ask, or sue? For a ten-year old to be observing this stuff is too much. It’s just this weight on your shoulders wondering how the hell do we escape this situation. I was the eldest, so I remember the most. When I see images of Sri Lanka, the children are smiling at the camera in the war zone, it’s tough to watch. I know how frightened they are. I want to hold them tight and tell them it’s all going to be okay; “You will be okay! It is possible!” No one told me that. I wish I’d had that reassurance. I had been born into hell. And I was just a kid. I thought, is this it, is this life? It took a while to come out of my shell. Till the age of ten I was really silent, but in the UK I started to speak and now you can hear me from a mile. I trusted my teachers here and their genuine assistance and encouragement to rise above.

I hope we find a way to resolve conflict, other than by destroying and ambushing lives, cultures, land and children.

Why we can’t go back to the old Indian method of playing chess to win ownership of land and power? The maharajahs of different states in India used to have chess matches. They would sit and play chess against each other and their army – not armed – would stand behind them. The winner wins what ever they were playing for. Wouldn’t that be good? I worry about the mental health of those children. After a war of ten years, you have to put up hospitals, psychiatric units on every corner like McDonalds in those affected countries. The damage is massive. It will last a lifetime. Yet countries are still buying nuclear weapons for billions and billions. For us, I think the starting from scratch part was learning to trust people for the first time in the UK and being free in our thinking and speaking. The academic side was already quite advanced but slightly disrupted by war, by politics. We stayed in school, chose our fields and excelled by completing our studies at Central Saint Martins. The rest is what you see now.

Where did the name of your brand, Super Fertile, come from, it’s great. I assumed it had something to do with that sense of flourishing when finally being given the opportunity.

You like it? Sometimes I’m uneasy when I have to say it at the bank or something. Not everyone understands it you know and sometimes you haven’t got five minutes to explain.

Do they think you’re an IVF clinic or something?

Yes, so I say, “I’m a jewellery designer.” It’s meant to reflect ideas and concepts that grow against the odds. It’s life isn’t it? To me it’s really fascinating how from a tiny seed comes a big tree that produces fruit, flowers and more seeds. How does that work? That is pure design. That is what I’m striving for, even a little bit of that.

Do you have a vision for where you want to be in five or ten years time?

Yes, but it changes. I’m quite happy to just carry on and have a few shops, a little empire going, and continue to do the work that I do. I say to people, if something happened to me tomorrow, I’d be happy to go, having done something, having done this, which I’ve enjoyed doing.

It does sound like it’s all come relatively easily for you.

You know what, it has. I was talking to a friend recently and saying that when it’s something that you’re supposed to do and it’s your journey, the path you are supposed to take, the doors quite easily open. In advertising I did go against the grain and I used to think that was how it was, but it doesn’t need to be that difficult. Now I can see the difference between when it’s something you’re supposed to do and it’s something that you love … When you make moves like a chess player and you get to the next level effortlessly then that’s what I think you’re supposed to do.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Ashish

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