Meet Helena Bajaj Larsen: the Parsons graduate paying homage to Indian independence through Khadi
For Paris-born Helena Bajaj Larsen, a career in the arts was inevitable. Having a famous painter as a mother, she was exposed to artistic influences at a young age and choose to study Fashion Design at Parsons for her undergraduate degree. Having just graduated last summer, our team was captivated by not only the physical appeal, but also the underlying social significance of her graduate collection, titled Khadi. Using the Indian homespun cloth of Khadi as a source of inspiration, the collection gives a voice to artisans across India as it served as a symbol for social change during the Indian independence movement. It is therefore no surprise, that her collection has received wide accolades. Nominations include The Eyes on Talent Award, CFDA Fashion Future Graduate Showcase, Parsons Future Textiles Award, YOOXIGEN Net-a-Porter Award and the Hugo Boss Innovating Impact Award. This young designer is definitely one to keep an eye on, and we are excited to share our interview with her.
Where are you from?
My mom is from Jaipur, India, and my dad is from Oslo, Norway. They met in Paris and stayed there. So I was born and raised in Paris and then went to Parsons in New York for my undergraduate degree in Fashion Design. During my junior year I also studied abroad at Central Saint Martins (CSM) in London.
How and when did you know you wanted to study fashion?
My mother is a fairly well-known Indian painter and that's how I was introduced to the arts world in general. At a young age, I was already going to exhibitions and this subconsciously created/ let me to develop a passion for the arts. I then eventually chose to study design due to the fact that it is the only medium combining art and function. My love of textiles further narrowed it down to fashion design.
You started your own brand only a few months ago, how has this experience been?
I started to think about my own brand in October and this triggered me to start applying to a lot of design competitions and grants as they are really good platforms to get visibility and potentially, funding. One of the competitions I applied to was Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai, where they select five out of around 600 applicants to launch their collection. Being involved with that has been really amazing as it pushes you to think about the PR, marketing and production of your brand, things they don't necessarily teach you at university. The show is on January 31st.
What type of clothing will you be designing for your own brand? Will it be similar to your graduate collection?
Same idea. My graduate collection was made up of completely handmade textiles, which will be the same for my own brand. The technique that I used for my graduate collection drew quite a bit of attention to my work as it was a unique way of printing. So my label hopes to embody a continuation of that same spirit, but with more variations in color and silhouettes.
For your student thesis, you chose to focus on the Indian homespun cloth Khadi as it has a close relationship to your family history. Can you elaborate on this?
I have always been surrounded by Khadi. My grandfather was a close associate of Gandhi, and many people don't know this, but the Khadi cloth became a symbol of independence in India as it allowed people to make a livelihood and reject the cotton from the British. Therefore, the white Khadi cloth became a symbol of support for Gandhi's independence movement. For my graduate collection, I spent the first months conducting a lot of research. I looked into my family history and that's how I choose the Khadi cloth, as it is both tied to my love for textiles and my family origins. This topic was then translated into an aesthetic format, as although Khadi is a fabric, I also use cotton and organza in my collection. I did not want to use the Khadi topic directly, but in a more abstract way by being inspired by the colours and textures from the areas of Khadi production. Khadi is more than just a fabric you can feel, it represents a significant historical movement.
You were a finalist in numerous awards, including the Eyes on Talent Award, YOOXIGEN Net-a-Porter Award and, as well as the WGSN X Arts Thread Future Creator Award. Which award has been the most rewarding to you, and why?
The Haiti competition was definitely the most rewarding as it wasn't just a financial reward at the end, but so many things at the same time. A summer job, a travel opportunity, a fellowship... We met so many incredible people and worked in many different mediums.
Tell me about this exciting experience of going to Haiti in collaboration with Donna Karan and Rihanna's Clara Lionel Foundation to develop products with the local artisans?
Three Parsons students were selected to go to Haiti for seven weeks and work with different groups of artisans. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Donna Karan started a brand called Urban Zen in hopes of boosting the local crafts economy. She built a centre in Port-au-Prince in partnership with Paula Coles and Parsons School of Design. We went to Haiti for 7 weeks and worked with different groups of artisans to create home products and accessories using wood, stone and ceramics. So that was a highly enriching experience as it was a different realm of design and materials that I had never really worked with before. And I've always wanted to dive into product design, so this was a great introduction.
Did you meet Donna Karan?
Yes, we met Donna Karan a few times.
How is she?
She is truly amazing, immensely creative naturally but also very kind. She is very approachable and so passionate about what she does.
How did the experience of studying at the top fashion university, Parsons in the US, compare to studying at the top university in the UK, Central Saint Martins? Do you have a preference over the two?
I prefer Parsons, it is much more structured and I found the atmosphere a lot nicer. America is good at creating a collegiate environment even though Parsons is not a classic campus. At CSM, there was a lot less solidarity and I found it tough to connect with students and faculty. At CSM, the structure is also a lot more loose too; you only have 2 hours of lectures per week and for the rest you have to figure it out on your own. In addition, at Parsons even if you're studying fashion design, you are still able to take classes in say, photography. However, in the UK you don't have the option to take classes outside your direction; if you are in Print, you won't learn weaving. However, all these mediums are tied together in fashion and so it is important to have a broad experience.
What would be the Helena Bajaj Larsen dream for the future?
Essentially, I hope to have a brand that is not just fashion. Haiti gave me a taste of lifestyle products. So I'm hoping to create a brand where I would have a combination of clothing and interior products like tables, ceramics, etc. I don't want to get into the crazy rat race of fashion with strict seasonal collections. I'm very open to experiences that are not related to fashion per se.
What’s your favorite fashion house?
In the UK, I like Mary Katrantzou and interned with her a while ago. I also love Peter Pilotto, Christopher Kane and, of course, Alexander McQueen.
What helps you find inspiration for your designs?
If I wasn't in design, I would be a travel writer or photographer. I actually did an internship in journalism at Condé Nast. I travel a lot with my family, and this allows me to see different colours, textures and shapes. I never look at fashion for inspiration as it is already a finished product. But when you travel, eat new foods, see different styles of architecture, that always brings a new set of visual vocabulary to my work.
Finally, do you have any advice to students who look up to you and wish to be in your footsteps?
My mom used to tell me that success is 3 things equally; it is talent and hard work, but it is also luck. You have to make your own luck. At Parsons you see students that don't make the most out their experience. You have to chase people up, everything is an opportunity. You have to apply to every competition under the sun, reach out to agents, etc. I have probably applied to over 100 different contests and was only shortlisted for a few. But you have to keep going. It is very easy to give up, but you can't expect fast results in fashion; you won't get financial returns until at least a few years.
I also think social intelligence comes into play; you have to be very smart about how you speak about your work in fashion– thats half the work. You can have amazing work, but if you can't defend it, no one will listen. You have to explain your thoughts properly and people will be much more interested if there is a story behind it.