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Andrea Aranow: A New Wrinkle in The World's Fabric
February 2, 2012  | 

Cotton may be the fabric of our lives, but textiles are the seams of our culture. An integral part of a nation’s traditions and history, textiles are comparable with language and cuisine. In today’s modern society, the current textile styles and designs available on the runway or on the rack are undoubtedly derived from those of another era or culture. "Everything comes from somewhere," says Andrea Aranow. "It’s just given a modern interpretation." As the Margaret Mead of textiles, she should know. Ms. Aranow has spent her entire career as a textile dealer and collector, but the scope of her passion would suggest she is so much more. She is a historian, a visionary, an eccentric, a true intellectual, a traveler and a student of the world. Some might say Ms. Aranow has an interesting career – and that is true. But it may be more accurate to say she has an interesting life.

Ms. Aranow defines her textile pursuits as art, but more importantly, her focus is the cultural, ceremonial and celebratory significance of textiles. From mantas in Peru, to kimonos in Japan, to the sartorial efforts on the streets of New York City, Ms. Aranow’s definition of fabric and textiles is less abstract and more practical – in an anthropological way.

Like so many girls of the boomer generation, Ms. Aranow received her early fabric education from her mother during childhood in Western Massachusetts. In a time of Rockwellian innocence, on Saturday nights, mother and daughter would search for conversational prints at Woolworths followed by hours spent cutting and sewing at the dining room table. Always fascinated by dress making and creating, for her first grade school project, Ms. Aranow wrote a short, illustrated book titled, How to Make a Cotton Dress. The seven page book was a step-by-step instructional from growing and picking the cotton – all the way to the final product.

"A lot of things I learned growing up, I’m still using," she says. As artistic as her childhood pursuits may have been, Ms. Aranow says it was all very practical. "I didn’t know any artists. I didn’t think I was going to be an artist. It wasn’t a conceptual thing. It was hands on," she recalls.

Soon after graduating from Brown University in 1967, she was drawn toward New York City. As sewing machines began to consume her life and apartment, she rented an empty storefront in the East Village at 333 East 9th Street, just around the corner from what used to be the Fillmore East. The space was intended to function as a workspace only, until a few handmade pieces hanging in the window drew attention and subsequently, customers.

Officially opening in 1968, Dakota Transit became the place to find outrageous, custom suede, leather and snakeskin pieces. Neighborhood buzz led to publicity from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and then the limousines began to appear. Enter Jimi Hendrix.

"The first few times he came in, he didn’t speak to me directly," she says of Hendrix’s shy demeanor. "He would say something to the girl that was with him and she would tell me." Hendrix commissioned a snakeskin suit with flared, bell-bottom pants and a vest. Ms. Aranow has a photograph of Hendrix’s girlfriend modeling the suit. "The first $100 bill came from Jimi Hendrix. I had never handled something like that before. Certainly not." At this time, her celebrity clients also included Miles Davis, who would remain her good friend.

Dakota Transit happened entirely by accident and Ms. Aranow is adamant that she wasn’t as bold or as confident as her choices and business endeavor may have allowed people to believe. She says she was very naïve, but the success of her business was based on the premise that if you put something original out there, people will notice. "It was a creative time. A youth time; an anything goes time," she remembers the years surrounding the Vietnam War. "I was still working off the oppression of having grown up in Western Massachusetts. I was a free spirit."

However, as the years passed, Ms. Aranow recalls the social mood changed as the nation transitioned into the 1970s. "It was a burnout time, a little excessive." She recalls feeling terribly shaken by the death of Hendrix and many others in her circle. It all became too much to handle, especially as a new mother - a change of scene was necessary. A vacation to the mountains of Peru changed her perspective; she returned to New York, closed her five-year business and relocated to Peru with her young son in 1974. "I wanted us to learn together," she says of the family move to South America.

Settling in Huancavelica, the capital of the autonomous state, 3680 meters above sea level, Ms. Aranow says in retrospect, "it was meant to be." Despite some difficulties and limited transportation in the relatively poor mining area, Ms. Aranow recalls the time as beneficial for her son and for her own exploration. "I found life outdoors, at a comfortable and healthy pace for both myself and my toddler son to be very convivial."

Always exploring and connecting with local craftspeople, it was during this time that a happenstance meeting at a fiesta, a networking relationship, translated into a job with the Instituto Nacional de Cultura of Peru. The textile adjunct position required Ms. Aranow to spend alternating months researching in Lima and in the muddy, rural villages. "I observed the incredible artistry of men twining the patterned slingshots (huaracas) in Huancavelica," she says. "I admired the latest knit projects of the women in the countryside as they sent their men out in new patterned socks and sleeves (maquitos)."

During an extended visit to New York in 1977, Ms. Aranow’s second son was born. In addition, she sold a small collection of 20 handmade clothing pieces to Bendels before returning to Peru in 1979. The family’s second residence in Peru offered a more pleasant lifestyle than the first. The city of Jauja, in the Junin region, boasted economic and agricultural prosperity as well as access to transportation.

Fascinated by the use of textiles in the culture, Ms. Aranow began documenting mantas and the embroidery techniques used to design the ceremonial pieces. She would interact with the artesanos, asking questions and observing their traditional techniques and designs. "From Jauja I visited people who worked as professional craftsmen. Men who wove the square striped carrying cloths (llicllas) on back strap looms…others who embroidered the gorgeous dance costumes, which they rented out as the different villages approached their special days of celebration," she recalls. "My idea of studying textiles has a lot to do with the progression of sequence. It’s kind of a social approach to it. I’m also interested in the people who are making and wearing them. It’s not just the abstract."

Unfortunately, several home robberies and the rise of Shining Path (the guerilla Communist organization in Peru), left Ms. Aranow’s nerves frayed. The family moved to London in 1981, a place that "seemed safe and boring," she laughs.

Having been to London before, Ms. Aranow appreciated the educational inclusivity the city provided and knew it would be the appropriate location to continue researching and collecting textiles. "I’m very attracted to the openness of museums and libraries in London. It’s so easy there to ask questions. You don’t need to make appointments long in advance. They see themselves as being there to serve the people. What a revolutionary idea," she chuckles.

The Museum of Mankind, a separate ethnographic wing of The British Museum, immediately responded to the 400-piece collection Ms. Aranow had acquired during her travels in South America. She spent six months working with the museum documenting the large collection before they bought it in its entirety.

In 1983, when China opened for independent travel, Ms. Aranow says, "I had to go!" She was irreversibly attracted to the territory that had been closed for so long, "and then seduced by the vigors of the extant cultural manifestations and the warmth with which we were received." If she were going to collect and document, as she wanted to, she would have to live there, with her sons in tow. "They [the Chinese people] loved the fact that I trusted them enough to bring my little kids to visit and we could easily- if wordlessly- enjoy scrutinizing the trousseau embroideries they proudly displayed."

She considered applying for a research visa but was advised against it by many in the academic circles to avoid the beauracracy. "When I first went there," she recalls, "there were only 12 cities in China that were allowable for foreign independent travel. I never wanted to be in those cities. I wanted to be in the villages with the minority people who were practicing traditional things." Without the proper visa, Ms. Aranow often traveled on foot. Offered transportation by Government officials, she declined, knowing that minority people would be less likely to reveal their crafts. Several European museums and the Met’s Costume Collection in New York purchased Ms. Aranow’s treasury of ethnic tribal costume collections from the south, southwest and northwest of China, which included some carpets, felt and hats.

"I have always been very lucky," she says of her transition from China to Japan in 1984. Her three years in Japan during the mid-1980s were spent studying and collecting modern, urban kimono textiles for the British Museum. "This is when I started collecting swatches," she says. "I didn’t need that many garments – what I needed was the textiles. The garment shapes didn’t changed in 100 years, but the fabrics did." Also, unlike some of the other cultures Ms. Aranow had studied, traditional dress in Japan was not region specific; kimonos were traded all across the country.

Denied a research visa, Ms. Aranow couldn’t study academically. Instead, she researched by buying garments and swatches, speaking to people who sold kimonos, "or anyone who would talk to me," she says. "Where is this from? What is it used for? What are the fibers?" she would ask locals.

With another stroke of luck, Ms. Aranow found herself in the position to purchase approximately 1000 original kimono textile design paintings. She learned just a few years ago that this development was quite extraordinary, as their manufacturers often keep them secret, preferring to destroy them rather than allowing a competitor to have them.

Returning to New York in 1987, Ms. Aranow would discover that many of her friends in the fashion industry were very interested in her Japanese collection – not necessarily for the kimonos but rather for the textiles. In a small studio at 41 Union Square, Ms. Aranow began her swatch business, Andrea Aranow Textile Documents. "My only business. My real business," as she refers to it. Offering swatches for design inspiration, elite members of the fashion industry including Ralph Lauren, The Gap, Louis Vuitton, Marni and various haute couture labels would purchase swatches or original textile artwork, deriving design inspiration from the color, texture and pattern of the fabric pieces.

Beginning with only the Japanese collection of swatches, Ms. Aranow would extend her archive over the years to include swatches from around the world. "It was a big part of my life for 22 years," she says. "Typically I was working Monday through Friday and then foraging on Saturday and Sunday. I would go to antique shows across the country, flea markets in Ohio, Los Angeles, Paris, the North of England, Belgium, etc." By the time she closed the business in 2009, Ms. Aranow had over 40,000 items in her collection.

Ms. Aranow admits she is addicted – not only to collecting, but also to continuing to learn about people and other cultures through textiles. Driven by passion, always excited to find something new and interesting. "It’s finding the stuff, coming across it and negotiating so it becomes yours -that’s the exciting part. You come home and spread it out on the floor," she laughs, "keeping things for a while to absorb it, but then happy to let them go if you liked it as much as I did."

Currently, Ms. Aranow is a freelance consultant and is seeking a permanent home for the large archive of original Japanese textile design paintings. In addition, she is hoping to mount an exhibition of her Peruvian woven textiles and extraordinary embroidered fiesta dance costumes. The design swatch collection is being transformed. "Some soul-searching," she says, "has finally given me the insight to say that what I am looking for at this stage of my career is to collaborate with people in new ways of presenting historic ethnic material."

Currently Ms. Aranow has just returned from Japan filming a new small video as she continues learning about her favored subject of Japanese kimono cloth since the re-opening of Japanese contacts with the West in the 1870s. These added tidbits of information will augment her personal notes on each of the seven hundred garments she offers for sale. Ongoing projects include the completion of the physical and digital archive of the 26,000 design swatches - due for summer 2012. for information on the swatches contact: caleb@blueriderdesign.com

Andrea confides that with her wealth of singular textiles as well as collections she’s made over the years, her goal is to collaborate with young scholars and new media people to bring these examples into the light, whether by digital or physical timely exhibitions.

For more information:
Andrea Aranow


A film by Ryan Bush & Aaron Rayburn