Aliya Wanek: Behind the Brand
Interview by Devon Lach
Photography Aliya Wanek
Color flows through Aliya Wanek as she meticulously designs each piece for her collections. When Aliya chooses a color, she doesn’t think of seasonality; she imagines the mood she wants people to feel when they put on the garment. She imagines how the shades will look on women of color, bringing out undertones in their skin. For Aliya every part of the design process is personal.
Aliya always knew she wanted to do something creative. After toiling around with various ideas, such as running a vegan bakery, Aliya took notice of the uniform standard of beauty in the fashion industry. After that, the progress was organic—first incarnating as a style blog then leading to a training program for apparel arts and eventually the launch of her line, Aliya Wanek. While Aliya and I chatted it became apparent how much care and thought goes into every aspect of her brand.
Tell me about where you live and work
I’m now based in Vallejo. I used to be in Oakland
I work from home in my converted garage—now workspace.
How do you describe Aliya Wanek?
At its core the brand is about sustainability and ethical production... having a deeper connection with your style. Fashion is the medium I choose to talk through. It’s an exploration into your self and sustainable practices. Looking into what you choose to wear and what that communicates to others about your identity.
You are also a speech therapist...how does this influence your process with Aliya Wanek?
My career is based in speech therapy. Initially when I started the brand I was working full time, using part of my salary to fund the business. It has just kind of continued. I was hoping to move full time with the business but now I am in a space where I’m really fulfilled by both. Right now I am just trying to figure out how I can do both at the level of quality that I want. I’m being pulled into two different full-time jobs.
I think being a speech therapist influences the thoughtfulness I put into the brand. Moving it beyond selling a product to connecting. My whole focus in speech therapy is to get my students to connect so that extends into the brand as well.
Tell me the story of founding Aliya Wanek
I knew that I wanted to express myself creatively. I thought about having a vegan bakery and I wasn’t even a baker. I remember designing the whole brand, more than the recipes.
It moved fashion back in the days when street style blogs were really popular. I noticed that I was constantly staring at images of white women on the street and it was impacting my sense of self. I felt like that was the standard of beauty and I was never going to compare to that.
I thought—I need to create my own standard of beauty, showing more women that look like me to change that internal narrative. Initially I had my own blog, doing street style and interviewing women of color. At that point I knew I wanted to have my own clothing brand. What you learn quickly about the fashion industry is no one is quick to tell you anything.
After a lot of emails that never got responded to and lots of Googling, I came across this alternative trade school, Apparel Arts. I started taking pattern making classes on the side and starting taking manufacturing workshops, just trying to gain as much knowledge as I could. Two years after Apparel Arts I launched the brand.
Representation, as you mention, is an integral part of your brand ethos. Can you describe how you’ve used your brand to push against the lack of representation that you saw and experienced in fashion?
I am such a visual person so the imagery is very important to me. I do all the photography. I am very purposeful in the women I choose to photograph. My ex partner gave me a compliment I will always remember “You can tell that a black woman is photographing these women.” That stuck with me because what you see in the person can come through the camera.
I want you to see us. I don’t want you to exoticize or infantilize us.
It’s deeply personal to me to do the photography.
What prompted you to go down a path of sustainable fashion?
I knew I wanted to work with just natural fibers. I myself am not a polyester, rayon and nylon type of girl. Once I started exploring that, it just became the clear path. Sustainability is such a journey so if you stay curious, if you continue to look, you will see areas for improvement.
Knowing the fashion industry and how much we add to the destruction of this planet—It’s hard to ignore that stuff.
What do you think a brand’s responsibility is towards furthering societal change?
I think being an example. Putting practices in place are small changes, but overtime can add up. If you are going to talk about being sustainable it is really looking at sustainability in a non ego way. This is something that is ongoing. You don’t just hit the mark and that’s it. It’s a continuous focus and movement.
How does a new piece come to life?
The design process for me lives so much in my head. It’s a continuous conversation I’m having...thinking about things, getting inspired. I don’t have a natural timeline for when my inspiration goes to the drawing of the design.
I’ve been wanting to do more Victorian-style garments. I’ve been thinking about what is the right fabric, how will that fit on more bodies. Those are the things I am working through.
Usually when I hit on something I feel more confident about I start to design it.
I love the structural minimalism of your designs, where do you find inspiration?
I definitely get inspiration from Japanese style, minimal clean lines that lay on the body in a flattering way. I am minimal in aesthetic in general, in my house, as well. It is something I have gravitated to as an adult. For me, now, I am now moving into a space of building on styles instead of coming out with new styles.
Color is super important to me. I am very sensitive to it and I am interested in how color looks, especially on women of color. I usually think first in color then shape.
How do the colors in your designs influence people’s moods and well-being?
I bought this rust color dress and I got so many compliments from people. When I was looking at it across my skin, it was my power color. I felt like I was glowing.
So I started thinking more about that and found myself using that dress in situations or events where I was uncomfortable because I felt more empowered. When you find shades or tones that really speak to you on more than one level it can be very therapeutic.
Sometimes when I need to rein my emotions I wear all black. I wear a pop of color to help spark creativity or get out of a rut. Those are the things I am becoming attuned to.
What are some of your favorite pieces you’ve designed?
From this collection I am really proud of the Rumi Jacket. The quilted jacket. I love the construction of it.
The Hiroko Pants are super special to me because they epitomize what I want, which is this lovely comfort but stylish. Something you can easily throw on but has a nice distinct style to it.
What does the future hold for Aliya Wanek?
I would like to move to a small in-house production. I want to keep it small with people I really trust and love and have a familial type of environment. Exploring deeper practices in sustainability. Trying to make more things local. It’s such a shame that our manufacturing economy is dying in the US and it becomes exorbitantly expensive. If I could have all of my stuff produced regionally that would be amazing.
Any last words for the readers?
Continue to look at your own style as an extension of you and your well being. It can be superficial but don’t brush it off. It can be very deep. You are constantly expressing something.
View Aliya wanek’s full collection here.