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 TALK WITH HELENA BAJAJ LARSEN
How does your brand position itself on the international market?
I would say it is present in a lot of markets simply due to the fact that I am from all over the place and still don’t really live in one! My background is half-Indian, half-Norwegian but I grew up in France, studied at Parsons in NY, CSM in London and now am partially based in Dubai. I still make frequent trips to New York and London, and otherwise operate between Paris, Dubai and India. It is a blessing an a curse I suppose – it is great because you get to test your work with a variety of audiences and you can also just keep testing till you find the one that seems optimal. On the other hand you cannot fully dedicate yourself to knowing the ins and outs of one specific sales network as you are busy trying to manage multiple.
How the brand was born and how many people are involved in the team now?
Six months after graduating from Parsons School of Design, 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). Team-wise, there is no one on payroll, I outsource everything meaning I do work with other people but short term and not constantly. That being said, everyone I work is part of the making of each product, in a sense part of a wider idea of “team”. I see them as integral parts of the business, without them there would be no results.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for a young brand right now?
I don’t know abut now specifically as Covid-19 has brought on a whole new commercial atmosphere.. but in general I would say the following… 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.
How do you want to achieve the long-lasting concept for your brand?
Continue diversifying product ranges, seek out collaborations with brands possessing skills and techniques that would compliment my work well, understanding what did and what did not work in the last two years.. taking that and learning what to change. I also want to dive into e-com, but it is not going to be an easy feat.
How do you determine what is durable design?
Durable design to me is something that lasts both in terms of it’s shelf-life (or rack life I guess) as well as the brand aura, the story behind the design, the magic of the label in a sense?
What happens to that part of a production that does not get sold?
I keep everything and sometimes some things just take time to get sold, but as the company is still fairly young I do not have much experience with what we call “dead stock” yet.
How far do you go in terms of sustainability?
We shifted most of our production over to MasterG India (launched by fellow Parsons Alumni, Gayatri Jolly) based in Delhi. It is the country’s first all-female run garment manufacturing unit. MasterG started off as a series of training centers to help girls who had no future career opportunities, to learn garment-making skills and find a way to then monetize them. They were taught pattern-making, sewing, draping, etc. Some went on to work privately and some joined Gayatri full-time at the production unit. It is a pleasure to be associated to such a fine organization and contributes to us feeling confident about the transparency of our production cycle as well as knowing we are playing a small part in positively affecting the girls.
Where could you serve as a role model for others?
I think we are still in early stages and not sure if I am at a role model status yet! That being said I would say the way the business has been handled has been slow and cautious, and I feel that could be a good approach though it is not always a popular one (people try to grow exponentially as fast as possible). It ensured not being overwhelmed financially.
Can you tell us a little bit about your references for the Spring/Summer 2020 Collection?
The current project I am working on is a series for Helsinki Fashion Week – but there is a twist, It is all digital. Virtual model avatars and all digitally created and animated garments.
How do you want people to feel when they wear your clothes?
Like they are standing out. That people around them ask them what is this, how was it made, and want to touch and feel the clothes. A certain aura of fascination around the “why” and “how” of the product.
Which was your best-selling piece from your Fall/Winter 2019 Collection?
I don’t really have seasonal collections but a very popular piece in the last few months has been a long structured blazer.
What do you think about the opportunity of selling your products on online platforms?
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.
How do you choose the agencies that represent your brand for sales and press office?
I do not have any agencies working with me, it is a route that works for a lot of people, but I decided to keep costs low and focus on investing in production, and handling as much as I could on my own.
What advice can you give to young designers regarding the sales?
You would be surprised who is a buyer and who isn’t, who can help you and who can’t. Be open to anyone and everyone who inquired about your work, no assumptions. Same goes for product, sometimes we make something we don’t like and it turns out to be the most popular purchase.
What young designers need right now from fashion industry to grow more? /How fashion industry nowadays can help more the creatives?
More partnerships between large established design houses that offer exposure to younger creatives through innovative collaborations. We need visibility and a stamp of approval by a larger entity “vouching” for our work to a large audience that we might never reach on our own or be able to convince in the same way.