Photo of Bela Shehu (above) by Joseph Balestra Designer Bela Shehu is a beautiful paradox. Part Franz Kafka and part Auntie Mame, those who surround Bela are treated to her uplifting flights of fantasy and absolutely startling wisdom.
Shehu was raised in The People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, a country that was nearly impossible to exit or enter.
Bela will tell you that she didn’t become a successful designer and businesswoman despite her upbringing, but actually because of it. Growing up in a country where toilet paper was a luxury, Bela developed the skills to simply deconstruct and reconstruct the world around her.
Today her powerful imagination births tremendous minimalist designs worn by women and men alike. Most days you will find her hard at work in her sleek atelier on South 20th street where you can shop by appointment only. Read more about Bela below…
How did you discover you had a knack for entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship has been in my blood for my whole life. My dad was an entrepreneur. As children we helped out with the businesses at all times. He had a bakery when I left [Albania]. When I grew up he had a four-seat bar, and at one point he was doing wholesale for soft drinks, soda and such. He was very savvy. He also had a bodega where you could buy detergent and apples.
What is the earliest memory you have of doing business?
When it comes to making clothes and being in the business of making clothes, there wasn’t a turning point or a light. I do it because this is what I know what to do. Interacting with people, reading their need, catering to them in an effective way has been my practice throughout my whole development and adulthood now. I’ll look at the food market and I’ll see what is very difficult to find, or why simple things are rare. It’s easy to read what a market needs for me, instinctually mostly— and then by behavior and trends.
The thing is that we kind of pick up in life habits, including professions, relationships, routines, that make the current state better.
That is whom you interact with, what you put in your body, what you produce, feedback, and contribution. We gravitate naturally toward what we’re good at because we can communicate better. Naturally I’m good at business and aesthetics.
Are the two connected for you?
Totally. I don’t know where one starts and the other ends.
What were you like as a child?
Communist country. One bedroom apartment. [We were] very tight as a family, just because you had to be. Romantic, in a way. Creative, because there was nothing. You had to keep your head occupied. TV four hours on Sundays. Toys were very limited. People ask, ‘did you start out making clothing for toys?’ We had to make the base; first we had to make the doll [laughs]! Clothes for yourself? Of course. You couldn’t buy fabrics. There were no fabrics. You depended on your siblings’ junk for your next palate. What could you do? You had to be creative! Deconstructing and reconstructing were my first steps. If you wanted a hanky, or a napkin, or a curtain, or a pillowcase you had to cut the fabric and sew it and embroider it because we took pride. I knitted and embroidered when I was four or five.
You just grew up doing it.
Right, I don’t remember learning to do it. It’s like— you’re hungry, you find your mouth. It’s not difficult to figure it out. That’s how it was.
You know, when we wanted nail polish, we would find colorful broken Plexiglas serving trays. If they were red, or sometimes other colors, we’d soak them in acetone for days until it completely melted. You’d put wood varnish in it and then you make a little brush with horsetail hair. It stayed on your fingers, it had colors, and it was amazing. You had to make everything. We made bikes, anything you wanted you had to make it.
Did you know about American capitalism while you growing up?
No, we were kept away from it. When I turned 10 we were open to the world, and we’d watch Italian TV. People immigrated to Greece and they would come back with stories and photographs.
It was very strange. I just went to see my parents and I brought back some childhood photos. I didn’t have any childhood photos, and I’m showing them to my boyfriend and his family and we’re all going around. It was such a beautiful experience and only towards the end they said, ‘you know these are old black and white photos, cut with decorative edges, and yellowed. You know this is your childhood? It seems as if we’re seeing grandma’s photos. We have videos of every step we took.’ I don’t have a video or colored photographs.
It’s just very different, but in a romantic sense I think it was great for my development.
If anything gets me frustrated it’s because my ego is not prepared to be bothered.
But other than that, you just figure it out. I mean, really. No matter what it is. You just figure it out. We all have the sensation of being very special and rare, it’s an opportunity to show it. How special are you? How rare are you?
When you were a teenager, you came to the Iowa in the United States alone as an exchange student. What was that experience like for you? Do you remember being home and thinking about all of the things that were in front of you on your journey?
If I were to remember, it would be so different than what it was. A dream. My concept of America was equally the concept of freedom. It was just different. Coming from a communist country, it didn’t matter what the experiences were here. I have this opportunity. I’m here. I welcome a good challenge always. What can I make out of three ingredients? What can I make out of life? It’s really neat. I’m always very thankful for everything that it gives to me.
It must have been difficult moving from Albania to Iowa.
Now, I can evaluate it better. But then I was just scared. All I could feel was fear. I felt duped. We grew up being lied to our whole lives and your trust is a little shaky. We were told capitalism is evil. For literature we were lied to, for products we consumed, religion. This Promised Land— which I very much thought of it like that back then— I just thought I was lied to. Now I can go visit and I’ll take it with a grain of salt.
I couldn’t connect, I didn’t know English. The first few months there was the novelty of being a foreigner, and that aided me a little bit. I couldn’t properly connect on so many levels. The mentality, the language, hobbies. It was just OK. I was a little bit of a nerd...math clubs, calculus, because I didn’t have to communicate. It was easier to feel comfortable.
How did you get out of Iowa?
The school year was over, and I took a connecting plane to New York before I had to go back [to Albania]. I wanted to go back home but my dad would not allow it. I had a friend in here [in Philadelphia] so I took a shuttle to Philly, and stayed in South Philly.
In 1997 South Philly was awesome. It felt like home to me. I lived near Varallo’s bakery on 10th and Morris. The fresh baked bread and cannolis were just so soothing. I mean there was nothing in Iowa. They took me for Italian at the Olive Garden. It was total shit. I mean, I come from communism. There wasn’t even toilet paper! I totally felt I was misled, but I just was in the wrong part of the country.
Did you have a plan?
No. I thought that I should do something with math. English wouldn’t get in the way and I could excel. I went for accounting right away because I thought it would be easy. It was my first years here. I went to community [College of Philadelphia], then Temple. I came in June and needed to extend my Visa. I had to make it work.
When I was going to school, I was working at Panorama [restaurant] and my friend Sebastian [McCall, current owner of Charlie’s Jeans] had a boutique then called Charles Porter. It was contemporary: Theory, and Laundry by Shelly. That was where I shopped. I constantly made my clothes. He always would ask me ‘where did you get that?’ I would sit and talk to him.
Talking about clothing was easy. He ordered 10 blouses from me once and I made them for him. He was the one who got me a couple classes [at Moore]. One pattern making, one draping, and one continuing education as a gift saying ‘girl, don’t be a fool, go explore this’. I always thought I didn’t have the skills. I would just whip things up. I didn’t know how to make them properly. I would go with my instinct. He told me that my instincts were good, that I should just do it.
Once I went to school, I was hooked immediately. I was there for two years, and any possible free time I could get. I used my ID for 6 months after until they caught up with me. Moore had a beautiful studio. I was addicted. I was addicted to doing it properly. It’s like having a beautiful kitchen, and suddenly your cooking changes. You have all of these gadgets. You have a dehydrator and a vacuum sealer. That’s how it was for me.
It was over after that in the sense that I was going to do it, and I was going to do it as good as anybody could do it. It’s still my goal. I want to do it really well.
What were your next steps?
I got pretty lucky right off the bat, because this was when the boutique and contemporary market were just exploding. Economy was great. Just a year later I opened a flagship between 13th and Chestnut and I was there for four years. It was a great experience.
What challenges did you face in the retail business?
The biggest challenge was tending the shop. It took me away from the studio. It opened as a one-brand store and in six months we entered denim and shortly after accessories because I wanted to supplement the clothing. I was producing all of the clothing the first year except for denim and accessories. But then I was designing less and I didn’t have time to produce. By year two we had a full floor of other designers, all these contemporary brands.
We were growing exponentially, but our profit margins were lowering. This makes no sense! We reduced producing our own product. Retail is not the same as selling when you’re a manufacturer. The profit margins are not the same. That was my biggest lesson. I did feel that one needed to do a lot of volume in order to maintain a certain profit margin and that volume compromised experience. We should always do in life what is going to make our day better. It wasn’t making my day better.
It’s a different kind of business.
It’s a different kind of business. You can still scale this. It was just very stressful. When you’re young, you kind of have to deal with it all. You’re opening the door for everything and everybody. I want to be selective what my daily experience is, who I communicate with, who I inspire. We have very intimate experiences. We’re not just in the service industry.
You’re very astute when it comes to the quality of life.
But what’s more valuable than that in life? My friends make fun of me. They say I am very pleasure oriented.
It takes very little to just reach perfection of your own experience. Wishing for it, desiring it, making the extra effort for it, and being rewarded by it.
My boyfriend, in the very beginning would say meals don’t taste the same without you because I bring so much awareness to the experience.
There are days where I sometimes I feel the pressure is too heavy and it’s not doing anything for me. I’m not sure if this is doing anything for me. But if they didn’t exist I wouldn’t be so indulged in all of these pleasures. Not that happiness comes from hard work, but it’s just another experience. You don’t have to have an opinion about it. This is easier said than done. You can acknowledge the stress and the heaviness and the hard feelings, but you don’t have to be impacted by it. This one is not an easy one. I suffer stressful days. I have to work at that.
When you closed your shop on 13th street, what were some other lessons you learned?
I learned everything for the beginning of my next project. I learned how to be a savvier businesswoman, how to pay attention to my instincts. It's a process.
How much of your business is math versus instinct?
I would say 70% is on instinct. It's staying alert. They all feed each other and complete the story. One can't do without the other.
What is the hardest thing about being a designer?
Thinking of outfits [laughs]. When I'm designing by piece it's not easy for me to think of outfits. I'd like to complete the story. Everybody designs and creates a story. Then they create the pieces to tell the story. I'm inspired by things and spontaneously design pieces and these pieces end up shaping the stories. They shape the outfit and tell me what’s next to be designed.
I'm always afraid I don't know how to design like real designers...I will tell you the story later because the pieces tell me what they want to be paired with. I look at proportions and see what it needs. I start with four or five pieces I think are going to stay. They're in the same feel, and they have the same state of mind. The rest is filled in based on the functionality of the created pieces.
I always have a hard time telling that story. Every time we create something, it looks like something in your mind. Then you try to match it with a particular type of fabric that you think is going to achieve that, if it needs stiffness to hold form. But then you try to match the fabric the best you can, but the fabric itself is telling you a story. You see shapes you didn’t see before. Or maybe the shape you had in mind isn't doing the fabric a favor or vice versa. Then you start changing fabrications and design illustrations from that to make the two marry. I let it tell me where it wants to go based on the combination.
I'm affected by the limitations of fabric choices, time management, and reserved funds. The collection looks the way it looks because all of this shape. It’s not something you see in your head. Every piece is a challenge.
Your work is often described as "minimalist" or "functional". How would you define your aesthetic?
Definitely. It's functional. It’s minimalist. But it’s more than that. It has the secrets of sophistication. That's what grabs me. Proportions of little things are so dead on, that’s what gets me excited. It's incredibly understated.
It’s fluid. The original shapes have a totally different mood and story, message. It’s very free and bright and casual. It’s very relaxed but still with the same elements of good hems, good fabrics, craftsmanship.
Where does your creativity come from? What are the things you need in your life to create?
Music, good food— seriously this is no joke. When I have pasta with cream of mushroom sauce and greens, it's totally different. Food. Incredible food. I think I also need to be in a really good place with my lover. Otherwise, it’s a mess.
Being in love is also a source. Traveling is necessary. They all need to exist in my life otherwise I would be in survival mode. Well fed, nourished with art, in love.
Tell me about the online shop you just launched.
Philadelphia is a great market but it’s just a speck in the world. When we get emails they’re from Australia, Spain, Greece, Russia. Imagine if we satisfied their needs. You never know how much is adoration and how much it’s going to turn into a sale. Timing doesn’t matter, because adoration could turn into a sale. I would like that whomever is interested to at least have the opportunity to satisfy their craving easily.
I’m very excited. Everything is going smoothly. The only challenge is that we set these deadlines because we like to play god. We say, ‘things are going to happen on this day, OK? Done.’ Everything is going fine, but god measured time wrong [laughs]!
I’m nervous, like I’m going to go on stage. Not like I’m going to poop my pants.
How are those different?
One of them feels good. One of them feels not so good. I feel like I’m going to go and perform! Which is nervous, because you don’t know how you’re going to do, but you’re also looking forward to how you’re going to do.
What are some of the considerations you took into account when building the site?
The experience on the website is very much on brand. The first thing you see is this amazing collage that gives one immediately the idea of how quirky, artsy, confident, we are. This collage is so mindboggling and stupid that you get it right away that we’re playful but meticulous. The attention to detail, all of the weaving...it’s awesome. This collage is not digitally made. It’s cut with exacto knives, glued.
You scroll down and we have arranged the chronicles, or the book. It’s all listed in there and you get to flip through the chronicles. You get a nice view of the work we’ve done. Then, the shop section is very clean. It’s aligned with what my customer is accustomed to. The same as Stella McCartney, or Net A Porter, any big e-tailer that does it right. The experience has to be seamless and familiar while flawless.
Our model is amazing. She incredibly plain. There’s no makeup, only moisturizer, wet hair. My woman is relaxed. She loves art. She takes care of her body. Clothing is understated but what comforts her is the best. She’s not loud. She’s not made up. I didn’t want cat eye, pompadour hair, or a shaved head. My woman, she’s clean. She showers, puts hair conditioner on, takes care of her skin, puts good clothes on. I wanted the girl to be pretty, healthy, and natural.
Is that your ideal woman?
Yes, I want to live life like that. I want to take a shower outside, lather myself in cream, and put on silk or cotton that would comfort me throughout the day. It’s what I did today!
What do you love about the women you dress?
They have this confidence, that whatever they choose to wear to an experience, they’re sold on it. They believe it. They’re not at all on the fence with it. And I like that. I learn from them, how to be and what to make. I’m comfortable with it.
What motivates you?
I’m an anxious person. I have to do a lot of work to stay calm. This responsibility has brought a lot of anxiety.
What motivates me is that I always try to accurately see where I am because to me my existence is measured in feeling.
If I’m experiencing anxiety or pressure, a sense of running out of time...sometimes I have to accurately see myself aside from what I’m feeling. That always gives me inspiration. Your journey, your energy throughout the day matters.
Do you have a plan for the future? Five years from now? Ten years from now?
No! Time is going so fast. What is five years? Five years is nothing. I’ve been doing this project for 3 and a half years and I feel like I’m just starting. Something really strange is happening in my personal life. I don’t feel my age. I’ve lived the same lifestyle for the past fifteen years. Nothing has changed. I have no sense of time. I’m active, I’m doing what I want, I’m happy in love. I can eat what I want and go to vacations. What needs to change?
It’s like you said, you measure your life in feeling.
Yeah, I had a good day. The weather was great. I had a great outfit, said hello to this person. Dinner wasn’t bad. That’s what I want five days from now. Ninety years from now I want the same thing. I want to sit on a bench, drink iced coffee.
Who are your role models?
I have this fantasy, but I don’t know this woman. For example, the way Laurie Anderson makes music makes me fantasize about her in a certain way. So I admire the fantasy I’ve created but I don’t know much about her. She’s the coolest woman to me. I have these made up characters.
You take something and run with it. Rei Kawakubo from Comme [des Garcons]. Again, I don’t know who she is [laughs] but I think her approach with her line and the mold she’s created and who she is...this strange mystical woman. I love my fantasy of her.
I have to say my lovers, boyfriends, mates, and partners through life have been a huge influence, each one in their own way. I also have some great friends that have and continue to touch me, and they are very intimate friends. I do think that in order for someone to mentor or touch you not just ideally or conceptually, in reality there has to be a high level of intimacy in place. That’s the only way one can expose themselves to another one, and the other one to pick up on self and other on such an intimate level.
I like Nabokov. I like Kundera. I like Ayn Rand and they are very character driven. You read about these characters, you know them. I meet somebody at the bar and 20 years later I know them. I’ve read so much about them. They are cut from the same cloth. Same with relationships. You get to know a grouping of people through this one individual that allows you so intimately to comb through them. Their behavior, their state of mind. Those are the greatest lessons. My partners are my greatest lessons, guides, mentors.
Love is very important to you.
Yes, I think it’s just like salt. It’s a simple, simple ingredient but it can make or blend a dish.
What have you learned from all of the women who work in your studio?
Acceptance. Freeing your mind. Learn how to love imperfection and seek it out now. What really tickles me is when something is kind of wonky, crazy, and silly and childish. Whatever it is, it’s more than pretty. It’s ones best interpretation. It’s not a mocking. It’s not purposeful.
It’s a happy accident!
I love that. It’s a little humor.
What are they learning from you?
Everyone is either learning or wanting to toy with self-exploration.
What I found out and tell everyone is that our organism is made so beautifully and so intelligently and if you’re curious you can find out who you really are.
It’s only when you cannot try to pick up things that are exterior and not interior that you box yourself up in something that limits you.
If anyone learns from me, it’s to explore. I don’t believe that anyone who doesn’t explore themselves won’t find themselves cool. I just don’t believe that’s true. You’ll live with enthusiasm, curiosity and acceptance. And with that comes liking, confidence and all of that. All of the good things in life come from that. What I encourage are my people to free themselves from themselves.