Meet The Estonian Fashion DesignerMaking Couture From HerEast London Studio

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by: Chloe Mac Donnell
31 Aug 2017

‘This takes six weeks to weave by hand. And then this embroidery takes another six weeks to do by hand.’ I’m standing in Roberta Einer’s South East London studio as she shows me around her work. Around us, her team of seven, work quietly, some are pattern cutting on the floor, others are carefully sewing while another two chat through spreadsheets of orders. It’s gentle and calm with Solange playing softly on the sound-system, the complete antithesis to other studios I’ve been to where the teams are wired on caffeine and racing to get orders finished. ‘I learned how important a studio atmosphere is when I worked with Oliver Rousteing at Balmain. There was 12 of us on his team, and the studio was such a beautiful and incredibly relaxed environment. Everyone was so happy to be there. So I knew when I had my own studio I wanted that same feel.’

Roberta’s studio may be calm but her creations are anything but subtle. Two years ago, her saccharine coloured cheerleader inspired graduate collection caught the eye of the critics and quickly had her tipped as “One to watch” by the British Fashion Council’s NewGen committee. And now Roberta is showing no sign of slowing down with her interesting use of unlikely textiles and textures plus innate attention to detail winning her fans and stockists all over the world. Here the 24-year-old talks becoming a rebel and what good taste really means… 

Is it correct that your grandma gave you your first taste of designing?

Yes, I grew up in Estonia and I had a very happy and hands on childhood. My grandma taught me how crossstich, we’d make cushions at Christmas time and I was always outside and building things. That was a normal childhood in Estonia. My parents had a shoe store and my dad really wanted me to be an amazing business minded person so when he realized I wanted to be creative, they sold the business. They were terrified and scared of my career choice as in Estonia a fashion business isn’t a thing. 

What was your style like as a teenager in Estonia? What was everyone into?

As teenagers we really tried, like all through the 90s/2000s, everyone tried to be Western but without having the access to it. We were always behind. I remember no one had Levis. Then my mum got a Levis jacket and it was the coolest thing. Like the coolest! And she had sunglasses where you could change the colour of the lenses from blue to green. That was the 90s when I was kid. And then in the 2000’s, when I was a teenager, it was very glamourised. It was the blingy bit. Growing up, we would go on shopping trips to Finland or Stockholm on the boat and buy things that you think would match. I always explain that the first H&M only opened 3 years ago. That sums it up well.

You moved to London to study when you were 15. That seems a very mature decision to make at that age?

I knew there was no other option. I wanted to apply to the best design schools in London and knew that if I didn’t have a UK education I wouldn’t have a portfolio to be able to do so. So I moved to London when I was 15. The first time I came to London was for a school interview. I was terrified. I got into a school in Surrey. I was a week boarder there and then I was really lucky as I quickly made friends and would spend weekends with them and their families.

And then you went to Central Saint Martins?

Yes and I moved straight to East London and dyed my hair pink. It all happened over night and I kind of then tried to rebel against everything and do all the things everyone said not to do and really experience London. After my foundation year I went to Westminster. There, they really know how to prepare you to start your own thing. They give you structure. I’m such a chaotic person as many designers are that they make you follow at least some rules.

What’s your own style like now?

When I was being really minimal and doing minimal I had neon pink hair and pin-up style makeup. And then when I started doing colour, it switched. When you think about clothes all day everyday, and what can you add, I don’t want to think about what I’m wearing in the morning. I just want to get up and go.

What’s your definition of good taste?

Well, I think bad taste is when it’s not considerate and if it’s not been pushed. If you look at Galliano’s work, his style is pushed so much and it’s so over the top you don’t question it. That’s the hardest challenge when you become a commercial designer and start selling. You’ve come from a design school where you’re pushed to do amazing things but when you want to start selling you suddenly start stripping it back and paring it down.  So you have to remind yourself to push it. Otherwise, it doesn’t cross the border and people begin to doubt it.

Who’s your typical girl?

It’s really important to understand and it’s taken me time to get used to it but the UK is not my market. Although I show here and I’m based here, I don’t have a stockist here. The biggest is the USA. And I do a lot of custom orders everywhere from Egypt to Dubai. You would think it’s a young woman but it’s often women in their 40s and 50s and they just want amazing things. I do a lot of couture, like 20 or more orders a year. At the moment, one of my clients in India wants to give his fiancée a gift, so I’m doing a dress with lots of crystallized flowers and embroidery. You can really push it and not think about the budget which is amazing for creativity.

Where was your first internship?

During my foundation year, I interned at Alexander McQueen. It was the first season when Sarah Burton started. It was super strange but a really interesting transformation time. Everyone was really aware of his legacy and thinking what would Lee do and talking about it a lot. And then you saw the challenges designers have because of that, and you’re still working a brief because you have not set your own signature yet. But it was really interesting and really hard work. I’d finish uni at five and then go there until 3am. And lots of people write horrible things about how internships treat them but I never thought about in that way. It really preps you for being a designer and doing your final year.

Tell us about your campaign with the pornstar Jessie Andrews? 

I had read an article where she had written about femininity and about her adult work, and how it didn’t define her as a woman and I thought yes, whatever you want to do, no one should judge you about that, and that’s what being a modern woman should be about. So I wrote to her and we became pen-pals and decided to work together. We shot my SS17 campaign over 3 days and everyone involved including Jessie did it for free because we just wanted to work together and create something. It was a beautiful idea of being a woman and how no one is going to judge you or take you less seriously because you’re wearing pink or you shave your head. So when people ask who is your dream customer there really isn’t. Everyone who I have seen are all different kinds of woman. It’s not stereotyping a customer.

As a young designer do you think it’s important to be political in your work too?

Yes and you need to have an awareness of what is going on. Young designers have become much more aware of issues, that we weren’t aware of before. I voted but I didn’t pay that much attention to Brexit because I didn’t think it would actually happen. But then when it did and the pound dropped 17% in 24 hours and all my invoices were done in USD that meant instantly I was getting paid 17% less than what was budgeted. So suddenly I was very aware. The results have made everyone more aware and political in their work.

Can you give us a sneak insight into the inspiration behind your SS18 collection?

I was in NY and randomly went to an exhibition of Raymond Pettibon who is an artist whose work is based on the punk skate scene. He had lots of politically and naïve quotes and scribbles and I thought it was a lot like mine. And the same humour as my work. Then I went home to Estonia and his exhibition was there as well. And I was like why would that be here too? And then I found out he was half Estonian. When I started researching him I came across his work on the late 70s/ early 80s Californian skate and surf scene. It was about rich girls who used to drain their swimming pools when their parents were away and invite rough looking skate boys to use them to skate. There’s a sense of youth and hippiness to it but they had a very specific style into how they wear things. So for the collection it is almost re-imagining a girl as if she was there but as if it was today. As part of it I’m doing a collaboration with Vans. And all the sequins and prints link back to the 70s and that semi disco scene but again in more modern silhouettes, like oversized t-shirts that you’d steal from your boyfriend. 

There’s often a lot of pink in your collections…

Yes I like to use it to challenge people’s ideas of it. I don’t think wearing it defines if you are girly or not. Or a feminist or not. Some of my previous work was inspired by Russian prison tattoos and researching into what things meant. So the elements on the dresses were blown up and have a dark theme but I used a lot of pink so it looks quite bright. And that’s the same with Peter’s work. It’s super graphic and funny but the things he are questioning are not like war and women’s rights.

It feels very of the moment…

I think it’s important to have that. For me it was hard to start this season because when I started Trump and Brexit was just happening, I was coming back from a work trip to Shanghai and I was thinking I’m here making super expensive, super glam pink dresses and all this stuff is happening and it’s hard to ask yourself why the world needs this from you today? Why should anyone care if this is happening? So I think it’s important even if it’s through a pink and blue loophole that I’m showing this and that I’m showing I’m thinking and trying to consider what is going on. And in a way doing it in the older couture, production way, there is some kind of meaning behind it. It’s not just mass production.

What’s the greatest lesson you learned from working with Oliver Rousteing at Balmain? 

I remember we would be is this enough or too much and everyone would be like it’s too much and the Oliver would be like no, it’s not add some more chain, gold and crystals and even raw denim. And you’d be like what? And then you’d do it and it would go over the stage where it looked a bit 2000’s Britney and Justin to become an incredible couture piece. He told us, some people say Balmain is bad taste but what we do is incredible, amazing work and everyone here pushes their creativity every single day. When I was leaving he told me, that’s what I should remember. He is very intelligent and aware of the woman who buys it. And he is honest about who he is. He said to me, “We are not Maison Margiela. And I’m aware we are not Celine. And we will never be.” And that’s what I took away. It is important to know who you are as it is to know who you are not.

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