The arts of fine weaving and embroidery that once boomed in Romania and Moldova are in rapid decline. But one German-Romanian designer is breathing new life into eastern Europe's endangered craft traditions.
Fresh from fashion school in Barcelona to find the Spanish economy in the doldrums, Isabell de Hillerin packed up and moved to Berlin where she launched her own label in 2009.
"I never had a plan B. I was always interested in fashion," De Hillerin told DW.
Before opening her tiny workshop in Berlin's hip Neukölln neighborhood, she hit the road for Romania, where she has family ties, where she discovered the traditional craft of weaving.
"I went from village to village, and did research in museums. I was searching for the women who were making these traditional fabrics," she said.
De Hillerin eventually found groups of women in Romania and Moldova who could produce pieces for her runway collection. Since then, the project has become more than just a business collaboration, rather a mission to preserve a dying art.
Building creative partnerships
Now in its fourth year, de Hillerin's fledging business is flourishing, with her designs appearing in stores from Los Angeles to Hong Kong.
But things weren't always so easy. When she first visited a town whose women were said to be expert embroiderers, de Hillerin faced outright rejection. She told them of her plans to present their creations on catwalks in Berlin and Paris - and was promptly shown the door.
"So I went again, to another village and talked to people there about doing this handcraft," the designer explained.
Working with her new business partners has been somewhat of a learning experience for the young designer. For example, some of the women live in villages so small that delivery services have trouble delivering packages.
But de Hillerin's determination and Romanian language skills smoothed over these challenges and helped build a community in the process.
"If a collection is being produced, not just one woman is working on it - it's more like ten women. And the interest has become much larger among young people to learn the craft," she said.
One of the highlights of de Hillerin's working partnership with the women came last year, when she brought some of her weavers to see her fashion show in Berlin. The trip to Berlin was the first time some of the women had ever left their villages.
"It was a really emotional moment when they came on the stage after the show. They were standing next to the models who were wearing the pieces they made by hand. It was incredible."
Preserving age-old traditions
While de Hillerin's brand is still tiny in comparison to the fashion industry's big players, she's garnered a devoted legion of fans who appreciate that quality, hand-weaved garments don't come cheap.
Hong Kong-based online retailer, A Boy Named Sue, sells de Hillerin's creations in Asia and the US. The website targets the collections at those who are seeking handmade, quality garments, founder Tania Reinert Shchelkanovtseva explained.
"All people who hear what Isabell does really love the story. People are really surprised when they learn that it could take up to four days to weave a pattern," she said.
De Hillerin's label probably won't be able to stop the freefall in handmade clothes manufacturing in Romania and Moldova, but she's hopeful that she at least can keep her business partners afloat while also breathing new life into eastern Europe's endangered weaving and embroidering traditions.
One recent innovation? De Hillerin asked the women to do a carpet-weaving pattern with silk, rather than wool. At first, the women had problems using the fine silk with their customary looms.
"But eventually, they got it," de Hillerin said, "And now it's great."
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