Designer Helena Bajaj Larsen has a unique story to tell, half-Indian, half-Norwegian; she was born and raised in Paris but has worked and made a name for herself across the world. After pursuing a Bachelor in Fashion Design at Parsons School of Design (‘17), she founded her eponymous textile studio where her focus from the start has been on surface design and the exploration of materiality through various mediums.
We sat down with 27-year-old designer Helena to talk about her journey from Paris to New York, Milan to Dubai, with a most recent stint in Riyadh. In this conversation, we not only discover more about her craft but also her experience in the region and how it has helped her form new relationships, learn different techniques, work with local craftsmen, and grow as a creative individual.
Saira Malik (S.M.): Where did you develop a love for the arts and more specifically textiles?
Helena Bajaj Larsen (H.B.L.): It began at a young age as I was exposed to the creative industries by my mother who is an abstract painter. While growing up I was always tagging along with her to gallery openings, visiting her friend’s studios, watching her paint until the early hours of the morning. Our weekends were spent exploring art galleries and museums – and every after school activity involved a brush or a pencil. Fine art was my first love due to my surroundings but quickly this transformed into a specific liking for design because I felt it could be interpreted as art merged with function. I realized with time that even within design, all my projects have been very materiality focused and while studying at Parsons School of Design though I was in the Fashion Design Program everything I did was extremely surface-driven and less silhouette based. This is how I landed on specializing in textiles.
S.M.: What inspired you to set up Helena Bajaj Larsen, your eponymous textile studio?
H.B.L.: Well, it really happened as a continuation of my thesis. I had developed a comprehensive collection for my graduate collection at Parsons in spring of 2017. I presented these pieces in front of various panels and judges of competitions and incubators. Though just 21, the positive response I received for my work, paired with guidance from my very entrepreneurial family, are what gave me confidence to start my own brand some six months after graduation. What really launched my label, in February of 2018, was being handpicked by Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai – a platform where they chose five designers every season to sponsor entirely for their first runway show during the country’s largest fashion event. This experience pushed me to think about design beyond academia and approach my work for the first time as a business. I had to plan for supply chain, marketing, retail, and I had to be ready with look books and line sheets, design professional packaging, learn how to price position my product, understand what I could deliver in terms of production timelines. It was very overwhelming all at once, but it pushed me to step up very quickly and was a remarkable stepping stone. It introduced me to the Indian market in the perfect way – we were covered by all major publications and top retailers wanted to stock the pieces.
S.M.: How was your experience in the Intermix Residency program by the Saudi Ministry of Culture and what did it entail?
H.B.L.: Overall, on a personal level it was a wonderful post-covid creative energizer. It was not without challenges, but I am very grateful for the opportunity of using this platform as an introduction to the dynamic Saudi market which the world is currently fascinated by. I knew close to nothing about the artistic scene in the country and I was able to not only learn about this but explore local techniques and connect with local craftspeople in the context of my own work. I met wonderful people who went out of their way to help me learn about Saudi textile heritage, as well as find the resources required to develop my project. Residency aside, I came to Riyadh with many of my previous textiles as well and a series of 15 couture Abayas. In the end I found so many wonderful local clients who are now more like dear friends. I really hope to return for more exciting projects and even just to see everyone again.
S.M.: Can you tell us more about the collaborations with artisans and projects you worked on within the residency and what you took away from this experience?
H.B.L.: I worked with three local craftspeople. There was Abdul Rahman from the steel factory. Um Ahmed an 80-year-old beader, and Salom from an Igal making shop in Souq Al Zel. At the steel factory with Abdul Rahman, I experimented with creating works in metal but using processes which mimicked methods used on fabric normally. For example, instead of drawing with a pencil we would trace a line with a welder, instead of shading with a spray we would use a grinder to create a shading between matte and brilliant finish within a metal piece. With Um Ahmed we created a collaboration using my hand painted raw silk material and her metal beading technique she has been working on since the tender age of 15. This is an old Saudi technique where women used to use lead and turn it into little beads and then embroider large fabrics in a way that you almost can’t even see the base fabric because there is so much beading. For our project we used my painted silk as a base and the outlines for the beading were all inspired by the geometry present within the Riyadh skyline. We had our meetings at the Turquoise Mountain Trust, and we were put in touch by creative consultant Norah Sahman. With Salom, we completely abstracted his day-to-day work. Typically, he uses a machine which spins black rope into these stiff circular shapes to make the igal. I thought to myself what if we put different materials into this – we used metal wire and metallic threads as well as shreds of my hand-painted silk work. In the end it was a wall installation of 60 textile sticks and an interesting testament to what collaboration between traditional and contemporary can mean.
S.M.: You have also lived and worked in Dubai, what makes that experience unique for you and what did you learn from it as a designer?
H.B.L.: Dubai being so expat-oriented becomes a launchpad for a large variety of people looking to do different things. When I got there in 2018, as a young creative who didn’t know the city at all – I found it wonderful how easily I could access the community. Very different to other cities I had studied and worked in such as Paris, London, New York. I joined councils, was covered by the local press, participated in regional competitions, and built a network of new clients. Bit by bit I met wonderful fellow emerging designers, great mentors and good suppliers. I would say those three years in Dubai were interesting to use as a reference point for my time in Riyadh. The Middle East really welcomed and embraced my work. Saudi Arabia has a similar roaring buzz right now and a hunger for the new that should be considered extremely appealing to young designers – the level of curiosity means you can grow in a faster way than say in other places where markets are more saturated. It is a “carte blanche” in a sense.
S.M.: Are there any cultural references from the Middle East that have inspired your designs?
H.B.L.: When I started the residency, I began researching traditional textiles in Bedouin garments. I was in absolute fascination about how fabric was combined with metal. A lot of surfaces were embroidered with metal components, or they had metal coins attached to them and I liked the duality between the hard material and soft material and find this very inspiring for my own work as well. Towards the end of my stay, I also had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr Lailah Al-Bassam who kindly invited me into her home and showed me her archive of traditional Saudi garments. This was probably one of my most favourite days – such a special experience. Through each outfit, I was able to see the different techniques belonging to different regions and understand what it was about living conditions in each place which informed why the clothes had certain details.
S.M.: What are you most excited for in terms of your work for 2023?
H.B.L.: Some projects which were already underway include more furniture collaborations as well as textile artworks for private homes – and even some art-rugs, a new product category I loved learning about. That being said, my next chapter started just 36 hours after leaving Riyadh as I moved to Amsterdam to start a position as a couture textile and technique developer for Iris Van Herpen. I believe as a creative you get so used to your own aesthetic bubble that it is exciting to experience someone else’s artistic universe – especially when it is a person whose work you are truly in awe of. It is a studio that I have always respected and admired a lot – they really approach fashion as art and design as a craft, a way of thinking which I deeply respect.
Images courtesy of Helena Bajaj Larsen