Designers We Love :: Roseli Ilano

lookbook 2I met Roseli Ilano hella years ago through a roommate of hers/friend of mine while I visited the Bay. We drove around her pickup truck, went thrift store shopping, bumped Ok Computer. She was funky, had such fire with a light spirit. We were doing social justice work and art. We are both Filipina. I was excited to see where the road would lead her. Roseli was getting ready to launch ILANO by the time we reconnected this summer. As someone with a touch-and-go vibe with textiles, I was floored by the quality and style of the bags and pillows I checked firsthand... so much so that when we were out to tea I was hoping she’d somehow forget a bag that I would ¨forget¨ to give back. I was ready to come back to write with FWL and I knew the return piece would have to be on her. After all these years, she’s still got the fire, the funk, the light, and (as you’ll read) a new wealth of business savvy.

roseliJCA: Tell me about ILANO’s first line.

RI: The line is called ¨Desert Loom¨ and it captures this feeling of being free-spirited. This idea has been ruminating on the back burner since college. I was in Berkeley, took time off and went to the Philippines to do solidarity work with indigenous communities in the North, but also because I was studying mapmaking. One of my final projects was a map about gold mining in indigenous communities in the Cordillera. That brought me there, but I always loved and was always taken by the textiles in that region. That was over ten years ago.

JCA: If this inaugural line had a soundtrack, what would it be?

RI: That’s a really good question! When I think of the colours and textures and patterns, the soundtrack to "Desert Loom" would speak to our target customer: she is bold, vibrant, loves to travel and get busy on the dance floor. The ILANO woman loves life and needs the perfect bag to take along with her on her adventures. [It] would include the soul of Myron and E; the funk of Cymande; laid-back Cali vibes of Chicano Batman; the politically charged son jarocho of Las Cafeteras; and, since I love 90's hip hop and think Ladybug has mad style, some Digable Planets. And definitely some Fela. Okay, last one, add in some Grupo Kual because the patterns in our bags and tech cases move in every direction like cumbia sonidero.

JCA: Describe the process of putting ¨Desert Loom¨ together.

RI: It’s completely collaborative and hones in on our skills. Mine are having the bigger vision of the brand and marketing, thinking about the design. Their skills are techniques in the weaving that have been passed down from generation to generation. I wanted to create modern shapes, consider design elements my target demographic thinks about, like, pockets for a cell phone. I do the design and perfect patterns here, then we meet and talk about if it’s possible. They do a modification and say, ¨Actually, I think it makes more sense with the textile to do it this way...¨ Then we do the prototype. There’s a lot of back and forth until we figure out what’s going to be great.

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[In making items], just weaving can take 2-4 hours. They buy the wool, dye it, dry it. They’re using cochineal, indigo, marigold-- all natural dyes. To make it fine they, essentially, brush and spin it into yarn, then brush it again to make sure it’s a really fine wool, so imagine that for all the colours. That’s just the pre-process. With the loom, they, basically, draw the design on. It’s tons of work. You’re using your legs and your feet to step on the loom and you’re using the shuttle to weave-- it’s like a needle that you weave the design and the yarn through. Once that is ready, then there’s the actual construction: sewing the interior lining, leather, the pockets.

JCA: How and why did you pick this collective of women?

RI: I connected with this women’s organization Fundación En Vía that provides microloans for indigenous women, teaches financial literacy--a lot of support in the community I’m working with. They do tours you pay for and the money goes directly to the loans and you meet women in their workshops. I met [Marcela and Graciela’s] families because I bought samples from them and we continued correspondence. I also connected with a women’s cooperative called Vida Nueva, so I am working with the cooperative and the two families.

I always dreamed of starting my own fashion business with textiles. The idea is limited edition collaborations with women weavers from around the world. My first was going to be in the Philippines but it worked out with weavers in Oaxaca, Mexico because I had been living there last year. It was fate, so the collaboration with the weavers in the Philippines is next year. The ideal is that, through our collaboration, it’s giving them skills to break out on their own. These designs will always be on my website. I will still have the relationships but I’m going to continually build as well. They become part of this network. Eventually I’d like to have some sort of conference, gathering of representatives. These techniques are under threat of being extinct; it would be powerful to share and learn from one another. Some women in Oaxaca are weaving wool, a lot of the women in the Philippines I’m going to work with weave raffia. I want to uplift this idea that these traditional techniques also have a modern context. These women should be respected as modern artists.

JCA: How has organizing-teaching influenced your business model?

RI: There’s so much burnout in the not-for-profit industry. I’ve been inspired by hybrid models I’ve seen cropping up, organizations with a social justice mission with an entrepreneurial and sharing economy aspect to it. For instance, Oakland shop Bikes 4 Life: incredible young people involved in scraper bike culture organizing against the violence in Oakland. [They] learn how to build and repair bikes, learn how to run a retail bike shop, organize citywide rides for young people. I really wanted to blend my passion for style with my commitment to building something sustainable and supporting social justice. We determined the pricing [and wages] taking into account the years of mastery and technique of the artists, as well as the time spent to prepare, weave, and sew the materials. ILANO artisans are paid nearly 7 times more than the country's national minimum wage.

The response has been really positive! When people ask about the sourcing of material or how it was made, I can give personal stories and names rather than just anecdotes because I have relationships with the weavers. A lot of the boutiques that want to carry the line or potential customers have said they’re drawn to textiles but they haven’t seen them designed in such a modern way, so that’s also been great.

JCA: What is the Women’s Initiative and its importance to you?

RI: The Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment helps low-income women start their own businesses. I wanted to be my own boss; take this role model in my grandmother; take my love of fashion; break out of the non-profit industrial complex. I thought I was just going to go out and do it. I have the passion, the design and creative aspect down, and a strong background in marketing and writing because I did that for social justice organizations. I knew I wanted a business that blended textile with modern designs for a broader audience [and] created living wage jobs with partnerships with women weavers around the globe. But I didn’t have the financial savvy. This program changed my life. I learned how to do a profit-loss statement, understand what cost of goods is. After I graduated a year and a half ago and had my business plan, that was the launching off point. It was real. I could go to people and show how I was getting from Point A to Point B. That’s what really set things in motion even though I had all these ideas on the sub-level.

Having space for sisterhood was critical, as has been mentorship. I don’t think I could have done this without my mentors. I have incredible ones. I was connected with [Asia Dog owner] Melanie [Campbell] through the [2013] Scion competition and I have my mentor through the Women’s Initiative. As my business succeeds, I want to be a mentor for other young women.

JCA: One weaver commented on factories lowering the value of their work. Any thoughts?

RI: Many of the communities I’ve talked with are held to whims of the tourist market. In this partnership, we’re addressing that. The weavers will have constant orders. You have things called casa grandes. There is an underground extortion thing happening. Tourists don’t realize the economy they’re contributing to. You have big companies in the city and to be on their route you pay them. The driver goes to that designated casa grande and they give the driver 20% of what they’ve sold. These casa grandes are almost like factories in that they’re a rich family posing as small families working together. They do the demonstration of how to weave but it is pageantry. They hire people like Graciela and Marcela, give the material they need, tell them, ¨Make [the item] like this.¨ They pay cents on the dollar of what they charge.

We’re trying to reach an international audience. It’s a lot of market research to see what trends are fashionable and what will sell without letting go of our bottom line-- which isn’t profit. Our bottom line is creating sustainable jobs, using organic materials, building relationships, and honouring these women as modern artists. To go back to the factory, I love that there is a movement to honour the handmade and artisan crafted. I think people will spend more money on something that has a story, something they know was made with care and detail and wasn’t mass produced.

JCA: What influences your style?

RI: Clothes should reflect your mood. I want my style to be upbeat and joyful. I grew up thrift store shopping. I love taking other people’s castoffs, putting my own spin on them and blending them with more modern styles. I was not allowed to wear black as a kid-- Mom felt adults or people going to funerals should wear black. That stuck with me. I love texture, patterns, colours because they reflect my personality. If I were to give it a name it would be ´third world vintage bric-a-brac’.


JCA: What is your vision for this? How has it transformed from your initial idea?

RI: My dream is to have collaborations around the world, be on every taste maker’s lips, known as a brand that is stylish and upholds things I believe in: honouring women artists, providing fair wages, preserving culture and weaving techniques. There are a lot of green businesses out there that are fugly. I’m not trying to be that. I’m not trying to compromise substance for style. Once the business is successful, the second part is building the network.

I have to remind myself every day that my belief in what’s possible needs to outshine my fear. I’m growing and learning. There are so many unknowns but I believe in my brand. If you’re doing what you love, things will fall into place. I feel like I’m doing the right thing, on the right path. As to what’s changed--I believe so much more is possible.

JCA: What have you learned about of self-care as you build your business?

RI: ¨Always try your best¨ [The Four Agreements] has stuck with me. We might be high energy or low, but if we’re committed to trying our best we never have regrets. I struggle with it, though. In anything I do I want it to be bomb, so it’s hard.When I meditate on that, it helps me realize I don’t have to worry about the external or internal pressure or letting people down. I’m giving it my thoughtfulness, my love. I’m nurturing this thing.

JCA: What is love?

RI: Love is being completely in the moment. That’s kind of a weird answer but if you’re completely in the moment you slow down. You’re breathing, present. That’s the only way you can experience love. You are so awake and aware.

Meet the artisans, check out the full lookbook, and pick up some new goods at ILANO. - Jennifer Cendaña Armas Photo Credits: Roseli Ilano: Jacob Goolkasian. Lookbook items:Matthew Reamer Artisans: Lindsey Shilleh