If you met Astrid Rajalo on the street, you’d think she has a serious outlook on life – blond hair combed neatly, dressed in all but black and white. But ask her about fashion and leather design and her enthusiastic smile will betray her creativity.
“It’s interesting – I immensely enjoy playing with colors in my design but I never wear colors myself. Maybe it’s a balance thing,” Astrid reflects.
And yes, her neat leather accessories are colorful, playful statements by themselves. So, we paid her studio a visit, talked about her brand, leather craftsmanship and where fashion is headed these days – all in the midst of little colourful piles of squares and circles.
Where did Astrid Rajalo the brand start from?
My brand as it is now started around 10 years ago. Well, I’ve actually been working with leather since graduation from Tartu Art School in 1988. After a few years I became self-employed and for a long time, I sold my products on handicraft markets in Germany.
It was a very convenient period where I made the products here in Estonia and with the help of a schoolmate who lives in Germany, I only sold it there. Back then I made more traditional leatherworks like book covers using more ancient techniques.
That cooperation lasted altogether for 17 years until I realized my products started having a new, more design-like look that didn’t really fit at those markets anymore. There was a turn taking place in me as well – I realized how excited I became looking through fashion and accessory design magazines.
Although you can see my trademark rounds and squares already in 2009, I did continue going to Germany until 2013. After deciding I wanted a change, everything else fell to its own place in time.
In 2014, I remember I received this e-mail on if I’d like to join the export programme at Tallinn Creative Incubator (Tallinna Loomeinkubaator). It was precisely for accessory designers and I got accepted. In 2016, I got a chance to join the incubator’s two-year programme and I got my own studio in Veerenni.
What followed were two extremely intense years. I had my own consultant, we had a chance to use the help of several expert mentors and every week there were university level lectures on branding, marketing and business development. Next to all of that, I also had to design and produce my design. It was such an exciting experience but I was quite burnt out afterwards.
But during these two years, this is when my brand with its graphics and look was created. Somehow, through another chance, I was assigned an intern – Tähe Kai – who was studying at the time and created my online presence.
We had such a similar taste in the brand language that I almost never had to change anything. I sometimes still call her my partner because she was such a big help and sometimes still helps with the digital side of things.
How is it to work as a designer in Estonia?
I’m not sure if it’s just me and my network but I think that design as a field in Estonia has gone through a steep curve in the past 5 years. There have been years when tens of new brands come out of the Creative Incubator. At some point it felt like everybody’s a designer!
It started from a completely different place than it is today. I remember in 2009-2010, resellers had a real problem finding products to sell. It was very calm back then and I liked it so much, I really asked myself why I had ever gone to Germany.
In around 2015, competition really picked up. Most people don’t see the difference between good quality craftsmanship and mass-produced, well-marketed items. Quite a few stores picked the latter or their queues were just so long that some “true” designers had enough of it and left the field.
I’ve also noticed that a formal art education makes artists stand out. You can see it from their form and technique. For example, my friend Mare Kelpman who’s been teaching textile design in Estonia Academy of Arts for 30 years, came out with her brand a few years back. She doesn’t have a business background, was never part of any incubator but her design and the quality are incomparable and just phenomenal.
So, I think there’s been a bit of a cleansing going on – those who were in design because it was fashionable or just a business, have slowly left, and artists with a vision and passion remain. Like with every other sector, tough competition roots out the ones who weren’t absolutely committed to it.
You can really see that resellers still have a strong bargaining power to choose exactly which products to take on. As a designer, you’d rather have your entire selection out to exhibit the nature of your brand in depth.
I understand that only bestsellers will be picked in a highly competitive situation but for example, some of my larger, more experimental accessories are then left out.
My experience going to design markets here in Estonia is that you can’t make the decision for your customer. Yes, Estonians are less expressive in what they wear but you’d be surprised at how varied tastes are. I’ve always dreamed of having a small pop-up or a permanent place where everything I create can be shown, where you’d almost feel yourself as if in a museum.
In your opinion, is there an ideal form of fashion and design?
I’m really seeing a change happening in the fashion world. There are no strict or certain trends or rules.
This is best reflected in fashion weeks. This year’s Paris Fashion Week for example – usually a very conservative event – was transformed into a game, a show. It was African themed and you could really see that designers exhibited anything that had come to their mind. Wild colours, patterns, forms and shapes, anything out of the ordinary.
Unsurprisingly, many conservative critics said it was Rio carnival, not Paris Fashion Week.
Even Berlin Fashion Week that is usually less imaginative and follows German stereotypes, was set up as a paradise, the halls full of sand and palm trees, brought to life by virtual reality.
Estonia is different. Whereas in other parts of the world minimalism is going out of fashion, it is increasingly popular in Estonia. I’m sure it’s to do with the more Nordic and modest nature of our people.
At the same time, people are willing to experiment with their looks – soon there’s not much difference in how our and a metropolitan street looks like in terms of fashion.
How do you make your design?
All my products are made of Italian leather that will only look better in time. And – as long as humanity eats meat, leather is a byproduct from the food industry.
By EU laws, leather processing can soon only be done with natural products and chrome can’t be used anymore. It does also mean that leather won’t be grade one in future – you’ll see the imperfections without chroming – but the process is way friendlier to people and the environment.
If I made one wrist band from the very start, I’d say it takes 3 hours. Usually, I don’t make them one by one though, so it’s a faster process.
My wristbands for example are made of two layers of leather – the colourful top and a strong lining that makes it durable to wearing. My bands are always attached with a button that is covered with leather to avoid skin irritation.
On top of the band I attach details that are cut out with large machines in Tartu. I use machines because you could never cut a perfect circle by hand nor could you do it that fast.
The sides of these details are then all painted by hand for a smooth and neat finish. This process probably takes the longest but ensures that humidity won’t affect the material – unless you take a bath with them!
The rest of creating the wrist band is just pure fun! All the circles are in a pile on my table and I just start matching them with each other one by one. Every year I have two new collections and it leaves a lot of room to play around.
One thing that still amazes me, after all those years, is seeing how much the order of colours changes the outcome. I could use the exact same colours but one combination can look serious, cold, formal, and another the exact opposite – harmonious and sweet.
Your handwriting is very recognizable. Where do the circles and rounds come from?
I’m not sure which was first, researching geometry and symbols or using them in my work. In any case, I became very interested in the meaning of geometry and the symbolism behind it. History is full of it and I started tying my design with the philosophy.
The shapes I use the most are circle and square. Circle is a strong element that has been used in jewellery as a symbol that protects us from evil since ancient times. It expresses unity and completeness. A square symbolizes earthly creation. It’s reflects order and manifestation.
Geometry has been in my hand and soul for a long time already though. Already back in art school I remember being told my work follows certain geometrical patterns.
Photography: Carina Paju