Disregarding the dominant schedules and corporate structuring of fashion and accessory design, the two friends Gabriella Massey and Melissa Thompson approach their brand, Baba, like an ongoing research-project, with love for each other and their craft as the epicentre of their venture rather than money and exponential growth. We met the duo for tea to talk about how high fashion, artisan fashion and sustainable fashion aren’t necessarily separate enterprises – and how one pair of boots can actually be all three.

It’s a gloomy morning around Vauxhall’s riotous road system, but the nearby Brunswick House Cafe, an idiosyncratic Georgian mansion transformed into a buzzing eatery with antique furniture, nostalgic table booths and Bollywood evergreens in the speakers, remain unaffected. Amidst this neo-bohemian setting, Gabriella Massey and Melissa Thompson of the luxurious, under-the-radar shoe and accessory brand Baba seem to fit in perfectly – dressed in casual black monochrome, drinking ginger tea whilst Melissa’s daughter adventurously explores the location. They both completed a BA in Menswear at Central Saint Martins 5 years ago, before interning at Balenciaga and Lanvin, where they became friends whilst living in Paris. “We’ve always been in each other’s peripheries. I think we always knew that we wanted to work together one day,” they tell me as they sip their tea; “we had a very immediate connection and understanding about one another.”

However, their joint venture Baba, which characterises itself as a high-end, carefully mediated and under-the-radar designer label, was far from a graduate start-up. Both Gabriella and Melissa went directly into high fashion, and spent the first decade of their career gaining experience in the international fashion industry, in England and abroad – Gabriella in design, as a right hand for Edward (of Meadham Kirchhoff), Melissa as assistant for stylists Alister Mackie and Katy England. Although Baba’s design and business strategy opposes many of the processes of corporate and luxury fashion, they far from demonise the industry, as it was essential in shaping their knowledge of the field: “Every single experience, good or bad, was very formative and led us to this point where we finally wanted to launch our own brand and knew what it would stand for,” they begin. “I think it’s really helpful to see the potential of what you can achieve when you have a full atelier to make things.”

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“It would be incredibly sad to be making bastardised versions of our shoes in cheaper leathers in some far-flung place where we’re not able to interact with our product.”

After ten years of friendship, from different ends of the high fashion industry, they finally got together to for a different kind of project. “We started just talking about things that we desired or wanted, or wanted to see — things that we felt were missing in the market,” they recall. “It sort of became this dream-like way of describing these ultimate objects of desire that we really wanted.” They began gathering visual research of the Sahara desert, its aesthetic and its myths and very importantly, its long history of rare textiles. They recognised that such an ultimate quality only existed within a certain kind of aesthetics. “We wanted to do something distinctively feminine and highly sensual,” they explain. “There are masculine elements, but they are very much subverted rather than appropriated. It’s a celebration of a different kind of femininity.”

Going exploring in Baba’s visual universe on Instagram and their website, one gets an immediate sense of an on-going visual research-project beyond the actual objects they produce and sell. It’s a continuous investigation of a certain aesthetic or feel, reminiscent of the roughness of the Saharan desert and the dreaminess of its mirages. They communicate their universe through a remarkable attention to textures, textiles and historical techniques, leather is indigo dyed and all cottons and silks are entirely produced and dyed by hand. They express to me their obsession with North Africa and its rich textile culture, which they began researching as they visited Marrakesh and its surrounding desert. “There are so many things about desert culture and craft that we’re totally fascinated with. Besides the techniques, there’s a whole historical storytelling element to it. We’re just on the very the cusp of discovering this heritage that is so extremely rich and abundant.”

With this shared fascination, the duo would venture to textile specialist dealers in London, which led to a strong desire to work with indigo dye. Indigo runs as a visual and technical thread through their work, as they apply the ancient dye to their raw-woven and hand-stitched blankets. “It’s such an incredible and exciting dye to work with, just completely unpredictable,” they say; “There’s so many variables when you dye with indigo from the harvest: what yield that is, the level of pigmentation. When you’re making the dye, you can never really fully anticipate how it’s going to turn out.”

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“The goal is not to become millionaires, and it never was,” they tell me about their business strategy. “I think if you start anything with the purpose of making money, you’re going to compromise on the integrity of the brand, as well as the vision.”

This unsystematic and specialist production method requires a lot of time and attention, from all levels of the production chain, and would thus hardly be applicable to mass-produced objects. Not to say that Baba ever strived for that: with sustainability at its heart, they strongly oppose any form of industrial-scale production. “Anything that doesn’t have a capacity to become an industrial product is sustainable,” they argue. They prioritise instead to be involved in every stage of the production and the brand’s development, “to keep it contained and very personal.”

Even from a management perspective, Baba represents the opposite of the industrial and corporate fashion label. “Our brand is so interwoven with our personal relationship; our interests, the love between us,” they reflect. “It would be incredibly sad to be making bastardised versions of our shoes in cheaper leathers in some far-flung place where we’re not able to interact with our product.” This intimate approach (in high contrast to most brands operating today) goes for their customers as well, as they have launched their products exclusively through concept store Hostem in Shoreditch, East London. They are oblivious to the bi-annual fashion cycle, and produce pieces when they want – and plan their expansion carefully. “We feel very familiar with the people who wear our shoes. I want that immediate connection with our clients, who are women of all ages and styles.”

As such, Baba follows a very traditional path of artisan production, so it is paradoxical that their approach is considered unusual, and even political, by the industry and most consumers. We discuss the pressure on all small labels to exponentially expand and reach a level of mass-market outreach – dictated by the capitalist framework in which fashion exists. “Every single thing we do is political — there’s a political motivation behind all parts of our practice. Resisting the capitalist structure is something that’s at the forefront of both of our minds,” they express. But while their shoes are certainly costly (an indigo-dyed leather boot is about £900 in retail), the price reflects the huge developmental cost and is entirely consistent with any kind of product that is handmade with that level of care and attention. And with that level of quality, a pair will last a life-time, making it the most sustainable kind of fashion product of them all. “The goal is not to become millionaires, and it never was,” they tell me about their business strategy. “I think if you start anything with the purpose of making money, you’re going to compromise on the integrity of the brand, as well as the vision.”

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“There is a limited understanding and awareness of sustainability within the industry, and for nascent brands it;s very difficult to consider this aspect without having to compromise.”

With close attention to its supply chain, utilisation of natural dyes and small-scale distribution strategies, Baba is a living example of a fashion practice that is ethically and environmentally sustainable with a superior sense of quality in their product. But what is really distinct about the artisan luxury brand is its rootedness in high fashion rather than craftsmanship and sustainability – avoiding the ‘artisan’ or ‘eco’ pitfall that many designers fall into, types of brands wherein the design typically comes after the craftsmanship or sustainability of the product.  “We come from a high fashion background, and the appreciation of craft definitely came a little later,” they say. “We wanted the craft to not take precedence. Lots of people who have bought the shoe simply just really like design and how they feel, and this is also really important to us.”

When exactly in one’s career should the appreciation, or even awareness, about artisan craftsmanship and environmentally sustainable clothes production come? At fashion college, these topics are widely overlooked, but Melissa and Gabriela believe that initiating such discussions at an undergraduate level would be the most beneficial. “I think you can incorporate it into an undergraduate level more so than in any other stage of a typical fashion career,” Melissa says. “It’s far more experimental, and you have the time to do it. There is a limited understanding and awareness of sustainability within the industry, and for nascent brands it’s very difficult to consider this aspect without having to compromise.”

Through a never-ending research into traditional textile processes, Baba have carved a position for themselves in the luxury fashion sector. This ‘new’ way of making high-quality beautiful design challenges our ideas of how fashion is done – and they continue to explore this radical approach to the highly unsustainable fashion industry.  “As long as we create something we really believe in, shoes and clothing that we love and can last for a very long time, and have a very timeless aspect, then we’re happy,” they reflect. “As long as we can make enough money to continue what we do, then that’s ok.”

Words by Jeppe Ugelvig

Photography by Luke Clayton Thompson

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