ISHKA first opened in 1971 and over the years the concept has evolved greatly. Michael Sklovsky, owner of ISHKA, tells us where it all began...
In the sixties I dropped out of University and I rode my motorcycle to Sydney; I was confident to leave with only a few dollars knowing opportunity awaited me. After a few months as a building labourer, I spent 12 months living with no fixed address, mostly between Byron Bay (pre Nimbin festival which changed everything) and Rockhampton.
During this period I had many great experiences for a suburban Melbourne boy including direct exposure with people making and selling candles and peace symbols. I saw myself an as individual, an outsider, a rebel against the values of the society I lived in. Because of my attitude and appearance I was seen as a hippy, but I never believed all that went with this image; I was more interested in Zen and Eastern Philosophy than what came out of San Francisco.
The Early Years 1971-75
In 1971 ISHKA opened as a craft studio; only goods made on the premises were sold. Four of us, Barb Tyler, Rod and Sue Matthews and myself, decided to live in and operate a shop in an old building in Glen Iris. We had met at the St Kilda esplanade and thought it seemed like a good idea. After arguing about the name, I suggested ISHKA - the name of their Afghan Hound and also a village in Afghanistan, according to their atlas. To me it was memorable and exotic.
The income of each of us was determined by what stock of our making we could sell. So for the first three years my income was dependant on my own creations that I sold to shops and galleries across Victoria, at the Glen Iris shop and at markets. I was making leather goods, such as bags, chessboards, belts and bright colour batik fabric, clothes and paintings. I also assisted with Barb's candles and assembled simple bead jewellery.
Early ISHKA days were exciting times. The shop had its stated political agenda and many heated discussions took place. Once, by mistake, I left the door open when I went off for the day. Returning home I discovered money on the table and a list in different handwritings of stock taken; people had served themselves and recorded the transactions...and all balanced.
In 1972 I had my first employee, Jane Fitzgerald, who worked with ISHKA until 1998. She was the first to help me produce my leather designs, sometimes keeping the shop open when I studied.
When I had a van load of leather I would head to the country and sell it. After a successful trip I had sufficient funds for a deposit and bought the building from the owner. Rod and Sue Matthews went their own way at this time.
Study was somehow fitted in and in 1973 I graduated from Melbourne University with an Honours Science Degree in Psychology and Mathematics. I decided not to make a career as a psychologist or mathematician, but devote myself full time to the business and further increased my buying and bartering goods from other crafts people. I also stepped up production of my own work by employing more assistants and for the first time we included imported crafts into the shop's structure. We added Indian clothes and local pottery that quickly became most popular.
I became the sole proprietor in 1974 when Barb and I went our separate ways. For the first time I could do exactly as I wanted. I happily worked a seven day week from early till late. I did not separate social life from shop life and customers knew they could try the doorbell anytime, which often meant we were open late at night. The shop had loud music, often Dylan and the Stones and there was a real living room atmosphere; we still have customers who remember these times.
My work became more eccentric and for 10 years I focussed on one-off pieces, while supervising production of my bag and briefcase range. I made leather sculptures for the first time and sculptural bags, including a koala bag for Edna Everage and goanna briefcases with moving tails and heads.
All customers were given coffee or herbal tea and often I would cook for whoever was present. This became such a feature of ISHKA that when new shops were opened the workers just took money from the till to buy lunch as they were being denied the free food of the Glen Iris workers. This went on for many years. Fittings were basic; the till was a cane basket.
ISHKA was unique: we were the first to sell Australian craft, along with clothes and world craft. I began buying from travellers going to Peru, Afghanistan and Indonesia. I really wanted to travel myself and in 1975 flew to Bali.
My first trip to Bali was an eye opener. Arriving in 1975 I experienced a culture that was magic and unique. The ancient feel of everything, the aesthetic eye that all seemed to operate on, with everyone being an artist, with a genuine belief in the spirit world, and the time taken by everyone in devotional activity, all intrigued and amazed me.
The development of Bali since this period has been awesome. At this time Kuta and Legion were separate small villages with fields containing delicate deer like cattle. Hardly anyone owned motorcycles or cars, and not all had bicycles. People crowded together in minute trucks to travel. Until 82 there were only 3 phones in Ubud. There was much less English spoken and everyone wore sarongs. Many women were bare breasted in their village but tended to cover themselves when foreigners came by.
Ubud, a beautiful mountain village, was regarded as the cultural centre of the island with a history of involvement with creative Westerners, This association with foreigners meant that you got to meet Balinese who could speak English and there were wonderful relaxed restaurants. I visited Festivals, cremations, witnessed the magic of the trance state, the terraced rice fields. So many of the people, were of genuine wonder to me, having an authenticity and pride I had never experienced before. All seemed to have time for me, from the king of Ubud, whom my father insisted I visit. He was against modern changes, preferring lamplight to electric. Electricity had only arrived in Ubud in 73, but nearly everyone spent from 6pm in near darkness, perhaps a small kerosene lamp in a room. Most went to bed early and many rose 4,5 am in the morning. So different from the Ubud of today with its Yuppie infrastructure.
I met Nyoman (Nomad) who became my first supplier. He and his wife Moriarty lived and worked in a small 3m x 3m single room, and owned little. Their stock was a few woodcarvings that interested me, as I had already bought and sold Balinese woodcarvings from several travellers. At this time people snapped up anything we today would regard as passé, but then were seen as the most exotic treasures. He had learnt a bit of English as a sailor and from regularly listening at 6am to Radio Australia, a really important service stupidly stopped by our present Government, that so many in Asia enjoyed. He had been a boxer and still kept extremely fit by running 15-20 km before the radio program that he listened to at a friend’s house. We became friends and business associates, travelling to small villages in secluded valleys connected by dirt tracks, to buy from people with no wealth, but to me remarkable lifestyle. Their stories were fantastic.
When communicating from Australia letters took a couple of weeks. They were not always replied to quickly, so often the reply was 6 weeks later. Compare this with today when nearly all contact can be made by fax or email the same day. People all over the world get messages delivered within an hour, even if the final delivery is by bicycle across a rice paddy. This is just one of the changes. Now sealed roads are everywhere, many of the poor craftsmen and Nyoman have become millionaires, with BMWs and mobile phones, and huge houses where so recently a simple hut stood. Life goes on!
My friend Oka, who took over from Nyoman as our man on the spot in 1978, is another example of these changes. He had lived on the Kingsland in a hut. With the revolution in 1961 all wealthy landowners had to choose which 7 hectares they would keep and give away the rest to the people who had lived there. Through this process Oka got formal title of his little patch in 79. He had a tin shed on the Campuan road, where his wife and he operated a small warong. They made the best and cheapest rice wine (brem) and a limited but tasty range of food. I often ate there and through conversation about a decoration started business with him. I was the first foreigner to trust Oka with money. He proved most reliable and our business grew. I found out he had been a Jakarta street kid and eventually built up a bicycle business, which he lost gambolling.
In 1975 I travelled to Indonesia and Thailand and we became overseas product designers and direct importers for the first time. For the first time I experienced village life. It was a novelty for the people to have a foreigner live and work with them. In Chiang Mai I made contact with an Akha family and I experienced first hand the difficulties the minority groups face. The friendship built over the years and the trade we started, making bags and cushion covers out of their traditional textiles, was an important aspect of our business for many years.
Today people see Thailand as a safe travel destination. At this time there was political instability, and private drug lord armies, and the golden triangle had a very different connotation. At this time one of my most useful qualifications was my motorcycle licence. In many countries I hired motorcycles making exciting discoveries in villages not reachable by car. This became part of a pattern for the last 30 years. Until recently I made 2 trips a year, one for 2 months each and the other 1-month. For this to work I had to have complete trust in staff who bought stock in my absence. I would send the odd card or letter, but never made contact while away. The world of today with satellite phone connection, fax and email has changed everything.
Highlights of so many years include
My love was for the primitive, the rustic, and the spiritual. When Primitive art became fashionable in the late 70s I was riding an exciting wave.
Our ethical base has developed over the years. I was very impressed by the benefits that trade delivered to the communities we dealt with. It is always exciting to see people previously in the grip of poverty gain control of their lives. We work as much as possible with minority people and refugee groups and always have taken environmental concerns seriously and publicised these issues with our customers and staff.
At this time Ishka started leading the field with its designs, innovation, and stock selection. We were world leaders in selling primitive art. Europe did not catch on to it until the late 70s; we lead the way from 76. We were pioneer designers of turning recycled architecture and ox carts into interesting furniture. The Glen Iris primitive ranges of pottery, the frogs on bowls and primitive figure ceramics, is still sold all over the world. These are but few of the examples of ideas that have worked and been of benefit not just to Ishka but the villages and importers of the world, many of them who have capitilised on the ideas with more focus (and much more profitably) then ourselves.
In the early eighties we opened new shops in South Yarra, Surrey Hills and Wheelers Hill.
1986 was a crisis year for Ishka. My buildings were needed for the freeway interconnection for the Road Construction Authority and I was involved in a bitter struggle. To compensate for the coming loss of my major outlet I opened four new shops. This put me in a tight financial situation where survival was an issue for the first time. This was compounded when I suffered at the hands of an arsonist, and had two major break ins.
These events put strain on my company for three years. During this period the staff level grew and I delegated many important areas of the business to managers for the first time. I ceased to be a craftsman. In 1991 I formed ISHKA WHOLESALERS P/L. For the first time we computerised aspects of our business and increased the efficiency in many ways.
No description of Ishka would be complete with out some description of some of the individuals who contributed most. I will only mention those no longer with us, and assume you know our present team. We have had many exceptional and diverse characters work here, many who have contributed to our concept, and left a lasting impact.
Rose Marie Stirling started work while a student. Her interest in clothes lead her to become clothes buyer. She went on to design clothes ranges in India, Indonesia, Thailand and Guatemala. Her sense of fashion changed the Ishka clothes look dramatically.
Ruth Hopkins similarly started as a student and went on to transform the Jewellery Department. She created her designs at home, balancing family and painting. She was also responsible for much of the Ishka greeting card range.
Elvira is a strong and much remembered character. She is Rose Marie’s and Pablo’s (worked for some years including as Carlton Manager) mother. The way she took control of Chapel Street made most assume she was the owner. She took a strong management position and was very effective with staff training, customer service and the introduction of computers. She also ran rosters and staff selection and generated many stories. I am grateful for her input in making Ishka a more professional organisation. She and Rose Marie still deal with us through Origin and Tribal Trading.
While travelling in India in 86 I met a Danish woman, Bodil. We met for only 24 hours but became penfriends. The next year we met in Turkey and travelled together for a month. She came to Australia in 87 and we have been together ever since. The arrival of Anna in 1995 has had a profound influence on my work at Ishka. I now always try to be home by 6, 6.30pm. I no longer travel for extended periods, and my shorter trips leave much less time for original design then before. I now no longer stay for weeks in one village. All the developing world now has full time professional designers working away
In the 90s I was pleased to be invited to write an Arts Crafts supplement for Lonely Planet’s “Morocco” guide. My job was to write some explanation of the background of the crafts, practical buying advice for the traveller etc. Since then my writing has appeared in “Bali and Lombok”, “Java”,”North Africa” “Pakistan” and India.
In 95 we were invited to open a shop in Chadstone. Their research showed that their customers wanted an Ishka style shop, and they set us up with a reduced rental (its still pretty big). From the experience we decided to open in other centres and will try to maintain a balance between strip and shopping centres.