Roseli: Entrepreneur and Textile Designer
I entered into Roseli's vibrantly warm and textile-coated living room after an exploration her neighborhood in Lake Merritt. She's the founder and designer behind the eponymous Ilano, a collection of elegantly crafted wool and leather bags and home products. You can find them scattered in high-end stores around the Bay area, coast-to-coast, and online.
She works from a golden lit studio attached to her apartment, sun streaming in to highlight the geometric patterns and textures of her workshop. Ilano's collections are designed by Roseli and crafted by her artisan partners in Oaxaca, Mexico. But the company's concept defies a strict definition — it combines travel and culture, ancient and modern arts, social justice and community, collaboration and creation, textures and color.
I was first sucked in by the aesthetics of it all, the mesmerizing diamonds of neon colors, woven somehow perfectly and imperfectly at the same time, by the women's collective. To make it even better, there's a legit story behind Ilano's product as well, and one that I feel very connected to — one of women's empowerment. Here's a little bit about how Roseli started her business, how she produces her products, and the communal support of working with artisan partners:
Let's Start out with how you got the idea for Ilano. There’s a travel-related story behind that, right?
The first seed came when I was growing up — I was raised with my grandma. She would tell me stories about her entrepreneurial endeavors, she always had these different business ideas. When she still lived in the Philippines, was she would partner with local artisans to do rattan furniture, design headboards and couches and loveseats, really amazing stuff. She had all of these little side hustles, it was a creative outlet for her. She would tell me all of these stories when I was little, so I think that entrepreneurial spirit always stayed with me.
When I was in college at UC Berkeley, I was going to be a mapmaker, a cartographer. I was in the Philippines doing a project on gold mining, specifically in indigenous communities. Through that experience that I first was introduced to the amazing textiles of the region. That’s when I first got to know weavers in the Cordillera, in the mountain regions in the north of the Philippines. I was just so inspired and amazed by the artistry and the colors, learning the stories behind the textiles. Anywhere I traveled, I wanted to learn about the textiles of the people. And I started collecting vintage textiles. Its really a textile love story. That’s just kind of what started it.
Those two things, coupled with my passion for social justice and women’s empowerment. I have a background in education and community organizing. So I knew that I wanted to blend my love for textiles with being an entrepreneur, but also with social justice and community empowerment. And specifically women’s empowerment. So that’s how the idea came together.
I knew I needed to try and go on my own. I did everything I could, I took business courses, graduated from the Women’s Initiative, which supports low-resource high-potential women to start
their own companies. That helped me learn how to write a business plan, how to get a loan, how to understand cash-flow projections. I was trying to seek out the mentorship of other women in my field, doing all kinds of research on what it would take to do something like this. My big break happened last year when I entered this competition for young entrepreneurs. It was through Scion, and about 2,000 applied — 50 people made it to the semifinals, and then I was chosen as one of the ten winners. That really affirmed for me that I’m on the right path.
THAT OTHER PEOPLE SEE VALUE IN WHAT YOU KNOW HAS it...
Exactly! And at that time I didn’t even have a prototype to show them. I was just doing my pitch, I was so focused on it. Then, it was a lot of behind-the-scenes, building relationships with artisans. Right now I’m working with an amazing women's cooperative, four generations of them. They’re master weavers in Oaxaca, and some of them have had their work featured in the Smithsonian.
The really cool thing about what we’re doing is that it blending traditional and modern. It’s looking to them for their artisanal crafts-manship and these traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation to generation. On my website, one of the partners that I work with, Patrona, talks about how she learned how to do natural dyes. It was passed down. Those ancient traditions blended with modern design aesthetics.
Every time you bring in another part of what you do, I find that I’m super obsessed with it too! There are so many elements to your story...
It’s a challenge because a lot of times you’ll be asked what are you doing, it’s hard to give an elevator pitch, because there are so many aspects to it. I feel very passionate about the collaboration and about working with indigenous women. There’s a lot of people who are doing what I’m doing, but they’re not doing it the way I am. So many people say, “I’m teaching them how to do this, I’m helping them, because I’m going to do this for them.” It’s not truly equal. And I’ve been very intentional right from the beginning that this is a collaboration. I have everything to gain, as much as you have to gain. I have everything
to lose as much as you have to lose. For me, just as important as being an economically viable business is the social relationships. I’ll present a sketch and they’ll say, “ I don’t think we can do that, but we can do it another way,” and achieve the same idea. I really appreciate that. I feel like there’s this western mentality of charity, which is not what Ilano is about at all. It’s all about collaboration and empowerment, which is different than charity.
FOR THE COLLABORATION, YOU DO THE DESIGN WORK AND THEN TAKE IT TO THE COLLECTIVE AND COLLABORATE ON WHAT WOULD AND WOULDN’T WORK?
They do all of the weaving. I sketch and design all of the patterns. When we first started out, we would incorporate a lot of their traditional Zapotec motifs, because that’s what they know how to weave, there are stories that are passed down. There are certain images, the “Ojo de Dios” the Eye of God, or the mountain, the wave. Each shape represents something. So we did that the first season, and then we tried something new for the second. I really wanted to tap into my own creativity, where I started sketching. And that’s what you see now, it’s more modern, it’s my color palettes and my textile designs.
So you started with bags and moved into home textiles. Moving forward, do you see keeping growing into different products?
The dream is to eventually work with women artisans from around the world. And the next collaboration will be with artisans in the Philippines. I’d like to work with indigenous artisans here in the United States. I’d love to work with women in other parts of Latin America, or Asia.
Textiles are nice that way, because I don’t think I’ve been anywhere they don’t have some sort of traditional textile...
Textiles play such an important role in our lives, that we take for granted. Textiles for weddings, for funerals. Basically every rite of passage in a person’s life involves cloth.
How often do you connect with the weavers?
I’m there about three to four times a year, and the team is very small. We recently started prototyping with an inspiring woman who has had a huarache workshop, sandal-making, for thirty years — mostly women. They do have men, but she’s the boss. They do everything in house — the tanning, everything. We’re about to do some prototyping. Excited to launch that this spring.
HOW LONG WOULD IT TAKE FROM YOUR FIRST MOODBOARD PHASE TO YOU SEEING AND DELIVERING THE FINISHED PRODUCT TO A STORE?
Probably around four to six months, and a lot of it is prototyping back and forth. So many aspects, there’s the textile design, figuring out the perfect colors and color palette, all of these different things.
WHAT KIND OF STUFF DO THEY MAKE THE NATURAL DYES WITH?
A lot of flowers that are found in Teotitlan. Marigold, different plants — Cochineal is a very big dye in that region. Any red or orange that you see is Cochineal. It’s a byproduct of an insect that
basically eats and lives in cactus. The women harvest the Cochineal from the cactus. This is the naturally dyed yarn, that Patrona made. So all of that is natural, flowers, plants. Blue is from indigo.
IS IT ALL THE SAME FABRIC?
They’re made with organic wool, starting out with yarn. They use pedal looms, so they’re quite big.
WHEN YOU’RE DESIGNING, WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR INSPIRATION?
The color palette of the first collection was called Desert Loom. I’m from Southern California, I grew up in the desert and Joshua Tree as a child. And then when I moved into this new collection, more modern shapes. Very inspired by Memphis design and pop art, and the saturated colors of the 20th century. Colors are really big part of the story and the inspiration. In the next collection I’ve been really inspired by my community, living in Oakland. The neon signs and the mom-and-pop shops, and the graffiti and street art. The beautiful diversity that we have in this community, I’m sure that will play a part.