Alnea Farahbella, Toit Volant Designer
My childhood was a flash of many homes, families and places. Nomadic defines the the five countries I have lived in before the age of 35. I was raised in Victorville, California, where I spent most summers walking around in the deserts with a wooden stick, hitting cactuses and Joshua trees, trying to break off the spikes that seems to find a way to prick you.
I was raised by my grandparents, “Lola and Lolo” in Filipino. My Lola loved sketching her dresses and having a local seamstress sew them up. She took me to fabric markets where she would find 1-2 yards of polyester pretty floral printed georgette. I still own a cap-sleeve metal sew-on snap top in multi-color polka-dot print. Her designs were delicate and feminine. I remember watching her every morning dress up to go to her small shop to sell clothes. The final touches would be her red lipstick and ornate earrings. She was grand and beautiful. My Lola was my definition of beautiful.
My Lolo was calm, kind and handsome. He had this dark brown skin that wrinkled from the obvious time he has spent in the sun. He dressed in the same button-up shirt in various colors, similar high-waisted pants and one large ring. He had a clean look. I still find myself imitating his style today with my button-up shirts. My Lolo was all about uniform dressing. If he loved a fit, he made the same pants in 5 different colors. He made me love the concept of uniform dressing.
After college, I was thirsty to see the world. I ended up living in Osaka, Japan to teach design process to Japanese students. It was a surreal time. I adopted a small shitzu dog. She was odd and fierce. I named her Tiger. There was so much learning and unlearning. A time of discovery and going back to my roots as an Asian, Filipino woman.
After deciding to leave Japan, I found myself teaching fashion design to fashion students in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Two years later, I moved to Hanoi, Vietnam as I had visited several times and fallen in love with the old city. I rode motorcycles all over Asia with my dog Tiger in a backpack. We found old houses to live in that had character and history. We once made a small tent in our living room. We would watch movies and have our glass of wine inside our home-made tent.
My time in Asia solidify my love for oversize dresses as the wind would blow them backwards riding my motorcycle. I would layer these dresses to the max shield me from dust when riding my motorcycle. Style became an armor and expression. It became part of the memories of my wild adventures.
I lived in Asia for 10 years before returning back to the U.S. I met women from around the world. I learned about different cultures, arts, music, philosophies, lifestyles, traditions, ceremonies. I gained different insights into ways women dress, lived, loved and survived. I saw all shapes, sizes and skin colors from around the world. My travels allowed me keep redefining and reinventing the idea of beauty. It was a time of exploration. I met my partner and husband, Arno, in Hanoi, Vietnam. He lived in Paris at the time. In 2014, he left Paris, we took our mini-cooper and drove cross-country from New York to Los Angeles.
In January of 2017, we launched a mini collection and created, Toit Volant, French for “Flying Roof.” It seemed appropriate to create a brand that would dive into my experiences and travels. The first mini collection was fabrics I had collected around Asia during my travels. I turned them into dresses. I realized that the brand would serve as a platform for a visual manifestation of the contemporary woman that relates to unconventional beauty and lifestyle.
Our brand and designs commits to responsible, sustainable, ethical practices. Our journey is towards circular models, progress, creating with people and planet in mind. We are mindful to be socially inclusive and to be an affordable contemporary price point brand.
We believe that every woman is beautiful and significant in this world. Fashion is a tool that a woman uses to express the character that is within. Our oversize signature silhouettes exudes the demands placed on all women today. Our designs creates a vision of the worlds, universes, lives, created for women everywhere. We believe every woman is bold, dynamic, powerful and intelligent.
Arno and I live in Los Angeles with our second adopted rescue Shitzu Lahsa mix dog named Metallica, nickname, “Meta” which translates to happiness in Vipassana.
The identity of our brand is closely linked to the purpose of our factory, Nana Atelier. The idea of Nana Atelier developed from a frustration in the lack of cultivation of technical talent and skill in Los Angeles. Upon first arriving in Los Angeles, Alnea started exploring factories and while she saw potential, she also experienced heartbreak from what she found. She asked many of the factory owners if she could sit and use their machines to produce Toit Volant’s orders. Sitting in many of these small factories formed empathy for the day and a life of an operator.
According to Alnea, she had seen large and small factories all over the world but never worked in them: “I asked myself if could work in the settings of most of the factories in Los Angeles 40-60 hours a day. The answer was ‘no.’ I even compared it to an artist studio and a furniture maker where there are plenty of tools and chaos but it isn't the same.”
“I asked my partner if he would help me create a small team to produce our collections as I wanted better practices, better work space to create our garments. We took a big leap. We hired a couple of machinists. I used my teaching skills to teach the operators.” In 2017, Nana Atelier opened.
Nana Atelier’s mission as a manufacturer is not to hail itself as a savior to the garment industry in Los Angeles – our goal is to normalize fair and just treatment of other human beings within this field, an idea that is not a new concept. We aim to bring dignity and strength back to the arduous work of garment manufacturing through fair treatment, fair wages and clean environment. It’s simple to us: if a price of a cup of coffee averages around $7 in Los Angeles, it does not make ethical sense for a t-shirt to be made, by real humans, for less than that amount.
Philosophy and Company Values
Living in Asia and traveling in Europe, Alnea noticed the cultures referred to the apparel producers as "machinists" and "technicians." In contrast, the producers are referred to as “factory workers” or “sewers.” To us, language is important as it reflects culture. Language comes with connotation and implications. Empowerment starts with the micro ways we treat other humans.
What makes a beautiful dress is ultimately the workers. Without production, there is no product. So it only makes sense to us to invest in our machinists. The goal of our factory is create beautiful, mindfully crafted garments in a clean, beautiful space where every participant in the process is treated equally and fairly. After witnessing dozens of sweatshop-like conditions in Los Angeles, Alnea began Nana Atelier with the understanding that space can be a form of oppression. Designers and workers are allowed the luxury of maximum, beautiful office spaces, but some factories in LA are still employing dozens of machinists in 700 ft2 spaces. If designers are not expected to choose between a job or an oppressive space, then their producers should not have to either.
Alnea herself has walked and toured factories in Los Angeles with horrible conditions that designers would never agree to. On top of these conditions, there has been a deepening disparity and gap between the creators and the customers – a lack of empathy and understanding for the real humans behind the products.
We believe in “Made in Los Angeles” and in our team even when we’ve made mistakes. Working in this industry has reminded us of the darkest human side of this business: the oppression and abuse that comes with production and demand. Starting our own brand and working with our factory has allowed us combat these infringements by working in accordance with our principles and values.
We do not claim to be a completely environmentally sustainable company – it’s impossible for any clothing brand to be 100% sustainable and it’s unproductive to claim to be. Waste is produced from production; energy and resources are being used. However, through our signature, oversized designs and creating multiple styles in the same fabric, we are actively making sure to utilize what we do have at its highest potential. By working and designing right next to our factory, we have control over where the waste goes to and how it is being recycled and collected. There is currently no way to recycle small fabric scraps, but we donate large, unused rolls of fabric to local schools.