Eco Age: How did you first get into fashion and why did you decide to create an ethically-conscious brand?
Leila Hafzi: I wanted to apply for Denmark’s Design School back in 1997 but I was told I didn’t have enough experience, so I thought that if I created my own collection in Nepal I would get enough experience to convince the school to accept me. I spent 3 months at the foot of the Himalayas in late 1997, and I ended up convincing 150 ladies to start knitting with natural hemp and nettle. I also bought some old silk and we up-cycled it into silk dresses. It was during this time that I realised I didn’t need to attend a specialist school to be able to design garments. I felt that I already had an eye for product development, and I just needed to find someone to engineer it. It’s been a challenge, we’ve developed lots of new techniques and we’ve got some very proud workers.
When I first travelled to Nepal, a country which is stuck between China and India and struggling to develop in a modern world, I decided that I would start on a mission that I already knew would take more than a decade. My aim was to prove that Nepal could offer more than cheap labour and garments, and it actually had a place in the international high-end fashion industry. My focus was on ethics, human rights, cultivating long term relations with the production units and a profound wish to engage women into our production. By 2008 we proved to the international fashion scene that we could to it.
A lot of your pieces were produced by skilled artisans in Nepal. How did your relationship with these artisans develop?
It’s partly down to my Iranian father and his background. He was a skilled carpet maker when he was young, and I have inherited his eye for good crafts. I’ve got a good network in Nepal, which helped me find real and authentic work. It’s also a matter of local research and some chance meetings. In order to work in a developing country you need to be ready to adapt, patient but pro-active. When I start to create something, I’m like a chameleon with a clear mission. I know what I want but I adapt it to fit local crafts and I bring in my signature. These processes can be quite magical actually.
Why did you decide to focus on Kathmandu and Nepal when starting your label?
Actually, it was more or less by accident. One of my buddies at home had travelled through Nepal, and he spoke really highly of the country and people. He described meeting the people, their lost creativity, the hopeless line of product development and the limited ways of export. I visited Nepal, and I felt I already had a life mission just by being there. Coming from one of the richest and most resourceful countries in the world I felt a responsibility to give back to an area less fortunate than us.
A lot of your collections are very feminine and romantic – what are your inspirations for the designs?
My inspiration mainly comes from the ‘woman’ herself; her femininity, what she dreams of, how she feels, what she longs for…I always have in mind her grand old chest full of old gowns and antique jewelery. I have had beautiful antique carpets around me since I was little, and I have always been surrounded by beautiful crafts and it has just spilled out into my design work.
My own creative signature also goes hand-in-hand with an eco-conscious philosophy. I feel like it is my responsibility to create slow fashion that will last for generations, and this allows me to create classical and timeless designs that can go from one generation to the next. I want to hold onto old traditions and crafts. Our world moves so fast, I want to slow it down by keeping old artwork and design alive – but I still adapt them to the modern woman.
What methods do you use to create your intricate designs?
All my patterned designs are all hand- painted by a silk painting technique - even the background is created using delicate pencil stokes. On my first collection I collaborated with a good friend of mine, a renowned tattoo artist, Mike the Athens. After this I draw them myself, both by hand and by using digital software.
The artwork is then scaled up and sketched onto the silk, and then set up on to frames. Skilled artisans (former Thanka Painters) paint the motif on and then they blend the colours together, stroke by stroke. I decided on all technical data related to the process, colours, shadings and so on, together with the head of the production team. I do really love this work and I have huge respect for all the artisans I work with. One day I hope to get Mike the Athens down to the workshop, so he can bring some new ideas with him.
You often use hemp and nettle in your work. Do you ever find that your designs are dictated by the materials you use?
Yes of course, I have to adapt both the fabrics and the techniques so that the workers are able to master them. I often push them onto new challenges but I always make sure there won’t be any complications during production. In that way I have never been able to bloom fully in my own creational sphere, and obviously ethics plays a huge part in the creation and production as well.
How did you first get involved with Fashion 4 Development?
Actually, I only found out about the project through a UN press conference this summer. Listening to Franca Sozzani and the work F4D does in Africa, I realised it had many parallels with our work in Nepal and I could easily identify with it, although we work on a much smaller scale. So technically I have worked as a fighter for development for 15 years; much longer than I have run a fashion business. I am really happy to be able to join F4D for such an event, where I will be meeting sisters of the same mission.
What sort of work do you do with Fashion 4 Development?
I hope to join forces and offer my experience to F4D in the future. I have always said, if I didn’t work in fashion and I didn’t do my own work in Nepal, I would be applying for a job in the UN. Human rights are so important, and I’m very passionate about fashion so I try to combine the two. Hopefully I’ll get to a place where my resources will get lots of women into work, and encourage other brands to choose better alternatives.
What do you think about the Green Carpet Challenge as a concept?
It’s a wonderful concept which I have supported from day one. I believe Livia is the right person to lead the campaign for ethical fashion. It is a fight that will take time to reach a shift into high-end fashion. It’s not easy at all and as a producer you are left with less shortcuts and much more time-consuming processes. It’ll be like that until there is a larger demand for ethical fashion, and until we reach this global shift it will be more expensive and more limited. But I do believe that one day this will change.
Tell us a little more about the inspirations behind the dress Livia will be wearing at the UN.
She wears a two-part gown from this season’s bridal and red carpet collection, Royaye Sefid III. In order to not confuse my workers by changing and adapting to the wish of my buyers, we created skirts and corsets that could be mixed up and matched together in order to get an individual look for each client. So Livia has put this corset and the skirt together herself. It’s both a classical and innovative look, and very feminine. The corset has been draped in chiffon silk by one of my most skilled tailors, and the skirt is slightly pleated and made up of sustainable, natural and un-dyed silk, hand-loomed in Nepal into an organza fabric. The chiffon silk is all 100% natural silk, but unfortunately not fully traceable. I am working on making all the materials fully traceable, but I have to make choices, and my choice has been that I first and foremost make sure the production is ethical and the process of dying the fabrics is environmentally friendly.
Have you encountered many problems in creating a brand that is ethically conscious?
Creating a business by the heart is never easy I guess, but the heart comes before financial advantage a lot of the time. And because we work in a developing country where there have been 16-hour power cuts, government strikes and gas shortages for the last 12 years, we are used to daily challenges. There are also numerous cultural and religious challenges, and problems between workers and disrespectful and power-seeking leaders. Endless challenges indeed!
You’ve won several awards since you started working in fashion. What has been the highlight of your career?
Since I have to be aware of my producers’ skills when designing, I feel like I still have a lot of creative ideas up my sleeve. Profit doesn’t matter as much as development and our work in Nepal, as that will leave a lasting legacy. My achievements are shared with my team.
Do you find there is a big market in Norway for ethically made and environmentally friendly fashion?
Creating a high-end fashion brand to show the world that Nepal can be successful as a production company has made me focus on the product itself. Good design will always sell, and the fact that it was made in an ethical and environmentally conscious way shouldn’t affect that. That should be a bonus and the product should sell because of what it is, and I really find this has been the case for Leila Hafzi. I believe in true quality, traditional crafts and a true and long-term mission. We cannot do it all in one day anyway.
Do you have any plans to expand your production to different areas?
Oh yes, I have many plans, many dreams and probably many limitations along the road! I will meet them one by one, I’m sure. And I cannot wait to finish my other line. My high end bridal and red carpet lines will both have a focus on women artisans and will be created with sustainable raw materials from the local areas.