HOPE FOR THE CZECH TEXTILE TRADITION: Designer and artist Andrea Vytlačilová

Interviewed by Veronika Soukupová

For the zoom interview with Andrea Vytlačilová - clothing designer, textile artist and Central Saint Martins student - I came equipped with a thorough knowledge of her mighty resumé.Much older industry professionals would take pride in the work of Andrea Vytlacilova. I knew from the beginning that her story would take me on a journey stretching from traditions to her studies at a prestigious university in London - and to the mysteries of the world's fashion capitals. To me, the 24 year old Andrea Vytlacilova is one of the most influential figures of contemporary textile design, and above all, represents a great hope for the fading craft. We can trace the successful outcomes of her talent all the way back to a small village in Podkrkonosi, through to Prague, London, Paris, Stockholm and New York. Andrea has secured herself success in the world of high fashion. The experience she has gained along the way are translated into her own work, as she develops concepts in the spirit of sustainability and Czech tradition. By drawing on the substantial history of textile design, she keeps the tradition alive for future generations.

Andrea, how would you describe your relationship with fashion?

My bond with it is so strong that I cannot function without it. I don’t necessarily like using the word fashion, though, as I associate it with the notions I try to steer away from in my work - transience and speed. I prefer to talk about it using the terms of clothing and textiles, being the forms with which I live in a complete symbiosis, and through which I express myself. To put it simply, it’s my whole life.

I see lots of colourful fabric in the back of your office. You, however, are dressed in all black.

I love colours. They allow us to express ourselves, they bring us joy and they have the ability to convey a variety of moods. It is true, however, that I mostly wear black. This is perhaps because I travel frequently, and black being my work attire is very practical. At the same time, I’m also drawn to contrasts, so I tend to complement elegant black with something more colourful, such as a more distinctive bag, pair of shoes or a scarf. If I were to be more settled and entrenched in my life, I would relish colours much more.

What inspires you?

I would say that everything around me serves as inspiration to me. I try to observe the world around me, analysing what it is that grabs my attention first, and later focusing on that. In this way I often come across themes that would otherwise have not occurred to me. I try to search for connections between objects and their stories. Most of my inspiration comes from my own cultural environment - local myths and traditional crafts are an endless source of inspiration for me. I am also influenced by my boyfriend who is a painter, so we often create together, or my grandmother since she collects scarves.

A significant part of your work is inspired by traditional crafts and folklore. Do you also draw on your own family history? What reaction do the typically Czech motifs generate abroad?

My great aunt, whom I never had the chance to meet, practiced embroidery and lace-making, and I remember having a lot of her creations at home. My grandmother also loves and collects traditional Czech porcelain. I grew up surrounded by visual representations of folklore and craft, so whenever I encounter them now, I immediately think of home. The locally specific textile tradition is substantial in Eastern Bohemia, which is where I’m from. The motifs I use in my work are often met with fascination abroad and foreign audiences tend to perceive them as exotic. Folk art is instinctively natural in its form and it captures one's attention through its symbolism and connection to culture, so the fascination with it, I believe, is only natural as well. Everyone can find meaning within it that is specific to them; to some the colours serve as a reminder of home while to others they represent the art of Mucha.

The depth of connection you feel to Czechia is evident given the nature and aesthetic quality of your projects. Nevertheless, you chose to study textile design abroad at Central Saint Martins in London. What led you to this decision?

The main reason why I went to study abroad is because I wanted to study a specific degree unavailable back home, one that would intertwine the study of clothing with the visuality of fabrics. This combination became a crucial point. I wanted to have the ability to construct garments as well as to be able to design and weave fabrics. I also knew that CSM’s tutors are often returning students, so it has a strong net of practitioners. It was simply my dream. I applied to the university with a good foundation in drawing, as I drew a lot as a child, and thanks to my time at a French high school, I had good language preparation as well. Both of these aspects gave me great advantages. I am very satisfied with my studies and I’d say they have completely transformed me. Throughout the course we had great opportunities to get directly involved in the industry, gaining a sense of how things work and what is important to the practice. The way we are taught directly reflects the reality of the industry.

Within our culture, the art of craft and textile design holds a very strong tradition, nevertheless, at this present moment, we see it fading. How do you perceive this decline of the practice?

I think that as a society we have become used to a certain paradigm where we need lots of everything and as fast as possible. This constant impatience and obsession with new things, and their subsequent consumption, has managed to completely erase certain values. I try not to view this completely negatively, though, as this shift has also brought us experiential knowledge. Now we are beginning to go back in time and are building on the past. I attribute this shift to the coronavirus pandemic as well, where some deliveries have come to a halt, and we have come to the realisation that certain things can be produced by someone in the same country, perhaps even from the same region or city, freeing us from the need for products to be delivered from all the way across the globe. In this way we can begin to focus on investing into our own culture and on building a common heritage and tradition.

Are you planning on settling in Czechia in the future? Do you think that perhaps even here, the new generation is beginning to seek out and prioritise products made by locals?

Yes, I think that’s partly the case. Czechia is my home. I tend to think about it as though I went abroad to learn as many things as possible and to bring that knowledge back home. I think that the support for, and interest in, local makers is growing. Before it used to be just a few enthusiastic individuals supporting the craft, but the attentiveness to the work created locally is slowly becoming more common, which is great. I’m also realising that this is becoming the case with the older generation of my parents and grandparents as well, who are becoming increasingly more attentive to what they’re buying and prefer to invest in products by smaller creators. One develops a personal relationship to such purchases and associates a story with them, remembering why and how one felt getting the product.

I can only imagine how different the fashion and design scene is in Czechia to the one abroad. How exactly does it differ in your practice of textile creation.

Back home we tend to forget that in addition to the clothing itself, there’s also room to play around with texture, embroidery, pattern or the material of the fabric. We became accustomed to an external import of fabrics from abroad, which caused an interruption of the line of production here. In all the countries I’ve stayed in there’s a lot more attention being paid to textiles. The tradition prevails in England and France as there is still a large number of original textile companies and designers maintaining the craft. In the US it is, however, more commercial. What’s closest to me and my practice is the aspect of craft and storytelling.

How do you reminisce on working with the world’s largest fashion houses such as Acne, Marc Jacobs or Kenzo? In what ways did these experiences influence you in leading your own brand?

These experiences were absolutely transformative. My first experience within the world of high fashion was in Stockholm with Acne, where I immediately started as an intern in the role of a designer, so I was able to participate in the creation of the final pieces. When I arrived there, I quickly found out that I felt at home as Acne is housed in a former Czechoslovak embassy developed by architect Bočan, who also designed the embassy in London. The way in which these companies operate quickly becomes etched under your skin, and I found this to be, subconsciously, very influential. Certain processes within these companies are set up in a way so that they are the most effective, and so I learned how to divide my time efficiently; what issues to focus on and also that I didn’t have to deal with certain aspects of the production as they were the responsibility of others to take care of. All three of the companies I worked for worked with one specific textile company in Italy. After returning to my studies, I became acquainted with a tutor who coincidentally worked for the company and brought me into it. This meaningful connection, which I often reminisce about, led me to produce my textiles there.

How do these companies approach sustainability? Is it a given?

Acne puts a lot of emphasis on it. There’s a range of specialised departments and specific procedures used when seeking out new suppliers, for instance. In addition, Acne doesn’t fall under any conglomerate. This is different to the practices of Kenzo and Marc Jacobs, which operate within a different company structure. Sustainability is also being addressed there, although perhaps not to the same extent as it is in Europe. These companies operate within a system of their own, which has to efficiently function financially and must adhere to the learned cyclicality of collections. This means that they primarily use local components, which is a positive in light of sustainability. The advantage of operating in New York is that you can get basically anything in under half an hour.

Sustainability is a widely discussed topic. Could you describe how it is reflected in your own work?

My mom is an exobiologist, so I was acquainted with the notion fairly early on in my childhood. But you know how it goes, I was overwhelmed by it and at a certain point I was prone to rejecting it. I found my way back to it only when I left home. I was exposed to sustainable practices throughout my studies as well. We worked with innovative materials or companies that are adapting their production cycles. I now draw on this within my own work. For instance, instead of producing seasonal collections, I create through thematic cycles that draw on my experiences rather than on current trends. For my final project at university, I painted the fabrics with purely natural colours derived from various fruits and plants. I also work with local producers and get my cotton from Hořice and Dvůr Králové. Some of the scarves are wholly produced in one single region.

The presentation of your scarves ranges from being a part of an overall look, to being hung on walls in the form of framed imagery. This leads me to my next question about your views on the distinction between applied and fine art?

I don’t see any sort of boundaries between the two. Some of my clients wear my scarves and later decide to exhibit them in their homes, since they like to look at them. The scarf can function both as a fashion and an interior accessory. I’ve had a similar experience with chopsticks, which I’ve brought from Japan. I first exhibited them in my home, and only years later I began to actually use them. Such objects can take on different forms, and this playfulness and spontaneity is what I enjoy the most.

Do you still have any other fashion or artistic dream that you would like to fulfil?

One of my biggest dreams is to work for Dior. Their current work under the creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri resonates with me deeply precisely due to the emphasis on the connection between clothing, textile practice, and admiration for traditions and crafts. We’ll see how it goes. My dreams work as a kind of engine, but so far what has worked for me best is to trust my instincts and let things come to me freely without forcing them. These things always turn out in the best possible way they can. It might sound like a cliché, but my biggest dream is to do what I enjoy and to create work that brings others joy as well.

See the Czech version of this article  together with visual artworks in NOVY ZINE, issue 1.