Linda Prager, owner of Kioti, an upscale women's clothing and accessories store in Sanbusco Center, apologizes if she has to end our interview early. "I have a new puppy, a German Shepherd. This is our third shepherd, and we can tell he will be the last puppy," she says.
Our interview starts out chatting amiably about dogs, children and the joys of small business ownership. Prager and her husband David Muller started the business that would eventually become Kioti in Michigan in 1984. Fueled by a passion for the folk art and antiques of Indonesia, as well as a desire for travel and the hunt for unique, handcrafted items, the couple brought their finds back to the United States. "One of the shippers asked us to give clothing a try, since that business was growing in Indonesia. The antique and folk art side was drying up about the same time, too. So we did."
Though Prager and her husband have no formal training or background in the textiles that now make up their business (she's an English major and David's a landscape architect), they both have cultivated an eye for design and fabrics. That makes sense when you consider that they've traveled to the South Asian nation every six months for thirty years.
Part of their passion comes from the people with whom they've developed long-term relationships. They've watched one young woman they work with create an entire clothing collection now available at Kioti. The 29-year old Chinese-Indonesian named Ming Ming, has grown into a premier fashion designer destined for success.
"We've known her since she was 10. She's just fabulous. She's in Los Angeles now at fashion school," says Prager, more than a hint of pride in her voice. "We're the only shop to sell her work in the United States, but perhaps that'll change after her studies! Her mother ran the shop when I first met her. I was just walking down the street and went into her store."
Prager and Muller came to Santa Fe in 1999, thinking they'd retire. That was too sedate, and just a few months later, they opened Kioti in 2000.The next year they adopted a baby from China. The experience of adopting their little girl, now seven, exposed them to that part of the world, and they expanded their sights for quality, sophisticated textiles and clothing designs to the craftsmanship of Thailand and China.
Everything that Kioti sells has two things in common. The jackets, skirts, blouses and dresses are all one of a kind, and all have an elegant, Asian feel. "We just don't do this kind of textile in the U.S. or Europe. A lot of what we carry is batik. It's all hand done. Even the silk screens are different there. Much of our fabric is hand woven, has embroidery and a lot of handwork," continues Prager.
Though Kioti may sound expensive, the price point Prager shoots for is surprisingly affordable, especially for Santa Fe. Kioti's unique, handmade clothing averages $65 to $70 per piece.
Prager also finds people who love working in her shop-people who share her enthusiasm for unique textiles and enjoy sharing it with customers. "I don't want unhappy people in the store, whether those are employees or customers, so we're not just about the bottom line. We won't try to sell someone something unless it looks great on them."
Part of what fascinates Prager about Indonesia, and more specifically the island of Bali, where she sources most of her items, is the sense of art that is imbued in everything the Indonesians do or make. "All the details of their lives-even the spinning wheel is carved-is a beautiful work of art in itself," she says. "The textiles they wear. Don't get me wrong, the people are poor. But in everything they do there is an artistic sense. We've found tools with carved handles that were beautiful, gourds with horses and riders painted on them that look like they could be from Greece. These extremely utilitarian objects have an artistic element."
Indonesia, a diverse country made up of 14,000 islands, is a conglomeration of ethnic groups and tribes. Many of the islands were isolated from each other for many years. Even today, Prager says, it's often not easy for tourists or business people to travel between islands and Indonesians don't travel much to other islands themselves.
Because of this isolation, many islands developed unique ways and styles of creating their textiles. Batik, the process of producing designs on fabric using wax and dye baths, has perhaps reached its artistic height in Indonesia, though other cultures, including the Egyptians and certain Peruvian tribes, also use it.
Prager's other primary designer is an American who has lived on Bali since the 1980s. Lynn Ingle, originally from Louisiana, has degrees in textile design from U.S. schools, but set up shop in Asia. She's been creating collections for a few American shops for over 20 years. Ingle does her own batik designs and fabrics that are incredibly complicated. "Her work is fabulous. I can't believe that someone can do what she does with fabric," says Prager.
Prager calls Kioti's wares wearable art, and often gets compliments from customers that the store is like a refreshing, colorful and artistic oasis in a desert of bland, cookie-cutter garments. Kioti's customer isn't someone who needs a business suit for her job, rather someone who appreciates fabric and textiles. Perhaps she can wear the designs at work, depending on the career. Most definitely she wears them to dinner, the opera, or just hanging out with friends.
Kioti also carries designs that Prager dreams up herself. She finds the fabrics on her trips-silks from Thailand, Indonesian cottons and batiks, brocades from China-and has a specific shop in Bali create whatever she wants.
"It's fun, the choosing of the fabric, the hunting of the material," she laughs. "That's what got David and me into the antique business in the first place, and we've just continued into textiles and clothing."
Though the majority of the merchandise at Kioti, including sterling silver jewelry and purses, comes from Asia, Prager does carry an American-made line of cotton and linen casual wear and sweaters from Willow. She also sources from Guatemala, and from vendors who bring her tribal beads for the necklaces she makes herself. Even these accessories and clothing are more sophisticated and upscale than what one might think of as hand-woven and handmade from abroad.
"We have some Hmong jackets put together for us from tribal clothing in Thailand. But we try to make it so that someone says it looks Asian, but doesn't look like folk-wear. It's definitely upscale."
With two grown children, two grandchildren and another on the way, Prager relishes the time she gets to spend with family. Her older daughter has developed a love for travel-spending time on her own in Nepal-because of the trips that she took with her parents when she was a girl.
Zoe, Prager's younger daughter, will keep Prager going abroad for a while, too. "We can't retire because of our little girl, so we'll have the shop as long as can. We're connected to Indonesia and know lots of people there, and have been part of their lives for a long time. But we don't see ourselves living there, because of our family in the United States. We can't imagine being that far away from our grandkids. But we've still got lots of wonderful places to explore. We're definite Asiaphiles, especially with our daughter."
Like Ming Ming, who saw her mother's interaction with Prager and became a designer herself, Zoe thinks she might like to be a clothing designer when she grows up. "She's certainly seeing a good example of hard working people," Prager says. "And one thing that's so wonderful about her being a Chinese girl and visiting Asia, she's the majority there, where her parents are the minority."
Kioti is located in the Sanbusco Market Center at 500 Montezuma in Santa Fe. The store hours are 10 a.m to 5 p.m. 505.984.9836.