Half-Indian, half-Norwegian, 23-year old designer Helena Bajaj Larsen was born and raised in Paris. After receiving a Baccalaureate in Economics and Social Sciences from the Ecole Alsacienne with highest distinctions, she moved to New York where she pursued a Bachelor in Fashion Design at Parsons School of Design. Her focus from the start has been on textile design and the exploration of surface design through various mediums. She attended Central St Martins in London for a semester abroad in Print Design. Internships during university include Rohit Gandhi + Rahul Khanna, Vogue India, Mary Katrantzou, Thakoon and others. When her final year at Parsons came around, students were asked to create a senior thesis which told a story but also showcased the range of skills they had acquired over four years in school. Helena chose the topic of khadi. Khadi constitutes an Indian homespun cotton cloth often referred to as “the fabric of social change” due to its crucial role in the Indian Independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. Her thesis by this very name is a contemporary take on an old story which is both close to her heart as it reflects her family history but also embodies her passionate relationship to textiles.
The fabrics for the collection were sourced from Khadi shops around India and hand-painted using acid and pigment dyes on a variety of silks and other materials. In parallel, Helena began exploring metal work as part of an elective at school and decided to present a jewelry collection focused on surface alterations as a part of her thesis. During the last few weeks of her final year at Parsons she was a finalist for the Eyes on Talent Award, the Parsons Future Textiles Award, the YOOXIGEN by Net-a-Porter Award, the and the HUGO BOSS Innovating Impact competition. Additionally, she was selected for the CFDA Fashion Future Graduate Showcase which resulted in an exhibition of the work by 69 chosen (by the Fashion Design Council of America) design graduates across the US across fashion, textiles and jewelry.
Following graduation in May 2017, she was given the opportunity to complete a Design fellowship in Haiti led by Donna Karan and in partnership with Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation. Every year Parsons selects three students to send down to Haiti for the summer and develop a range of products with the local artisans at a design training center in Port-au-Prince. This past September, she received the opportunity to film a television episode onboard the Queen Mary 2 Ship for the show Vacation Creation, airing on ABC. The ship was doing a special “Transatlantic Fashion Week” trip during the first week of September and the show was looking to pair the voyage with a young Parsons graduate for their episode.
Additionally, she was one of the six Parsons graduates invited to participate in a fashion show onboard which over 400 people attended.
Recently, Helena was shortlisted for the Grazia Young Fashion Achievers Award and was one of the top 20 finalists for the WGSN X ARTS THREAD Future Creator Award. She was also one of the 5 selected young brands of the Lakmé Gen Next Mumbai Fashion Week competition. Each season they select 5 young designers to showcase their work among established Indian designers at the country’s largest fashion event. In March 2018, she launched a line of home products with the concept store Comptoir 102 in Dubai – the launch was done in collaboration with ART DUBAI (art fair).
In May 2018, she presented her collection in New Zealand as a finalist for the iD International Emerging Designer Awards 2018. Following the event, she was awarded the Gold Prize for Textiles in the (IDA) International Design Awards. In July 2018, she took part in the Feeric 33 New Talents competition. In September, she was given the chance to showcase at New York Fashion Week thanks to sponsorship by the CAAFD (Council of Aspiring American Fashion Designers). Recently she was selected as a finalist for Vogue Italia’s Scouting for India Initiative and opened a permanent retail space in Dubai as part of the DIFC DESIGN HOUSE GATE AVENUE competition.
A CHAT WITH HELENA BAJAJ LARSEN
Describe yourself as a designer and how did you start?
One word to describe myself as a designer would be interdisciplinary. The company is more of a textile design studio than a commercial fashion brand in the traditional sense. Surface design is at the heart of the work, and we are happy to take on a variety of projects beyond fashion as well. I started the brand in feb 2018 as I was selected for a launchpad program with Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai. They take 5 young designers every six months and fully sponsor their show during the fashion week (which is now India’s most prominent one). I had applied with my senior Thesis collection from my last year at Parsons and once they selected me things snowballed from there in terms of starting to understand the different components involved in starting a brand: press, production, sales, marketing, legal, etc.
How do you manage the creativity process exactly?
It begins with photography, I travel a lot and take photos of all the new colors and textures in my environment that I find interesting. Then based on those images I develop color stories which will then serve as mood boards which I refer to as I create the textiles. It dictates the colors I use as well as the mark-making involved in the surface development. After fabrics are made, then they go to my unit where I send designs for garments that are to be cut from them.
When did you land your first internship and what was the most valuable thing you learned from this experience?
I was fourteen and it was at Nina Ricci in Paris – as part of the french 9th grade curriculum you have to complete a very short work placement to get a feel of an industry you are curious about! I actually think that the biggest take away for me at that age was that the office environment and design teams were incredibly diverse. At the time I was in a very “frenchy-french” high school and to walk into a room where people all spoke different languages, had different backgrounds, styles, etc – was very eye opening. I realized the design industry is one in which you are rewarded for your differences and blending in is seen as a negative concept. This was the opposite of the Parisian high school culture I was so familiar with. After this there were many internships which taught me things perhaps more to do with design and the industry itself, but this was the first experience.
What was your first job out of college, and how did you land that position?
I didn’t really get a job out of college, I started my brand very shortly after – about six months post graduating. That being said, upon finishing Parsons I did a fellowship working for Donna Karan in Haiti for the totality of that summer. One could say that was a first job! I got that through a competition Parsons had held, where they selected three seniors for the award.
What was the biggest rookie mistake you made when just starting out?
Working with the wrong suppliers – it was a painful process involving a lot of delays, theft, quality control issues.. Very disheartening at times. Took me some time to cut off ties that should have been cut off immediately.
What’s the main impact of social media in fashion industry in both ways, fashion buying and brand marketing?
Overall positive I would say, it allows anyone and everyone to expose their product, breaking down barriers of culture, backgrounds, etc. That being said, I definitely think a lot of things are hyped up for the wrong reasons. I wish design was taken at face value – for what the object in question is, what it brings, what it does. There is so much around the object that becomes larger: who is wearing it, where they are wearing it, who endorsed it.. It is not a matter of art anymore, it is almost about pop culture phenomenons. Social media supports these tendencies with the influencer culture and paid campaigns, etc.
What is your favorite and NON-favorite part about being part of the fashion industry?
Favourite is the creativity – I love that our trade is essentially showing and selling things that come straight from our imagination. It is a unique privilege in my opinion. An artist never truly retires and our work keeps us sharp (because of the need to constantly innovate, we can’t really take time off). Non-favourite part is the need to constantly be pitching yourself and what you do in an effort to convince that you are worth banking on, that you and your work are relevant.
Can you tell us how your brand makes a difference in fashion industry?
I started the brand because I did extensive research on textile work in our times, print designers, surface design studios.. I didn’t quite see anything like the product I was aiming to bring forth. I thought okay let’s try. It is small at the moment meaning its impact has limits of course, I hope to grow it into a substantially bigger firm with a greater reach. Currently we pride ourselves with a zero-waste approach as well as small production quantities with great ethically responsible suppliers. Our production process is transparent and I am still invested at every stage.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for a fashion designer?
1. Staying relevant, constantly maintaining your audiences captivation. 2. Understanding that the work comes with tremendous highs but also daunting lows. There are a lot of phases in the creative line of work. Sometimes things escalate quickly/you feel everything is moving along and other times it all comes to a stance /you can feel stuck. 3. The cash flow – there is a lot more money to invest before making profit on your work. In a lot of fields you invest your time for money, in this you invest both your time but also your financial resources to actually craft a product much before it is sold.
Define sustainable concept nowadays in fashion industry in five words.
Ethical. Slow. Limited. Mindful. Inclusive.
How do you think sustainable can play an important role in fashion industry?
I think it should be embedded and be the frame of work for all that is done – to the point where there is no such thing as a “sustainable brand” anymore. Certain practices should become the norm. I think it starts with production – we as an industry make too much, all the time, and don’t sell all of it: it doesn’t make any sense.
What do you think about the opportunity of selling your collections online nowadays?
I am working on going online though it is tricky as all my pieces are one-offs and the making time is long meaning immediate delivery and accurate replicas would be a challenge. That being said I am all for online overall, I think it is great. People want minimal effort to acquire goods nowadays (less transportation, less waiting time, best deals). Online makes it simpler for people to purchase, it is win-win in that sense. That being said, I myself am old fashioned and love a beautiful designed store I can spend hours in, try things, talk to sales people.. etc. Stores, online and offline, set aside, in-person designer to client sessions are also very unique and keep a mysticism around the brand. I guess it is about choosing what works best for your story.
Imagine that you must write a letter yo your FUTURE SELF. What would you write?
Haha I think I would ask a lot of questions – where do you live, with who? What do you do everyday? Did you manage to achieve the things we wanted? How did the industry evolve? Help me prepare for the circumstances so I can avoid the mistakes? Are you happy?