In a consumer age obsessed with trends and novelty, Isabel de Hillerin decided to look back, explore traditional craftsmanship and in 2009, the first collection was born.The idea of working with handmade fabrics began with childhood memories of days spent in Romania, a scenic country bordering the Black Sea. A return to her ancestral country was not very idyllic- Isabell witnessed the sad state of artisanal handcraft traditions. Now following several years of successful collaborations with craftswomen in Romania and neighboring Moldova, de Hillerin dreams of building a community of craftswomen that would pass on their knowledge and skills to younger generations.
Isabell de Hillerin's fall/winter collection “Mosaik” was influenced by the contrasting notions of 'heavy' and 'light'. Delicate knitwear, illuminating fabrics and masculine cuts all form a well-balanced mosaic of colours and shapes while maintaining her signature style of simple elegance. In Paris this Autumn, Isabel shares about her love for preserving traditional craft and sustainable design:
How did you start the brand?
I started in Barcelona where I was studying fashion design at the Escuela Superior de Diseño y Moda Felicidad Duce. For my final collection, I wanted to go back to my roots in Romania. I remembered these beautiful traditional fabrics from my childhood and wanted to incorporate them into my designs. I went back, but I couldn’t find anything. I couldn’t believe it: “what is going on with all these handmade traditions?”
After doing a lot of research, I found one woman who was still doing the craft. Afterwards, I went to Berlin and presented my final collection. It got a really good response from the press and some buyers so I decided to continue with this mix of modern and traditional. It's become a common thread in my three year old brand. I also started to include more sustainable fabrics like organic cotton and silk with each collection but local production is the foundation for me so everything is made in Berlin.
Why did you start using eco-materials?
I noticed that it’s hard to buy fabrics with the full knowledge of their origins and the people who make them. I can’t change a lot, but when I’m doing something, I want to do it well, then I can actually feel good about what do. It’s important for me to create real quality pieces. I don’t see the point why I should produce in another country just because it’s cheaper. People are not well paid there and I can work with factories based in Berlin that are local. For me it’s not about chasing the cheapest price.
Going back to the weaving and knitting - how did you find these traditional craftswomen?
I asked around and went to museums. I actually managed to find a lot of rare information. I also made a road-trip! In two weeks, I went through Romania by car, visiting little villages.
How did you approach them? Was there a production?
I found some women who were doing the production but their situation was pretty bad. Nobody had the money to pay for the fabrics, it’s all handmade therefore really expensive. Young people don’t learn the craft anymore. I told them I would really love to include their craft in my collection and insisted on buying the yarn from Germany but they couldn't do it. It was really sad to see that they had given up- they just had no energy. I found other women though, but it was really sad to see the real state of the industry.
For the embroidery, how many people do you have now?
In the winter collection I worked with two women from Romania who did the hand weaving on the leggings and the dresses. In the new season spring/summer collection, I’m working with four women in Moldova. One of them is doing a ‘carpet technique’. They normally do carpets out of thick wool, but I asked her to do it in silk. Two are doing embroidery by hand, and one is doing handwoven fabrics. The idea is that when I go and see the production, they would also teach young people how to do these techniques.
The conditions in Moldova are really bad - some of them don’t have running water. It’s a really poor country. During fashion week, the women are writing me e-mails wanting to know about the feedback. They’re putting so much hope into this!
Could you say that the embroidery has become your trademark?
Yes, I like the combination of doing a new interpretation of traditional elements and placing them in a modern context. One time, I made a collection without traditional elements and I really missed it in the end. It wasn’t me anymore, so I had to continue.
To have your own label is a privilege. It would be a shame not to try to push it further. I speak Romanian, I know that these people are doing all those handmade textiles. I have the opportunity and it would be a shame not to make use of it.
Have you considered promoting the craft to other designers?
I would love to! At the moment, I have to wait and see because I just started working with them. One day, I would like to build up a community of women who still practice these crafts. Moldova was a part of Romania, now it’s an independent country, but the good thing is that almost everybody can still speak Romanian so I can communicate with them. I couldn’t imagine how it could work otherwise. When I went there, everybody was really shy. When I explained that I’m a designer and talked about the idea of showing the collection in Berlin and Paris - they completely shut off. It’s too much for them; it was too new and they needed something familiar.
Do you feel that you learned something from these women?
Totally. They tried to teach me the craft of embroidery and it looked awful, but they were really patient and nice. Jokes apart, I’ve learned a lot. Mostly about how to be appreciate simple things every day.
What’s the response from the buyers? Is the idea of something handmade is getting recognition?
Totally. For those wearing the clothes, it has a value. You know that people put their love and hard work into the garments. It’s not something fast and fabricated. Yes, people really do care. What makes it special is how the clothing also transmits the history if you're aware of it. That’s something I want to communicate - the stories of these women. The fact that some handmade parts take 9 days to make. If you know all this, you really get to appreciate the work.
Tell us about your winter collection
My jumpers and cardigans are made from high quality wool mix fabric from Italy, while the textured Mosaic fabric comes from France, the leggings have a hand woven panel made in Romania. Each panel can take 4 days to make. Handwoven fabrics don’t take as long as embroidery. It’s a bit easier.
Do you design with a certain type of girl in mind?
For sure, but I am also somehow designing for myself. I have to imagine wearing everything. My clothes are for women who are confident, chic, but not too exaggerated.
How would you style your clothes?
As a designer, I can’t explain why I do something the way I do it. I think other people see it much clearer. With the spring/summer collection, I was selected by the editor-in-chief of Vogue Germany, Christiane Arp. She selected five newcomers, all German labels, and I was one of them. She organized a Vogue Salon where I presented my collection. For her, it was really important that in Moldova, people are wearing these headscarves. She said: “You need them. They complete the look.” I would have never have combined them with my things. But in the end, it looked really nice.
How do you feel when you see people wearing the clothes?
It's crazy! I still haven’t gotten used to that. It’s the best thing. Also, getting the feedback from customers. When someone comes up to me and says: ”I have this piece from your collection and I love to wear it”. It’s the best feedback I could get.