Leyla Piedayesh – a dreamer with both feet firmly on the ground



Just three subway stops away from Alexanderplatz is where Europe's largest start-up center for female entrepreneurs is located: a pioneer project housed in a former East German industrial complex on Anklamer Strasse in Berlin Mitte and run by "WeiberWirtschaft eG", a women's cooperative. Founded in 1996, the cooperative offers enterprising women with drive the opportunity to realize their economic potential. In the meantime, the building has become the headquarters of over 250 businesses all established and managed by women. One of these entrepreneurs is Leyla Piedayesh, the founder of fashion label Lala Berlin.

Some might consider Leyla overzealous when looking at the quota of women in her company. At 100%, it is not actually one of the conditions set by the cooperative. Indeed the only stipulation they make is that the company be directed by a woman. "In principle I am allowed to employ 98% men," Leyla explains as she stirs her Earl Grey tea. But it's not a case of overshooting the mark, either. "It just happened that we ended up with an exclusively female team. Maybe women feel more comfortable with the way we work here. I've noticed that the men we hired couldn't keep up with the pace." Even the wry smile tugging at the corners of her mouth cannot entirely dispel her earnest look. She elaborates on her former male employees, "We tried four: one had a burnout, one couldn't cope, one resigned, and the fourth just left. I guess men just can't stand it here."

I do believe that women have a different kind of capacity. Not better, but different.

With that Leyla, petite and wearing a loose-knit cardigan, stands up and heads for the next room. She wants to get the shoot over with first. "Done is done." From her office in the next room several disembodied sentences reach us, some directed at the photographer and some at the world in general. "I'm a serious kind of person, but not as grouchy as I look. But I can't walk around with a stupid smile stuck on my face all day. And when I don't smile, I look like I'm in a bad mood. So there." We hear tidying-up noises. Chairs being moved, pens and other things scooped up and shoved into drawers. "Surely all that medicine on my desk looks kind of creepy. And that laptop can be put away, right?" The photographer turns a shade paler when Leyla yanks the plug without saving anything or shutting the laptop down properly. "But you just told me to put it away, didn't you?" she says with a surprised look. "Okay. All done." She sits on her desk and tries to pull a face. "Okay. Now let me show you what I look like when I don't do anything." Silence. "See what I mean? I look really serious." But I can't help it. I just have to lift the corners of my mouth, right? Like this? That's the best I can do."

Time off – a rare luxury

Lala Berlin presented its first knitwear collection at the international fashion trade show Premium in Berlin in January 2004. Initially a local label, it has become an internationally sought-after fashion brand and the label’s mix of urban couture and high-end knitwear has become its signature stamp. Available globally today at over 60 stores, Lala Berlin has expanded continuously since its inception. Meanwhile, some twenty-odd employees are involved in the process of designing and producing ever-new collections. Growth is good because time is a scarce commodity for Leyla, and she likes the idea of getting more of it.

I’m a proactive dreamer. An absolute realist, yet at the same time I believe you have to visualize the direction you want to take and then it will happen.

And her dream for Lala? "To get more people on board so that I can cut myself some slack. Someday, I will have more time for myself again. There's a point where time actually becomes a luxury commodity." Leyla likes to spend her non-working hours with her daughter. Or sleeping. "And recently, I've started playing solitaire – it's such a mindless, trivial, meditative occupation. I also do a lot of yoga."

Inspiration from within

This doesn't correspond with our idea of a successful fashion designer at all. Travels, catwalks, shows – what about all those things? Leyla is different. "I don't want to have to travel a lot. One of the great advantages of the Internet is that you don't have to move around anymore. I prefer watching fashion shows online. And I don't need to travel somewhere else to go to museums or for inspiration; we have enough of that here. I can even use the Web to look at streets in other cities if I want to. Theoretically I could lock myself into a cell with Internet access and still do my job."

My life and mind move at such a fast pace that I positively welcome a standstill.

"And sometimes even something as simple as looking at the sun and taking a deep breath is enough to set your spirit free." For Leyla Piedayesh to find what she is looking for, it is essential that her spirit is unfettered. "Serenity and tranquility within, satisfaction with what you do and who you are. And to not yearn for something you don't have."
To a certain extent, the brand Lala Berlin transports this selfsame attitude. Her clothing is designed to convey a sense of well-being, freedom and space for whatever the wearer might wish to do. "This doesn't mean that all of us here are revolutionaries who storm the barricades and spit at people. It's simply a way for me to express what I like and a little of who I am." Leyla does not look to role models for examples. Although she has favorites – such as Balenciaga – and she loves Christopher Kane, her inspiration comes from elsewhere.

To say that fashion is the ultimate goal would be a major exaggeration. It's a means to an end and takes me to where I feel my life's purpose lies. There is so much more to life than consumption.

Even as a child Leyla was not given to illusions. While other girls daydreamed of the heroes who looked down on them from bedroom-wall posters, she preferred to hold imaginary dialogues with heads-of-state in an attempt to try and understand the war in her home country Iran better. "I went to all the protests. That was my thing back then, the stuff I dreamed about between the age of 9 and 15." She doesn't remember much except that this was around the time when she came to Germany from Iran. And as the hero-worshipers grew up and set to work on their personal ambitions, Leyla got a job as an editor for MTV. However she soon came to realize that this was not the place to find meaningful work.

Sure, I can get enthusiastic about things sometimes, too. It's just a little more difficult if you're as pragmatic as I am.

"The stories at MTV were all practically identical. Except for Billy Corgan and Sade – I thought they were amazing. Those two certainly made an impression on me. And Kylie Minogue had something special, too. She was really sweet and there was a certain depth to her. But the rest…? Extremely superficial." Leyla Piedayesh needs substance, and her quest has led her to where she finds true inspiration: within herself.

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