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Lilli Jahilo: feminine strength in Estonian design

Estonian design is a mix of Slavic lusciousness and Nordic minimalism

15 min read
© Herkki-Erich Merila

‘Estonian design is a mix of Slavic lusciousness and Nordic minimalism,’ says Lilli Jahilo, this year’s winner of Kuldnõel (Golden Needle), the most reputable fashion award in Estonia.

Fashion designer Lilli Jahilo is living proof that it is possible to practice haute couture in Estonia. Exclusive custom-made clothing is made from start to finish in-house, under the watchful eye of the designer. Experienced and highly skilful tailors give special attention to hand-made details and the quality of the finished garment. The designer herself is an amazingly warm and radiant person who bears a striking resemblance to the British film star Keira Knightley. ‘Yes, on my trips abroad, I have often been told I resemble her,’ Lilli laughs when I mention the similarity. ‘Of course, I cannot really see it myself, but I take it as a compliment,’ she goes on.


Talking of Keira Knightley, are you a film buff?

Not really. Sometimes when I am in conversation with someone from the States it seems that they have seen all the films in the world and I never quite know what they are talking about. My own life and everything around me is so exciting that I don’t really watch films. Most films are so disheartening and depressing − I don’t really want that in my life.

What inspires you?

For me fashion is about self-expression. I don’t consider myself to be a fashionista or someone who really loves to shop. I’m not the type. But I am really into this field and, already when I was a child, I wanted to become a fashion designer. I knew that before I even knew that such a profession exists. In this sense, my history (or so called story) is very boring. I was always sketching and cutting as a child and, in eighth grade, I decided I would go to the Academy of Arts and, indeed, I did.

  © Herkki-Erich Merila

What inspires me? It is life and everything that happens around me. Fashion is not a thing in itself − it is connected to everything that happens in the world. An exhibition I have seen, music I have listened to, everything which seems to be in the air at a given moment − this is where I get my thoughts and shape them into my art. I am very inspired by nature. Nature is one of the greatest artists around. It has everything, beauty and harmony and, to an extent, I try to capture that in my designs. There is so much negativity in the world and I don’t therefore see why I should create something which does not make this world a better place. I have often thought that it must have something to do with our background and roots. Estonian designers tend to have the desire to create beauty, differently for example from English or French designers who deal more with the avant-garde and deconstruction. But many of us still remember the Soviet times and perhaps this is why instinctively we want to create something which is different. At the same time, I can also be inspired by dilapidated buildings or ugliness into creating something beautiful.

Tom Ford has said that he considers himself to be an artist when he makes films, but as a fashion designer he is commercial. How do you see yourself — as an artist or commercial designer?

I am able to express myself through fashion. I manage my own brand and the company and I am free to do whatever I want.

At the Kuldnõel Gala, Lilli presented her crystal-clear sparkling and light spring/ summer 2017 collection Sahara

At the Kuldnõel Gala, Lilli presented her crystal-clear sparkling and light spring/ summer 2017 collection Sahara  © Stina Kase photography

What I meant is whether you think you make art or commerce?

I would place fashion in between the two − that’s what makes it fascinating and that’s why it creates conversation. Fashion is consumer art, design. And the aim of design is to solve problems, in other words, to create things which people need in their lives.

In your master’s thesis, you researched Estonian fashion in the 1930s-40s. What do you see as the greatest difference between fashion back then and today? Do the attempts and needs of fashion designers back then resemble those of fashion designers in 2016?

Lilli Jahilo dedicates many hours to perfecting one dress. She acquired her masterful embroidery skills at the Chanel haute couture embroidery atelier Lesage

Lilli Jahilo dedicates many hours to perfecting one dress. She acquired her masterful embroidery skills at the Chanel haute couture embroidery atelier Lesage  © Marin Sild

Back then there were not that many people who would have considered themselves to be fashion designers. Dresses and costumes were sewn in ateliers by seamstresses. But interestingly enough, the fashion scene back then still resembles that of today. For example, in the 1930s, fashion shows in cafes and restaurants were very popular − hat makers, shoe sellers and shops selling lingerie formed teams and used models to demonstrate their products. The fashion scene was buzzing until it was destroyed by the Soviet occupation, which prescribed the appropriate length of skirts and so on. That said, interestingly enough, even during the Soviet era, fashion design in Estonia resembled the trends abroad. This really is proof that there are ideas in the air because, as we know, nothing much penetrated the Iron Curtain. But looking good has always been important for Estonians.

Today we can really spot the desire to be Scandinavian in our fashion scene. Such a yearning for Nordic fashion was probably not characteristic of Estonian fashion back then?

No, I don’t think so. Scandinavia was definitely not seen as a trend-setter. I am not a fashion historian but, on the basis of the material I’ve researched, I would say that the fashion trends were coming from Paris.

One wall in your studio is filled with old photo-graphs of a beautiful lady. These are probably not just an arbitrary find in a thrift store?

No, the person on those photos is the aunt of my grandmother who was selected as Miss Estonia in 1931. In 1934, my great grandaunt moved to Paris where she worked as a model just like her other sister who had already moved there for work. Both married  Frenchmen and, because of the occupation, never returned to live in Estonia. During the Soviet era, they came to visit a couple of times, and my grandmother still tells legends about those visits − her aunts were real ladies with their elegant costumes and seemed like aliens here, because for the Soviet regime such bourgeois appearance was condemned. Neither of the ladies had children. I am the great grandchild of their third sister. It is not written on the photos who is the designer of the costumes but it seems that, for example on one photo, she is posing in a dress by Elsa Schiaparelli and on another one by Lanvin.

Were you already fussy about your clothes as a kid? Did you set clear conditions to your parents about it?

My mother can answer that question better than I can, but my other granny used to sew a lot of clothes for us − she had great taste. As a child, you are not so aware of what you should wear and what you shouldn’t. But I really liked to do handicrafts − to sew and cut, to create patterns… I still love to work with materials to this day. At university I loved to work with form and sculpture, I pay a lot of attention to detail − in other words, I am a real fan of my field. I get totally wrapped up in my creations; I am definitely someone who looks more inwardly.

Lilli Jahilo

Lilli Jahilo 

As I understand it, you do not want to limit yourself only to Estonia when it comes to showing your work? You have participated in Berlin Fashion Week and recently you showed your dresses in Dubai?

Well the Estonian market is just very tiny. There are too few people here for the designer clothing niche and I don’t think anyone should limit themselves only to their own home market. In recent years I have shown my collections around the world and in Europe, in the Netherlands my collections were seen by some Arabs who said: ‘Your luxurious collection is not meant for the Dutch market − you should take it to Dubai, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia’. And I then received several invitations to Dubai − one thing led to another. And as I believe that life is really about flow and one should go with the flow, I decided to go there. But then again it seemed pointless to just go there without having a showroom. So I first lived there for four weeks in order to understand how the market works and what people wear and, to date, I have done two showrooms which have received a very positive response.

Everyone assumes that Arabs prefer lace and gold, but I happened to meet customers who want feminine minimalism and a modern cut. As nobody else there is catering to such customers, they were really into my work. They appreciate the quality of the fabrics and the tailoring, saying you could detect it from miles away. The clothes looked great on the clients and I can proudly say that I have some of the best tailors in the field. In the years, I have also learned to understand the female figure, so the clothes really do fit well. In longer perspective I would want to find retail opportunities in Dubai although, like everywhere else in the world, the competition in the market is dense.

Lilli Jahilo

Lilli Jahilo 

Did you also manage to sell some of your garments whilst there?

Yes, online. People can try things on in the showroom and then order them online. It is great to think that my dresses are walking around from Mexico to Australia and from Austria to Beijing. I love the idea that fashion crosses national borders, view of the world and religion. My customers tend to be career women with families and active lifestyles who want to value themselves through quality clothes. It is unimportant if they come from Arabic countries, Europe or Asia.

What do you dream about?

Good question (laughs). I dream about doing what I do well and managing to make ends meet whilst doing it. Today we are working towards this goal, because it is really difficult to be an entrepreneur. I often just carry on because I am crazily in love with my profession. I wouldn’t recommend young designers to start their own company, rather it makes sense to first create a career in a fashion house. Honestly, had I known what I get myself into…. Let’s put it this way, I wouldn’t do it again. You have to pay the salaries of your employees and the bills every month and retain your artistic excellence at the same time − it is a truly difficult balancing act.

But what about dreams like getting your creations sold in Printemps or Harrods?

Yes why not, but I am not sure I should make such statements in media. If it comes true, I will say it out loud (laughs). Today it is a big deal for me that an Arab bride is getting married in my wedding dress and that we have clients all over the world. That already seems unbelievable but, of course, there are still big dreams to work for.

Lilli Jahilo

Lilli Jahilo 

Do you only wear clothes designed by yourself?

Yes! Ok, I buy jeans and sweaters, but everything else is my own design. Actually many of my designs, especially the bestsellers, have been created due to my own needs.

What do you think about the current state of Estonian fashion?

I like it that many designers are running their businesses in a very professional brand-centred way. Estonian design is very competitive, but we often lack sales skills. Designers also tend to have low self-esteem − who are we here on the edge of Europe kind of thing. But we are here and we could turn that into our advantage. Designers in Milan and Paris are known all over the world, but nobody knows designers from Estonia. That is our advantage which creates interest in us. I think that the times will come when our heritage will become a real advantage.

Lilli Jahilo

Lilli Jahilo 

It has happened to Georgian fashion — Vogue has written about it and the Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia became head designer of Balenciaga, and his brand Vetements is hugely popular globally…

Yes, that is a great example! After all, there is always the search for something new in the world of fashion hence it is somewhat natural that former eastern bloc countries receive attention. Our time will come, I believe. But it is very important to remain true to your roots and your own unique worldview, because this is what makes you special after all and what touches people. For example, in Arabic countries there are not many fashion schools and the popular thing to do is to go study in London. And what happens is that they are often forgetting their uniqueness and just doing what the European designers are already doing. This just proves that we should remain true to our own vision.

What is that?

Estonian design is a mix of Slavic lusciousness and Nordic minimalism. I have always noticed that Estonians have a really special sense of colour − we are not really so in love with the monochrome like Swedes and Finns, but we are also no fans of muddy, earthy tones which you see from Latvia southwards. Estonians like bright colours just like the ones on the traditional Muhu skirts.

Do Estonians have good taste?

What an intriguing question!


I think we should refine it a little. We tend to combine very different things like a dress and a sports jacket, but of course our way of dressing is also influenced by the climate. When you it’s so cold, you really don’t care what you look like as long as you stay warm! But sometimes it is obvious at parties or receptions that Estonian women like to show everything at once. They need lace and frills and then accessories, and curls and full make-up… in other words, showing off all you have! Or take another great example − when a Swedish man goes out in the evening, he wears a suit because he has spent the whole day in the office in his jeans and sweater. Here it is the other way around − men wear their suit to work and then go out in their jeans and jumper at night.

But I would still credit Estonian women as they have retained a very feminine taste. People like to wear dresses, which is great because a dress is one of the most comfortable pieces of clothing. After all, people’s choice in clothes reflects the times. It is interesting to look at fashion from the viewpoint of semiotics.

Estonian women tend to be very practical also?

Definitely, when buying a dress she wants it to last for years and to wear it in summer, autumn and winter, at weddings and funerals. So when you manage to design a dress like that, you have really scored. And it is a good approach from a sustainable worldview.

But not so much from the business point of view?

I don’t agree. I have a very responsible worldview, I believe we should consume fewer, but better quality products. Consumers should be aware of what they buy and not just buy clothes they rarely wear in bulk.

You travel a lot. Where would you say is the coolest current streetstyle in the world?

Actually I don’t travel as much as you might think; I revisit the same places a lot because of work. But this year Beijing really took my breath away. The streetstyle is really surreal, you cannot stop observing it. First there is their love for headgear − everyone has some kind of hat, regardless of whether it suits them or not. In addition they really love jumpers and t-shirts with all sorts of texts, without really caring what’s actually written there. There is a lot of scuba and techno materials, unbelievable amounts of polyester and nylon. I really wondered why they wear so little silk, being the greatest silk producers in the world. I was told that the Chinese associate silk with traditional costume and for them it is something ancient and therefore nothing special.

So that explains why their fashion style is so peculiar, why there is so much high-tech material. That is also why so many innovations in the fabric industry come from there − they yearn for it. The style of our Nordic neighbours is very casual, whereas Dubai is like New York − you will find everything there.

Source: Life in Estonia

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