Travelling Designers: Helena Bajaj Larsen
Tell us a bit about yourself and your nomadic lifestyle.
I’m of half-Indian, half-Norwegian descent but was born and raised in Paris. After high school, I moved to New York to attend Parsons school of Design – during those four years my parents moved part-time to Dubai. Additionally, I studied abroad my junior year spring semester at Central St Martins in London. Since graduating in May, I spent the summer working in Haiti for Donna Karan before I packed up and left the US for good! Since Fall I have been based between Paris, Dubai and India (Mumbai/New Delhi). Never really in one place for more than three weeks! It’s been quite crazy but I feel very lucky that I get to keep bouncing between different cultures and feel at home in each place.
How do all of your travels and places you've lived translate into your aesthetic and approach to fashion?
I think every place has had its influence on my work, some more evidently than others. Some even subconsciously probably. The Indian love of color has definitely found its way into everything I make but also my more minimal silhouettes perhaps are a result of growing up in France where everyone dresses in a very understated manner. My jewelry work is very raw and takes direct inspiration from rock formations and natural phenomenon’s resulting in dense textures (caves, glaciers, etc) – and somewhere there is definitely a very Scandinavian sensibility in those pieces (much more so than Indian or French).
Some in the fashion industry think that staying in a fixed place or fashion capital is essential. What's your take?
I definitely see why people would say that – it is important to be present in a particular fashion scene especially if there is a specific market one is targeting. If one wants to make it big in New York, then one should stay there and be in communication with publications there, stores there, etc. It is also still important to work on projects that are physically anchored in the fashion capitals – being that those are the places with the biggest audience for a designer’s work. That being said, today, there are such great ways to create brand awareness online meaning the designer can have more flexibility and does not need to “belong” to a particular city.
You've lived in numerous places with different cultures. How does fashion function across these cultures?
Very differently in each – in Paris fashion is everywhere yet it is so understated and is all about subtle elegance. High Society will still prefer to go for established century-old fashion houses, and there isn’t as much exposure for younger designers in the luxury space (although that is also changing slowly). In New York, Fashion is about what’s new and edgy: magazines, social media as well as show business, all have a much greater impact on how people style themselves. In London, the Central St Martins student body especially, was another story entirely! Everything was about who was more experimental – people really pushed the boundaries of fashion in ways I had never experienced. In Norway where I lived, Stavanger, being a rather small city, it really was of very little importance: people mainly dressed for comfort and weather. Teenage girls all dress the same, what is cool is cool for about 5 years and people are content in their little bubble. Oslo might be a very different scene since it is the capital, so I can’t comment on that. In India, fashion is very tied to edition and celebration – weddings are a mecca of accessories, jewelry and incredible garments. That being said the scene in India has grown considerably and cities like Mumbai and Delhi are really at the forefront nowadays – I mean every big fashion publication has an Indian edition be it Vogue, GQ, Harper’s, Elle, Grazia… On top of that I think Indian audiences are ready for something different and what is happening is a new wave of Indian designers creating clothing that isn’t necessarily distinctively Indian – people are asking for monotone color stories, less pattern, European silhouettes, etc.
What inspired you to live a nomadic lifestyle?
It was more a consequence of circumstances, when I moved to New York to attend Parsons School of Design, my parents thought it might be fun to try out Dubai for the winter months since they were no longer constricted my high school academic calendar. It was also a convenient place considering how much my mom travels back and forth to India for her work – it is only a couple of hours flight between the two. That’s how the Middle East got added into the mix and why I spend my time between India, France and Dubai. Usually the winter months are between India and Dubai and then in spring/summer I’ll be back in my childhood home in Paris. Aside from living in a couple of cities, my family and I also love travelling to places we haven’t been before – so I guess that also contributes to having a nomadic lifestyle, since a month or so a year is dedicated to travelling for leisure and not work. When I was in middle school and high school in Paris I used to get a two week vacation every six weeks and we used to use every chance we could to visit a new city. In Europe it is so easy with trains and short flights that can get you to such a diverse range of countries. Nowadays we try to do one big family trip every year, last year was Peru, the year before Japan… This year it is going to be Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe!
What do you love most / what is the most rewarding part of your travels and ability to live in numerous places?
You get to experience variety – variety in food, fashion, art but also people and their cultures, traditions and values. There are so many different elements that make up a city and when you’re constantly between them, all cultural differences don’t seem like differences anymore as they all blend in together and make up your own personal experience. Meeting new people is definitely one of the most fulfilling aspects of travel. Thankfully, Parsons had a very international student body which allowed me to make a lot of international friends from very distinct parts of the world. Many have moved back and travelling means I can keep seeing them from time to time as well as meeting their family and friends. Slowly the more people you keep meeting you can keep building a bigger network of contacts scattered across the globe – which is also very important for any designer.
How does fashion serve as a rooting force for you throughout your travels?
Fashion, well rather design more generally, conditions how I look at things and how I experience new environments. Where most people would see a basic coffee shop or restaurant, I tend to look at their plates, their cutlery, the flooring tiles, how the curtain has an interesting fabric, or the way they’ve done up the walls – all these (every product and surface) things become an aesthetic experience. And the more you travel the more you can see a variety of them. Same for any space really, a store, a gallery, someone’s home. My friends always tease me because I’ll notice the weirdest things and get very excited with just about any textured surface! Other than that when I travel I do try to always look up who the local designers (fashion, product, interiors) are and what stores might be stocking their work – so that I can spend a day or an afternoon checking those out. It’s interesting to see how the design sensibilities vary from city to city.