DISCOVER THE UNEXPLORED IN MONGOLIA – INTERVIEW WITH MM TRENDY
It started with a piece of fabric, it finished designing shoes. Wait, wait … is it over? Actually, this is just the beginning of the story. Elena Gasulla Tortajada and Israel Lopez Rosas, founders of the Liebre Style footwear brand, have been living in Szczecin for a year. When they are in this place – they design. When they are gone – they discover the world. And what about these trips?
How did you discover Mongolia?
– Israel: It’s a coincidence. Several years ago we used to live in Indonesia. I could not work there because of the prolonged visa regulations. I decided to use my free time to learn photography and travel. After my visit to India, I decided that the next direction of my trips would be “undiscovered” places. That’s what Mongolia turned out to be. It was two years ago. I spent a month there, taking pictures.
Why did you decide to go back there? Wouldn’t it be better to choose a new direction?
– Elena: It just so happens that Israel, from every trip, brings me the most typical fabrics for a given region. During an expedition to Asia, he discovered that Mongolia offers a surprising variety of textiles. You can see it in the Mongol dress itself. Some costumes are made of up to 20 different fabrics, different from each other in terms of color and pattern. You might think that the person who came up with the idea to sew it was a bit crazy, but I think it’s a good madness (laughs). Ever since we became designers, we want to reach such places. We decided that Mongolia has much more to offer. As you said, it is a country “undiscovered”, in addition with a strong nomadic tradition.
How does the fashion market look like in such a place? Does it exist at all?
– Elena: There is but it is in very early stages. Mongolia until recently was a communist country, some areas of the economy are just beginning to shape. It turned out that Ulaanbaatar operates a university where students learn to design. I managed to get in touch with the director of this school, she introduced me to some designers with whom I had several meetings. They were people of my age, born in the 1980s. In their work, they are strongly inspired by the styles of Japan and Korea. They like to mix them with traditional Mongolian style.
We are talking about people from the capital, and what about those who avoid the city? It is hard to imagine fashion to be in the circle of their interests.
– Israel: Their everyday life looks different than in the capital. The nomadic lifestyle is something that the Mongols still love and respect. Mongolia is actually Ulan Bator, another small city and hectares of land around. These people love nature, contact with nature, animals. They live in tents on the prairies and with only the most necessary things to survive. But do not think they are poor. No, no … we’re talking about families that have four hundred sheep, a few hundred cows, and horses. Fashion as an industry is not really their biggest priority, but you have to admit that the clothes they wear actually are beautifully designed and sewn with excellent quality materials.
Did you manage to meet nomadic people?
– Elena: Last time Israel visited Mongolia he made friends with a guide who invited us to his family’s tent for the whole weekend. We could see firsthand what their lifestyle looks like. Anyway, it was not the first time for Israel. During a previous visit to Mongolia, he lived in a tent for a full week.
What were you doing during this time?
– Israel: Back then these tents were completely cut off from things like the Internet, computers and other technological innovations that fill our everyday life. There is no much contact with the outside world. I came to Mongolia as a photographer, so I focused mainly on taking photos.
– Elena: … but to be honest, Israel was quite bored after a week (laughs). This is not due to the lack of media, but due to the fact that he was not able to communicate too much. Even if the “household” gives you attention, the language barrier is still there. Someone might think – what’s the problem? But imagine – a tent, around a kilometer of flat land, no forests, some few mountains. Only you, a family of about two, hundreds of sheep and a dog to protect the herd.
And what about basic entertainment like music, art …?
– Israel: A loved entertaining activity is sharing their family photo album.
– Elena: I remember that during a trip to Mexico we met many communities living according to their ancient traditions. They created a lot of art. I didn’t see this happening in such an abundance in the nomadic settlements that we visited in Mongolia. I think it’s because of their lifestyle, which is simply wild. They deal with hundreds of animals throughout the day. If they have children, they must take care of them basically on their own. Nomadic households are quite compact consisting of only 2-5 family members. In winter, the temperature drops to – 20 degrees, sometimes even – 30, so in the summer they are preparing for winter. And that’s how it’s going. For most nomadic families, there is simply no time to play music or paint. They have more burning priorities.
They do not have much entertainment, but they probably have an exceptional kitchen. What did you eat while in the tent?
– Elena: Food is very important to them. The basis is meat, of course from own breeding. They also drink a lot of milk. They do not grow nor eat many vegetables. There are not many spices. Everything tastes very natural. A typical drink is milk tea with salt. To me, it tastes more like a soup than tea… I didn’t think that anyone would get me to drink it but it was delicious (laughs).
What about the marmot meat? Mongolia was once famous for this.
– Israel: Today, the killing of marmots is forbidden. They are protected. Going on a trip, you can see them leaning out of their holes along the road.
In Poland, when guests visit us, we set a table, take out the alcohol and make a small feast. How about in Mongolia?
– Elena: Nomads produce alcohol from the mare’s milk. When they receive guests, the head of the family pours this drink into a mug. Everyone gathered sits in a circle on the floor and everyone drinks from the same mug. It is a ritual. When taking a cup, it is necessary to take it with your right hand, drink it and pass it on. If you take it with your left hand, you will bring misfortune to the family. Another curiosity is when you are eating hot dishes. We were served a dish resembling a big fried “empanada”. Very hot. We had to eat them with our hands. The housekeeper explained that this meal is very healthy because of its temperature. But this is not all to it. They told us that it’s good to rub your hot and greasy fingers with your earlobes. This way, you can give heat to your body. It sounds a bit funny but think about the low temperatures that prevail there in winter. Any form of warming up the body is good.
They must be really strong.
– Israel: Yes, the Mongols have very strong organisms, they are very healthy, very strong, have a great condition, strong bones, white teeth. They take care of themselves.
However, your goal was not to learn about the habits of other cultures but to find designing inspiration. Did the nomads help you with this?
– Elena: Whenever we go somewhere, we try to immerse ourselves in the local culture as much as possible. We avoid tourist traps and very popular places. We always like to find people who help us get to know the inhabitants of a given region. The habits of other cultures are important to us. Thanks to them, we can better understand what really interests us, their traditional textiles.
– Israel: During this visit, we bought about 40 different textiles, completely different from those bought on my first trip. When you look at them, their true beauty needs at first some time to unravel. For Europeans, they can be a bit shocking due to the many colors. However, when you divide them into unique pieces, you see that each of one has its own charm and story. A good example is this orange-blue material. It represents Mongolian life – a tent set among the mountains, under the starry sky. Depending on the angle from which you look, the light reflects differently pulling out a different shade. We will use these new textiles in our upcoming collection of shoes and accessories.
These materials have a very high quality. How do the Mongols produce them?
– Elena: It’s all silk. However, it is not the Mongols who produce it, they simply do not have such industrial capability. All production takes place in China, which is the No. 1 producer in the world and they indeed do the highest silk quality. The Chinese have even developed special textile patterns that fit with the Mongolian tastes, traditions, and customs.
For the Mongols, wearing traditional clothing is normal. Unfortunately, there are less and less such countries.
– Elena: When we lived in Indonesia, we learned about the batik, their traditional textile made of cotton and printed with national symbols and fauna. Batik is made by covering the fabric in wax and bathing it in a dye that colors the places uncovered by this wax. As a result, beautiful patterns with floral motifs are obtained. The authorities of the country noticed that the traditions associated with this fabric were beginning to disappear. Hence, the cultural identity of society also was disappearing. To prevent this, a “batik Friday” was established. On this day, everyone without exception wears their batik outfits, in the office, in the street, in the supermarket. Everywhere. On those days, my office looked extraordinary. And so the batik regained its importance.
Do you think that this way of thinking could be accepted in Europe? Polish traditional costumes occupy museum cabinets rather than wardrobes.
– Elena: I admit that I do not understand why people in Europe are so boring when it comes to clothing. Why do they prefer mass-produced clothes from multinational chains? Why do people avoid colors? The cover of the last Polish Vogue reminds us of the beautiful traditional outfits from Poland. I’m not saying that we should walk in full regional costumes every day, but we could use elements of it to enrich our individuality and how we look. Not only the example of Indonesia proves that this is viable. Recently, I saw in the social media a movie showing how Dior’s designers copied the traditional Romanian vests and added to their collection. These otherwise traditional clothes all of a sudden looked modern again and were sold in the millions.
Only that this film has a second bottom. Dior’s designers have simply stolen this design. Where in your opinion does inspiration turn into plagiarism?
– Elena: That’s right, they should have pointed out where these vests were originally from. It was not fair how they copied the design and never give attribution to real designers in Romania. However, I also think that you must be a real genius to come up with an idea that absolutely no one has ever come up with. Even if you start by copying something, at some point you add something of your own and reinvent it – I think this is also inspiring. However, the most important thing is really, to be honest, and inform about the source of your inspiration.
In your case, almost every pair of shoes has a different story. Do you share any of these stories with their buyers?
– Israel: Of course we do. After all, these stories are a part of what our shoe collection is about.
Want to see the shoes in our collection that are inspired by the Mongolian textiles?