I met Ailara Berdyyeva in her textile design studio, Objects of Matter, in Milan at the beginning of this spring. Ailara, besides being a talented textile designer with a unique aesthetic, is a dear friend and I thought it would be interesting to ask her about her work & her inspiration.
Irina Afanasieva: Tell us a bit about yourself, you were born in Kazakhstan, studied textile design at the Royal College of Art in London and 2 years ago you opened your own textile design studio, Objects of Matter, in Milan.
Ailara Berdyyeva: If I have to describe myself in a word, it would have to be a nomad. It is linked to my experiences & lifestyle, I feel this word deeply connect to me also because in Kazakhstan people used to be nomadic. You live in one place then you pack your bag and go elsewhere. The ability to do so gives you an incredible sense of freedom and you learn to trust yourself to adapt to a new environment.
When I went to London I wanted to study interior design. But first I had to do a foundation course where I discovered different forms of expression, among others photography, filmmaking, fine arts and textile design.
For the textile design part, we were working with yarns, we weren’t working with looms at that stage but, there was something about the yarns that I felt I could relate to, within a week of the project I knew I wanted to be in textiles. The whole experience had changed the perception of who I wanted to be in my career. I was lucky my parents were extremely open-minded and supportive, because, in Kazakhstan, it is not common to study textile design.
IA: Right, it’s an uncommon job, not only in Kazakhstan but anywhere. Is there anyone in your family who works with fabrics or is related to it in any way? Because that part of Asia has a very strong traditional link to textiles.
AB: Wool felting is a big part of traditional decorative art in Kazakhstan but unfortunately, I do not know the history of my family far back. Growing up there was very tactile. My family did not live in a yurt but, of course as a kid, I saw how they were constructed. There were layers and layers of beautiful wool felts, each one having its own name, meaning and place. Only now I am starting to realise the ways it has affected and formed my aesthetic and sensibility. I work a lot with brushed wools thinking that my work, my fabrics are contemporary when actually the idea of it all takes its roots in tradition.
IA: When you are young you really absorb your surroundings; do you think a lot of your inspiration and instincts come from your childhood?
AB: Yes, I think we are very perceptive as children but then we forget sensory and emotional experiences from our childhood. If you start analysing your work as an adult you’ll see and realize there are many links to your past.
IA: Can you tell us a bit about your work process? How do you start a project? Are you drawing, selecting the materials first, or do you simply visualise the result you would like to get?
AB: It changes constantly, when I was in college I used to paint, take photographs, create mood-boards. I still do some of that but recently reading became more important. Looking at the visual I tend to notice colours, surfaces, light, details and if I start working from that, I recreate that ‘image’ or surface on the loom. Therefore, I started restricting myself from interpreting visuals into textiles. If I interpret a passage from a book, a scent or a feeling, the outcome will be more meaningful. Visuals is always powerful to a designer but using it as an only source of inspiration is too linear for me. In order to move forward in my work, I sometimes need not to look but to feel, investigate and have a deeper intent.
IA: Do you leave space for experimentation in your process? Because you develop your designs in your studio on one of your hand-looms, all your fabrics have a human touch to them.
AB: When I imagine weaving a particular fabric it does not always work in practice. There are many layers to the weaving process; structure, combination of yarns, density, touch, drape, weight, finishing and colour. When you already have in mind how you want your fabric to be, it takes time to get there and it is important it also works with the industry. We currently run 2 lines, the first one is called Artisan, it is a creative and experimental place for me where all is done by hand and is not reproducible on an industrial loom. The second line is called Method, I still start by working in the same way on my hand-loom, but later we industrialize the fabric and weave it on a mechanical loom instead of a hand loom. That is where we get to fruit the sophistication of Italian manufacturing for our production needs.
IA: As you mention Italy, could you tell us how it came you moved your studio from London to Milano? And how the two cities compare to you.
AB: I worked for a short period of time in London but realised that the majority of high-end textile factories are based in Italy. It became obvious that if I wanted to be in textiles I would have to move to Italy. It was not an easy move for many reasons and took some time to adapt but I feel content and never regretted my decision.
London broadened my horizons in each and every aspect of my life. The city has such a powerful energy that you can manifest in any way you want, in my case it was in creativity. London is an absolute foundation of my design perspective. My time there gave me courage to create and express myself freely. I am forever grateful I was a part of that city. London also gave me work ethic; I learned how to organise myself and also to respect the time of others. If someone trust their time to you, try not to waste it.
In a sense London was about becoming for me and Italy is about being. I say Italy and not Milan, because people who live in Milan travel a lot within Italy. I lived here for 5 years now, I am married to an Italian man and have a big Italian family here. It has become my home, not without a struggle, but I am not planning to leave any time soon. It gives me peace of mind to create and reflect on my work and most importantly, Italy taught me to enjoy myself while I am doing it.
IA: Could you tell us about your favourite places in Milan, where you get inspired and also if you have a place in Italy that means a lot to you?
AB: On the rare occasions when I find some time to spend outside my studio, some places I like to visit are; Villa Borsani, Villa Necchi, Fonderia Artistica Battaglia and also Museo Diocesano di Milano is a very impactful place. I have yet to discover the collection of Boschi Di Stefano, the Foundation is near our new home. I try to visit the different flower markets in the city regularly, I like them very much. They are often next to old churches or in villa court yards which is so atmospheric.
In Italy one of my favourite places is Sardinia, there is something wild about that Island. Lorenzo (Ailara’s husband) and myself travelled there last year, next to the beaches there are massive granite rocks in fluid shapes with hollows. They were shaped by the sea, the strong winds and the rain. Also, ever since I found out about the Ottana Carnival I have dreamt about going back to witness it.
The costumes look beautiful and somewhat mysterious, each of them represents a particular animal. The idea of the Carnival is based roughly on the celebration of spring and, curiously, on the struggle between our animal instincts and human reason. It takes its roots in Mediterranean Neolithic cult. Reading about this led me to further explore the role of textiles in ancient Mediterranean culture and has been an inspiration for me lately.
IA: One of the biggest textile fairs for High Fashion in the world is Milano Unica which sets twice a year in Milano and Shanghai, I saw your fabrics were featured in this seasons Trend Book, how were you selected for that?
AB: They approached us themselves which is great and I guess they selected us because we do things a bit differently. People get curious when they understand our process, aesthetics, see the studio and textiles.
IA: I see your fabrics as contemporary nomad or contemporary ethnic fabrics, they really have a soul, they tell a story.
AB: I think it’s also the process that gives the soul to the fabrics; I develop every design on the loom so they become a part of me. When we take our collections to the textile fairs I feel very protective about them, almost not wanting people to look at them. I think it is because the process of creating them is very intimate and you see the person behind our collections.
IA: To me your work also look very inspired by Japan, would you say that is correct?
AB: I still remember, when I was younger I went to see the exhibition 30 Years of Japanese Fashion at the Barbican Centre in London and it changed everything for me. I came back to see it many times and I never fully recovered from it.
I found out about the concepts and ideas that were so alien to me but absolutely captivating. There is something in the Japanese way of thinking and aesthetic that mystifies me and I hope to better understand it one day.
IA: I would like to talk some about the materials you use. I know that you work mostly with natural fibres of very high quality, can you tell us your thoughts on that subject?
AB: I feel it is important for me to relate to the materials I am working with. Natural materials are complex, they have their own temperament and it amazes me. You cannot do whatever you want with natural materials, you need to understand them and to know how to work with each one. It is something I am constantly learning. Having said that, synthetics can have some useful properties, which we can harness. It is always about a balance.
IA: You work a lot with silk, can you tell us more about the different variations you use?
AB: There are so many! Most of the commercial silk is mulberry, it has a various gradations and yarns being twisted in different ways from it too. Working with extra-grade AAA mulberry silk shappe is a pure joy, it is like liquid gold in your hands, while bourette feels almost like linen. There is also tussah or tasar silk, which is wild silk, there is a type of Japanese tussah silkworm particular to Japan, that produces green silk thread. African anaphe silk suppose to be very strong, but I have not gotten a chance to see it. There are muga, eri silk too and many others. I am currently in search of spider silk but it is not widely available on the market yet.
IA: I believe many people are returning to a place where unique design made with high-quality materials becomes more important, handmade objects will be more requested and we will consume less objects and only what is essential to living, do you agree on that view.
AB: More and more people I know are going for this essentialist lifestyle, basically having only what is essential to you in a good quality. I really respect that change, since the World is so saturated with images, information and bad quality ugly stuff. For me it would be so distracting to be surrounded by all that! I still have too many things for my liking but for sure before buying something I need to know about it and understand its quality if I do not know it probably means there is nothing to it. Also, I think people today consume differently. I have started looking around and noticing that many people have really good taste, so they in a way, curate their life. It is reflected in every day, literally and they bring into their lives only items that reflect their personality and philosophy. In some way, we are going back to, hopefully, better quality and less things.
IA: Finally, I would like to talk about your most recent project, that actually for me speaks to the people that are looking for more unique & high-quality items. Can you tell us a bit more about your neckwear line?
AB: It came from a necessity. I could never find a perfect scarf; in terms of quality, touch, drape, size and colourful. I thought, why not design a scarf collection that would answer all that. I spoke to female friends and acquaintances and found out its quite a common. We created a collection of neckwear, in high-quality silk, which is extremely soft yet drapes well on the body. We paid a great deal of attention to colours, the palette is muted and flowing from dusty gold and warm amber to deep greens, blues and black. It was important that our scarves would go with the colours and outfits women wear frequently. I’d summarize by saying the collection is minimal yet shows the appreciation for quality and reserved aesthetic sensibility.
(e-store launching soon, follow Objects of Matter Instagram for more info about Provenance neckwear collection)
Portrait of Ailara Berdyyeva in Milan by Anna Shisterova.
Ailara working on Linn, linen & silk.
Details of one of the looms, Objects of Matter studio in Milan.
Cones of threads, Objects of Matter studio in Milan.
Tagal fabric prototype, linen & silk.
Tagal fabric sample, our Japanese shears & a stone bracelet, linen & silk.
All pictures by Anna Shisterova.