Interview with Roseli Ilano of ILANO Designs

Photos by Maria Del Rio, Courtesy of Refinery 29

Photos by Maria Del Rio, Courtesy of Refinery 29

You know when its really late and you've already settled in to bed but aren't quite ready to sleep yet? So then you flip on your phone and open Instagram and scroll through hundreds of photos of everything imaginable. It was one of those nights for me. My guilty pleasure is sifting through the textile art hashtag and feasting my eyes on bright pops of colors, vibrating patterns, and lush textures by talented people who meticulously put these things together. This is how I found ILANO Design. It was an image of her "Seeing Eye" tote that caught my attention. After falling in love with her woven designs, I reached out to Roseli, the woman behind ILANO, and got to ask her some questions.

You have a background working in Social Justice and Human Rights. Can you talk more specifically about the work you did in these fields?

I studied Cartography at UC Berkeley and my dream was to use mapmaking as a tool for social change. After spending time mapping the devastating effects of gold mining on indigenous communities in the Northern Philippines, I spent the next decade doing solidarity work with various human rights organizations that work specifically in the areas of migrant, women’s, and indigenous rights. At home in Oakland, I spent many years as a community organizer working alongside youth ages 12-19, to fight for the creation of youth jobs, living wages, and violence prevention. I love working with young people, and in addition to mentorship, a big part of my work has been about integrating the arts, storytelling, performance, and writing into our campaigns. My focus has always been to put sisters at the center. “Sisters at the center” holds that for real social transformation to occur, women need to be part of shaping it. It’s how I live my life and how I run my business. There’s something very inspiring about women coming together in mutual respect to create solutions.

How did you come into working in design and fashion?

I’ve always been inspired by fashion and personal style as a form of self expression and a canvas for creativity. I love mixing patterns, colors, textures, and eras. The first thing I ever made on my sewing machine was a fuchsia scrunchie (so you know it was the 1990's). I was 11 years old. I had a big plan that I was going to sell them at school for $2 each. So you can see I was very entrepreneurial at an early age! My grandmother taught me how to sew. She also planted the entrepreneurial seeds in me because she would tell me stories of how when she was a young woman in the Philippines, she designed rattan furniture and partnered with local weavers to make bed frames, tables, and chairs out of the dried palm stems. I like to think she was the first real positive role model for me.

ILANO Design began in 2012. What was it like to start a business as an independent, female creator? What kind of support system did you have?

I started the behind-the-scenes work in 2012, but didn't launch the first collection until November 2013. Starting my own business has been the scariest journey I’ve ever been on, and the one I'm most proud of. The exciting thing is that it's still just the beginning, and I'm learning new things everyday.

I was confident creatively, but not with understanding how to set a strong financial foundation. I knew that I needed to educate myself when it came to being a business woman, so I hustled outside of my day job to do research, read up, and seek out advice from mentors and other women entrepreneurs (to whom I am extremely grateful for believing in me).

I graduated from a program called the Women’s Initiative in Oakland, California that helps low-income, high-potential women understand cash flow, sales projections, and build the “numbers” part of the business. I knew that I wanted to have a solid business plan. Starting a business is a major risk, and you are wracked with self-doubt, fear of failing, and uncertainty. There is never the perfect time to start, you just have to go for it. There have been many sleepless nights, many setbacks, but always the determination to learn from my mistakes and get back up. I started ILANO Design because I’m passionate about textiles, and I want to innovate the way we style our homes to how we style our wardrobes to include sustainable, ethically-produced fabrics, and create jobs that empower women. At the toughest moments, I always turn to our mission. It’s what keeps me going.

You collaborate with artisans in other countries. How do you feel your experience working with social justice and human rights has influenced your practice and your collaboration with these women?

The partnership with women artisans is the backbone of ILANO Design. I am committed to approaching our relationships as transformative, not transactional. My background in community organizing and human rights work most definitely guides my vision, and the way we work together because it’s a model based on economic empowerment and autonomy, not charity. It truly is a collaborative process. One that honors our artisan partners with living wages and respects their craft as modern artists.1

Photo by Matthew Reamer

Photo by Matthew Reamer

What is the collaboration process like - from designer, to artisan, to production, to sales?

I design all of our textiles in my Oakland studio. I start with a sketch, then move to translating that onto a repeat pattern digitally.

I’ll share the designs with our weaving partners and they’ll provide feedback and suggestions, ways to improve the design, or evolve it to be easier to achieve on the loom. We work with four generations of incredibly skilled master weavers, and they school me on what is possible!

Your designs feature the traditional with a modern edge. What inspires you creatively? How would you define your visual language?

There is so much pattern inspiration in the natural world and color inspiration in the built urban environment. With so many distractions in the world today, it’s easy to miss the beauty right in front of us, so I try to be in the moment. My eye is always wandering, my hand is always sketching. The central theme to ILANO Design in all of our collections is the color story. I want to tap into the way colors have the power to evoke emotions, and I want to design for an adventurous bold woman who has a point of view. If I were to describe my visual language it would be “saturated vibration.”

What is your favorite place that you have traveled to? Can you talk a little bit about that experience?

So hard to pick just one! Swimming with sea turtles in the Philippines, grilling pineapples in Martinique, digging through stacks and stacks of used LP records in Mexico City, eating my way through Paris. I love traveling, meeting new people, collecting textiles, and taking in all of the architecture and colors. The most special place for me is Joshua Tree, where I grew up camping as a child. I love the desert, its flora and fauna, feeling the sun on your back and  breathing in the dry air. Imagine looking up at millions of stars twinkling in a jet black sky on a clear October night. That’s my most treasured experience.

Who are some female creators that you admire or that inspire you?

Tilda Swinton’s otherworldly fashion sense and talent as an actor.

Yukumi Nagano from Little Dragon. Just watch her on stage. I feel most inspired when I see people like her so completely in the moment, so lost in what they love, that they give you permission to let go. When I listen to her music I feel uninhibited and free.

NoViolet Bulawayo. If you haven’t read her book We Need New Names, do so now. Literature and stories will save us.

My mom. She was a single mother and modeled what it means to live your life with integrity and kindness.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

I am unapologetically a feminist, yet at the same time I like to rely less on labels and more on actions. When I was young I used to think that your beliefs and values alone made you a good person, and now I think that’s only part of it. I think your actions, how you treat yourself, and how you treat others is most important. I don’t think being a feminist is a label you put on and take off, it’s how you walk through this world. As women, we are always our own harshest critics and are constantly battling messages that make it hard to feel comfortable in our own skin. If you love yourself, are compassionate with yourself, that’s the most feminist action you can take.