GOLDFINGERS. AURELIA LEBLANC’S ART OF MAGIC
To meet Aurélia Leblanc, you have to push a metal door and enter a creative oasis near the Porte Saint-Martin, in the teeming Paris’s 10th arrondissement. It’s a beehive of activity. Aurélia’s studio is amongst many tucked in that enclave. Her studio is a windowless space in the basement of a small building which she shares with another young artist. Looms are occupying most of the space. A young intern is working on a project with recycled denim fibers. There are samples and threads all over. Fortunately, Aurélia will soon leave that cramped space for a bigger atelier.
She is one of Europe’s most talented and sought after textile designers - “creator” is a better definition of what she does. She’s an experimenter, imagining the most unusual and original materials to weave. France’s prestigious Maisons de Couture seek her creativity and talent to transform ideas and sketches into spectacular pieces which will strut on the runways. We spoke with her on the phone as she was on maternity leave for a few weeks, expecting her first child.
Sonam Khetan How would you define yourself ?
Aurélia Leblanc I am a textile creator. There’s as much technique as art in what I do in my atelier. I create textiles that are unique, exclusive for haute couture, which is the core of my work, but also for home design and art. The core of what I do in my atelier is to highlight materials that are rare, exceptional and often not used in a particular industry. What I do is weave them in an artisanal way and highlight them, blend materials that are unusual, like fibers from banana tree leaves woven with metal or horse hair, linen with ceramic, for example. The idea is to marry, to connect unusual and surprising materials, while also exemplifying the values of the brands I am working with.
SK How did you become what you are today ? Did you always know this is what you wanted to do ?
AL It was really from the moment I opened my studio. I had this idea to be an artisanal atelier, not an industrial studio and for me what defines an artisanal practice is imagination, the materials and most of all to always come up with ways to overcome not technical difficulties. We can weave any material because we do everything by hand. It’s something I always felt. Also, when I started my studio seven years ago, in 2016, I wanted to be the guardian of those values.
SK You were attracted to textiles since your childhood ? Was it connected to your family?
AL My grand-mother was a milliner and I saw her constantly sewing and we always had tons of fabrics at home. I remember going with her to the Marché Saint-Pierre (Note: a 6 story fabrics emporium at the foot of the Sacré Coeur, in Paris) and touching the different fabrics. There was a distinct desire to create. At one point, I asked myself if I wanted to be a stylist, but I realized that my way of expressing myself was through textile, what it was made of, how you could weave it, with what material. That spoke to me.
SK How do you decide which material you’re going to be using for each project ?
AL Each project needs reflection and is unique because there’s the whole story of the project. If it’s for a Haute couture maison, we are creating what we call an “imaginaire” - a fantasy - around the theme of the défilé and we create a material which is specific to a project. For instance: How would you create a dress for a witch ? Starting from this idea, I created a “chevron” - herringbone - pattern with feathers in 3D because it’s as if the material becomes bewitched and alive. Another project was around a woman doing scientific research. I worked with ceramic and upcycled jeans to create beaded jeans -”jeans perlé” -. Each time, it’s the result of the work of my hand, which is singular to me, but I think about the technique in relation to the story. The technique is here to illustrate the poesy of the story. I want people to see the story more than the technique in the materials you’re using.
SK It’s really a co-creation with the brand you’re working with.
AL Yes, absolutely ! Brands don’t come to me for the technique. They come to me for the creative side of my work.
SK How do you nurture your imagination ? How do you imagine the way a witch would dress, for instance ?
AL I’m really being inspired by everything. Paintings inspire me enormously. It’s my primary source of inspiration because of the color palette, in particular. When I am given a theme, I completely immerse myself into it. If I am working on a collection inspired by the 1930’s, for example, I even listen to the music people were listening to then, what architecture, what vibrations. It’s a work of deep research I do. I might find books at the Bibliothèque Forney (Note: located in the 4th arrondissement, Forney is a research library with an emphasis on decorative arts and fashion, in particular); I can also just be wandering around; I can be inspired by a photography book. It’s very diverse. I can also be inspired simply by people walking in the street, with the kind of fabrics they are wearing, the way they assemble different fabrics. I am very lucky to be in Paris ! I am nurtured by the city.
SK What’s the first step in a project ? How do you come up with a dress for a witch ?
AL That’s the most difficult part. It’s a process of elimination. I create lots and lots and lots of fabrics until I select the ones that make the most sense for the project, which tell the story best. I very rarely repeat something I have already created. It’s really a matter of feeling. I will feel if what I have created is aligned with the project. It’s something I cannot explain. The people who come to work with me ask me “Do you feel it’s good, that it’s the right material?” It’s not easy to answer. It’s something I feel in the gut. It’s aligned or not.
SK Do you spend a lot of time researching new technologies and new materials, new fibers, for instance ?
AL I am not really dealing with new technologies, unless I want to make something in 3D. My practice is foremost about artisanal techniques. But sometimes I find new materials.
SK Which ones ?
AL Like weaving glass. It’s something I was developing with Lucie Viaud, who conducts research on glass and has developed something she calls “géoverrerie” - geo glass - a glass reflecting the characteristics of the place where its components come from. We’ve used optic fibers to do something completely artisanal and ecological.
SK How did you come to use glass ?
AL It came naturally. With Lucie, we were constantly going to each other’s atelier. But I was also attracted to this material. Glass is the opposite of textile, it’s heavy, cold, rigid. We were wondering if it would be possible to weave glass. It was almost a game and then we got absorbed by the challenge.
SK How much time did it take you to come up with a solution to weave glass ?
AL Three and a half years to come up with the right size for the glass fiber and the right density. We had to do a lot of research to work with a material which would be flexible but structured enough, which also would not break.
SK Is it the most unconventional material you’ve worked with ?
AL Yes ! It’s very different from working with flowers, pearls, and ceramics. Each project is enriching.
SK Do you sometimes have to create the tools to work on some of the materials you weave ?
AL Yes, sometimes, like weaving glass. Each project has its own technological challenges, but it’s more the technique which needs to be imagined. Working with wool, metal, ceramics, jeans, etc., requires different ways of working. What was different with glass was the technique. We had to work together, so we were weaving with four hands. That was completely different.
SK Now you’re working with glass like with any other material ?
AL Yes. But, you know, it’s a craft where nothing is ever the same. So, you have the experience which allows you to adapt. I have been doing this since I was 22 years old. I know nothing is ever the same and that I’ll be surprised all my life. It’s really the material which decides how it’s going to be. I’ll never have the last word. And I never want to lack audacity with some materials because I would tell myself it’s too risky ! I much prefer being faced with challenges when working with unusual materials than working with fabrics that I know. One always finds the solution to a problem, always.
SK How do you start any project ?
AL It depends. Either it’s a technical question or a creative and poetic question in which case I immerse myself in the scenario. Sometimes we know right away, we feel it’s really the solution, that it works. The most difficult part is to find the sweet spot between how we feel about the sample we have created and what the client wants. I make, make, make and my heart tells me “that’s not it, that’s not it”, and suddenly I find it and it triggers something and I create a series of samples that I feel are working. Often we search a lot before finding.
SK When a brand comes to you, do you sometimes influence the project in a completely different direction because of the materials or techniques that you might be suggesting ?
AL Often, the designer is waiting for the material to design it. Because we’re dealing with very specific fabrics, the silhouette comes afterwards.
SK What textile would you like to create ?
AL I have a big dream which is to create a fabric one could eat ! I really would like to work with food. It’s a passion of mine. I have already tested that with a food designer. It was not very convincing: it was very beautiful, but not very good. I am dreaming of weaving something around food.
SK Are we at a moment when research is introducing new techniques, new materials ?
AL What’s really happening is not new technologies, but the rediscovery of locally grown materials. We work with producers who are much closer to us. We are rediscovering the richness of local production in wool, linen and hemp. There are many raw materials which we can use. That’s the real innovation. And the traceability of the material.
SK Since you’ve opened the studio, which has been your favorite project ?
AL You’re asking to choose among my children ! That’s impossible ! Each project is different, the relationship with the client is different each time and rich in its own way. Each time, there is a huge emotion, a huge satisfaction to see the unique piece. I cannot choose.
SK Would you say your work is very physical, that it demands a lot from your body ?
AL Yes ! And it’s really important to take good care of the body.