How Helena Bajaj Larsen Is Paving A Bold New Path For Homegrown Textile Art & Design

Image of someone doing embroidery on hand painted fabric using a sewing machine. Image of textile artist Helena Bajaj Larsen holding up on of her handpainted fabrics.
Helena Bajaj Larsen

When I was introduced to the work of Helena Bajaj Larsen by our founding editor, the first thing that stood out to me was the fact that she had worked with some of the biggest names of our time in fashion, on a global scale. She had participated in some of the biggest fashion competitions and showcases of our times. As someone who was exactly her age and was awestruck by her amount of experience, I confess that I went into the interview with questions galore about Helena’s experience and time working in leading design houses and competing in these shows. But after an hour-long, meandering conversation - I came away from it with the understanding that while she has learnt immensely through these associations, hers has been a life-long personal journey of textile exploration and experimentation. 

The Foray into Fashion

Half Indian and Half Norwegian, Helena grew up in Paris with a mum whose roots are in Jaipur and was not surprisingly a ‘design prodigy’. She mentioned how her multicultural background has been a significant influence on her work and perspective. "I have always felt connected to all three cultures, and they each bring something unique to my design sensibility." Helena did her first internship at Nina Ricci in Paris and then with Rohit Gandhi + Rahul Khanna in New Delhi when she was still in her teens. "My first internship with Nina Ricci in Paris when I was 14 was my first real foray into the world of fashion, and it opened my eyes to the intricacies of high fashion and the meticulous effort that goes into creating a collection." She also interned with Mary Katrantzou and Thakoon.

She was introduced to the Karigar industry during her internship in Delhi - interacting and learning from the artisans doing embroidery for the label. She went on to mention how witnessing the intricate embroidery techniques and the skill of the artisans was truly inspiring and deepened her appreciation for the art of textile craft and making. It is no wonder that today, despite having begun her journey with the world of fashion and attire which took her all over the world, she has come to the path she is currently on - of being an inspired textile artist who seeks to learn and adapt traditional craft techniques into her body of work through collaboration and experimentation. Today she is an artist who creates custom textiles for everything from attire to interior decor panels, display art, or even large-scale installations. 

Academically, Helena embarked on her career by pursuing a Bachelor's in Fashion Design at the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York. Her senior thesis at Parsons, which focused on khadi, the Indian homespun cotton cloth symbolising social change during the Indian Independence movement, was a pivotal point for Helena. This project was deeply personal, as her mother’s parents were both freedom fighters who were married by Gandhi himself, and was also a great way for her to showcase her penchant for storytelling through textile work.

Helena went on to mention the story of this thesis, explaining that for her project, she developed hand-painted fabrics inspired by a workshop she attended in Pune when she was 9 and then again at 13. "The techniques I learned there stayed with me and became a cornerstone of my thesis project I spent hours meticulously painting each piece of fabric, drawing on traditional Indian motifs and patterns." She even integrated hand-painting techniques that she deemed were labour-intensive, but ultimately worthwhile into the project. Incidentally, over the years her experimentation and free-hand painting techniques of textile technique are what she has become renowned for. Today, she continues to collaborate and experiment with her peers as well as with traditional artisans that she meets through her travels. 

Using her at Parsons final thesis as a launch pad, Helena founded her eponymous textile studio, right after graduation. Her dedication to exploring surface design through various mediums quickly garnered attention and accolades from the world over. She was one among those hand selected by Parsons alumni Donna Karan from the graduating class to work with her on a special project. This took Helena to Haiti where she honed her skills and challenging herself with Karan’s Urban Zen Foundation and Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation, developing a range of product lines acros materials/specialisations with artisans in Haiti. 

Helena’s innovative approach to design and distinctive style led to her winning many notable awards and residencies worldwide. Her creations have graced international runways, including New York Fashion Week, sponsored by the CAAFD in 2018, and Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai, where she was part of the #ArtMeetsFashion showcase in January 2019.

Further accolades include being part of multiple Vogue Italia Talent initiatives including Milan Fashion Week Sponsorships, and the India Scouting Edition in 2019. Helena went on to mention how the many competitions in the fashion world are what opened many doors for her. "I also applied to various competitions with my hand-painted designs. These competitions were a platform to showcase my work to a broader audience and gain recognition for my efforts. They also provided valuable feedback and opportunities for professional growth."

Until the pandemic, Helena was shuttling between NYC, Dubai and India and constantly creating on the go. Her multicultural identity, while still being strongly rooted in her Indianess has been a key factor in making her a notable young textile artist. “Even though I was raised in Paris, I have a very strong connection to Indian culture. This connection is evident in my work, which often incorporates elements of Indian art and craftsmanship. We used to come to India twice a year to stay connected with our family. These visits were essential for maintaining our cultural roots and staying close to our extended family. They also enriched my understanding of Indian traditions and aesthetics,” she says. "I speak fluent Hindi, and I understand Marathi. This linguistic ability has been incredibly useful in my professional life, especially when working with Indian artisans and suppliers. It helps in building a deeper connection and understanding with them.” This is how she was able to create her thriving eponymous brand while shuttling between cities. Helena's multicultural background profoundly influences her work, prompting her to seek out techniques and interactions from each place that she travels to.

Image of Helena Bajaj Larsen sitting amid her hand painted fabric. Image of textile artist Helena Bajaj Larsen's hand-painted fabric crafted into a jacket.
Helena Bajaj Larsen

Post-Pandemic Life, Saudi-Arabia and Moving Beyond Attires

Post-pandemic, Helena enrolled for a Master's in Luxury Management from SDA Bocconi in Milan. "The one-year masters in business from Bocconi in Milan, focusing on the business side of the design industry was instrumental in broadening my understanding of how design intersects with business," she says. "It wasn't just about design principles but also about the practical aspects of running a business in the creative field."

As someone who’d experienced the inner workings of Indian/Asian artisanal spaces, the experience of Italian ateliers and their many textile-making techniques were something that fascinated her and contributed to her growth as a textile artist and entrepreneur. She went on to mention how her time there gave her exposure to the Italian production and supply chain within the textile, fashion, and interior industries. She mentioned how this was crucial adding that, “Italy is known for its high-quality production processes, and understanding these helped me appreciate the craftsmanship and logistics involved in bringing a design to life.”

After her Master’s she was invited by her previous Dean of Parsons, who was the now CEO of the Fashion Commission of the Saudi Ministry of Culture - to partake in a Textile Art Residency along with a select few international global and local creatives. During this textile art residency, she had the opportunity to explore and engage with Saudi textiles and traditions. It was an eye-opening experience that broadened her understanding of the region's rich cultural heritage. During this time, she worked extensively with local craftsmen working with metal, embroidery, and other traditional materials. The non-commercial art project even gave her a chance to work with a 90-year-old craftswoman Um Ahmed, which she still considers to be one of the most enriching experiences of her life. 

"The collaborations from my time in Saudi were incredibly enriching, as I learned new techniques and approaches to design. The exchange of knowledge was mutual, and it was fascinating to see how our different cultural backgrounds could come together to create something new and beautiful."

Helena Bajaj Larsen

But on a personal note, Helena also started creating opulent abayas under her eponymous label that were made from hand-painted silk. The abayas were a fusion of Saudi traditional attire and contemporary design elements which Helena wanted to explore from a professional perspective to understand the market value of her creations as well. “The hand-painted silk added a luxurious touch, making each piece unique and reflective of both my style and the cultural influences of Saudi Arabia," she says.

Image of someone doing embroidery on hand painted fabric using a sewing machine. Image of textile artist Helena Bajaj Larsen holding up on of her handpainted fabrics.
South Asian Artists Are Using Textiles To Sculpt Narratives Of History & Identity

Helena landed her role at Iris Van Harpen when she had just started her project in Saudi Arabia. From Riyadh to Amsterdam with only a short stopover in Dubai to change her luggage and repack, Helena started her time at Iris Van Herpen, the minute her Saudi Residency ended. As someone who had long admired the designer’s work, the role at Iris Van Herpen was a dream come true for her. The iconic designer’s innovative approach to fashion that was almost quasi fine art is something that had always fascinated her. During her time there, she focused on sourcing unique materials, developing embroidery, and tackling a variety of special projects. But with her deep connections with her Indian roots, Helena brought in a lot of Indian artisans and craftspeople into the fold to create unique pieces for Iris Van Herpen. From materials like metal to hair, she helped the designer create pieces that were challenging but exciting. Helena mentioned how “the use of these materials pushed the boundaries of traditional fashion design and allowed us to create innovative and avant-garde pieces."

"I was deeply involved in the research and development of new materials and techniques, which was both challenging and incredibly rewarding, during my time at Iris Van Herpen. I collaborated a lot with Indian embroidery artisans to develop these unique dresses. Their expertise and skill were invaluable in bringing our designs to life. We created pieces that combined traditional Indian embroidery with Iris's futuristic aesthetic, resulting in truly one-of-a-kind garments."

Helena Bajaj Larsen

After her year-long tenure at Iris Van Herpen, Helena realised that it was an incredibly formative experience that has helped her grow, but she was also keen to return to taking her learnings and making it her own, as she'd always envisioned. The experience of working in such a forward-thinking environment provided her with invaluable insight into her path. She is currently focusing on revisiting her eponymous studio armed with a new set of global experiences across art, design and fashion.

Images of Helena Bajaj Larsen's Recent Surface and Textile experiments
Helena Bajaj Larsen

The Path Ahead for The Homegrown Textile Artist 

With the resolute goal in mind to integrate innovative techniques and materials that she has learnt in the last few years into her work, Helena Bajaj Larsen is seeking to create unique textile artworks that explore new frontiers in the craft. Over the years, she has gone through intense periods of back to back projects, followed by those of calmness. This has led the the artist to be a believer of the fact that patience and persistence are the keys to forming your path in the creative industry. "I reflect on the cyclical nature of opportunities and this pattern has taught me the importance of patience and persistence in the creative industry. It's during the quiet times that I often come up with my best ideas and prepare for the next big opportunity."

After her time at Iris Van Harpen, she has travelled extensively - from Masai Maara in Africa to parts of Colombia and Uzbekistan. No matter where she travels, she mentions how she finds ways to learn from the traditional artisans and craftspeople and even develop new pieces that merge her craft know-how with those of traditional crafts to create something unique and original. At this juncture, Helena is involved in a path of constant reinvention and experimentation.

“It's important to follow one’s path and be flexible in transitioning between roles and projects. Every experience, whether big or small, contributes to your growth as a designer. Being open to change and new opportunities has been a key part of my journey. My cultural and educational background has had a significant impact on my career trajectory and opportunities. The blend of Indian, Norwegian, and French influences, combined with my formal education in business and design, has given me a unique perspective and approach to my work."

Her multicultural identity and familiarity with many languages, when paired with her constant curiosity for learning and openness to experimental collaboration, is what has led her to the path she is on now. Today, Helena Baja Larsen is an experimental textile artist weaving intersectional cultural narratives through handcrafted textiles as pieces of art, design, and craft - both functional and otherwise. 

You can follow her here.

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