Alnea Farahbella, Designer, Toit Volant
A global traveler with years of teaching and design under her belt, Alnea Farahbella has a wealth of experience to source from as she builds her new brand, Toit Volant. This master of all trades is a shining example of a boss lady who earned that status by practicing every facet of her business - design, pattern making, production and beyond! Today Lisa Says Gah checks out Toit Volant's downtown LA studio for a peek behind the scenes and a chat with Alnea about originality, understanding the culture of fashion and loving creative chaos. Enjoy!
LSG: Hi, Alnea! Before we jump in, what is the story behind your company's title? What does Toit Volant mean?
Toit Volant means "Flying Roof." The name is symbolic of the nomadic perspective my partner and I share. We both have lived in different parts of the world, experienced various cultures and ways of life, and speak multiple languages. We thrive on diversity. Toit Volant is a living journal of our experiences.
LSG: Now that you are settled in LA, tell us about your studio space and neighborhood!
We’ve been in our studio space since June 2015. We are in the middle of downtown LA. It feels like New York in the 1980s with the garment market so close by, but it's changing fast!
It is important for my partner and I to support the local manufacturers in Los Angeles. We are a "Made in US" brand. It gives us better control of our quality because our makers are five minutes away. We check in on our production every step of the way.
Also, it’s so good to be able to pop out of my studio to look for fabric, trims and materials. We are in the thick of things. I love being central while having space for the creative chaos. I am proud of the creative happenings that take place in our hideaway. We drape everything. We are not a buy “vintage” and copy that garment type of brand.
LSG: Can you walk us through your path? What initially drew you to fashion?
Oh, where do I begin? I’ve always loved fashion. Let me know try to summarize it with a bit of a fun timeline.
Second Grade: Bought my first pink jumpsuit with a black bow-tie for picture day.
Influence: My grandmother who had everything made because she couldn’t afford to shop.
High School: I took my first sewing lesson. Everything I made back then looked crafty and homemade, but I’m still making similar shapes.
Leaving the US: I went to live in Japan. This was when the connections between fashion, art, design, and education started to make sense to me. I admire the commitment that Japanese women have to fashion. I started teaching design workshops, and then I launched my first brand in Japan. I was so stimulated by the exposure to different cultures and styles.
Meeting My Partner: We met in Vietnam. I loved his style which was straightforward and committed in contrast to my oversized pieces and layering. My mind started combining our styles, and this was the beginning of Toit Volant.
Return to the US: I had been teaching overseas for nearly a decade and riding motorbikes with my little Shih-Tzu dog named Tiger. It was time to return to The States. When I came back to the US, I worked and lived in New York, teaching fashion with Shelley Fox for the MFA Fashion Design & Society at Parsons New School. This is where I found my second wind for fashion. I was in love with the process of making again. I wanted to have a studio and a chaotic creative mess, and that's why we moved out to LA. We also needed sky and the sun. We left New York in July 2015, drove cross-country in our old mini-cooper with Tiger in our lap and never looked back!
LSG: What inspired you to branch out independently and pioneer your brand?
I was bored of seeing the same things on different women. It was un-inspiring. You can obviously see how designers are copying each other. I hated hearing my students talk about their internships where the designer bought a dress and brought it back to the studio to copy. Yes everyone is doing it, but it doesn’t make it right. Also, I honestly believe that, especially at a contemporary price point, you should have ethical designer practices for the development process.
LSG: Who do you imagine wearing your designs?
I’ve seen so many incredible women in my travels. It is always character and charisma that inspires me. You can tell she’s wearing the dress; the dress isn't wearing her. You can tell when a women’s style is authentic - when she still believes in culture. I appreciate women who understand my esoteric references in the modern context, who understand fashion and are looking to support independent brands.
LSG: Can you describe the feelings you want a wearer to experience in your work?
That they are different and cool for supporting our brand instead of brands that copy other designers. I would love for my work to evoke diversity and culture.
LSG: How does your environment / community influence your collections?
I have always been surrounded by phenomenal women (friends and family) that have their own style and stand up for creativity and individuality. They remind me to stay true to myself and what I want to share. I get sad when I see women confused and influenced by the mainstream, they look like random celebrity clones.
LSG: Do you work alone? If not, tell us about your team.
Certainly not. This business is about having the right team. My partner’s unconditional support and confidence in my skill is my driving force. Without his support, this brand wouldn’t have the identity it has. My assistant challenges my design decisions. My production team makes me laugh when they point out I didn’t label any of my patterns because they know I make all the patterns in-house. It's a team effort.
LSG: Where do you source inspiration and how do you organize it?
Words are important to me. They are my triggers. Corny as it sounds, I find a lot of inspiration in beatnik poetry and literature. Translating words into shapes, associating emotions with colors. Most of the time conversations with friends trigger inspiration. Lots and lots of walks and people watching are good sources. I keep everything in a design journal. I’m not very good with gadgets. I’m old school, and I’m stubborn about this part of my life.
LSG: What themes are influencing your work right now?
Culture and ethnicity are always influencing my work. The question of how to dress with style and character influences my world.
LSG: Can you tell us about your process of designing a collection?
I start with words. I'm obsessed with haikus and random sayings. This always leads me to find an image that relates to those words. Then somehow I find these women in books or my archives of photographs from my travels. Then I start to take them around with me everywhere and ask myself what would they be wearing if they were here. My process can easily be compared to a writer building a character.
I feel like I’m alway designing. Designing dresses is so fun! I get giddy when I start to see my ideas morph into creations. There are two collections per year that we produce, but like to think that our dresses are seasonless.
LSG: Materials obviously play a huge part in your line. Can you tell us about why you choose the ones you do?
I’ve always loved uniform materials. I love that that they can hold shapes. Growing up, I wore those black crisp cotton/polyester Dickies pants. I would even make them into skirts. You’d wash them over and over yet the shape was still there. Durability is important as I move so much in my day. I can’t wear things that make me feel like I’m being encased in plastic wrap. I like utilitarian looks. Pilot and gas station jumpsuits are amazing. Astronaut jumpsuits are crazy cool. Military stores have the best bomber jackets. I wanted to put in a little bit of art and style into these utilitarian garments.
LSG: Starting a business and working for yourself is scary, a lot of people talk about it but never do it. What do you think holds people back?
Fear and discomfort. Everyone works hard to attain the particular lifestyle they have. Starting your own business means letting go of this to some extent. It is hard to live with limits; no one wants to feel like they’ve failed. Discomfort and downgrading your lifestyle is never fun, but there is this thing called satisfaction and contentment at the end of the day. It is very different owning your own business.
LSG: Describe the first year of going independent. What was your mantra to get through hurdles?
We haven’t even finished our first year but "keep on keeping’ on!" This time is all about learning from mistakes.
LSG: As a business owner, what advice would you share with someone interested in starting a company?
If you don’t have the dream funds available, then learn the skills that will save you the most money and that you know you can do well. Be authentic and be yourself. Try to understand that there will be plenty of challenges along the way. One needs to learn to stay calm and always think of alternative solutions because you will have an infinite amount of challenges. If you keep this in mind, then the hard work is worth it. The price of freedom is high, but it is incredible when you have control of your work.
LSG: What are a few things you love that have nothing to do with fashion?
A hike, one that is a bit more raw, where you feel like you are on a good adventure. Sitting on our patio in summer, with the two dogs, ice coffee and nothing to do. Driving along the coast and going for a walk on the beach - always so nice when it's empty. A beautiful summer swim and taking a nap after. This is the ultimate.
LSG: Tell us a little bit about your routine. Five things for a stress-free day?
1. A good walk with my dogs.
2. Ice coffee in the morning with coconut milk.
3. Long stretches in the evening.
4. A Good playlist.
5. Telling my partner a funny story.
INTERVIEWED BY OLIVIA LA ROCHE