May 1st, 2015
Los Angeles, California
& Mumbai, India
Elsa Nilaj is an Albanian fashion designer that was born on September 4th, 1988 in Malësia e Madhe. She now currently resides in Mumbai, India alongside her husband, Vishal Sudarshanwar. Elsa Nilaj has had a love for fashion and designing since she was young. Her love for the field and her hard work have allowed her to be recognized for her work in India and Albania. She has participated in various fashion events in both countries and has won numerous prizes.
If you are interested in Elsa Nilaj’s work, you may contact her through the following ways:
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/ElsaNilajFashion?fref=ts
Facebook Profile: https://www.facebook.com/elsa.nilaj
Twitter: Elsa Nilaj (@Elsa_Nilaj)
Linked In: Nilaj Profiles India
Vanessa Villarreal became interested in Albanian Studies while living in Shkodra, Albania. Her main scholarly interests include: nineteenth and twentieth century Italian literature and culture, women’s studies, the Arbëreshë of Italy and Albanian culture and oral history.
In this oral history, Elsa Nilaj talks about her life as a fashion designer and gives us insight as to what life is like for an artist in living in India.
Interview recorded using Audacity.
Transcribed by Vanessa Villarreal. Audited for accuracy and edited for clarity by Vanessa Villarreal. Transcript reviewed and approved by Elsa Nilaj. Transcript 11 pages.
BEGINNING OF INTERVIEW
ELSA NILAJ: Hello, Vanessa. My name is Elsa Nilaj Sudarshanwar.
VILLARREAL: Shall we begin this interview?
ELSA NILAJ: Yes.
VILLARREAL: Okay! Where in Albania were you born?
ELSA NILAJ: I am from Albania, and I was born in Malësi e Madhe. Later on in life, I moved to Shkodra, to pursue my career. It is a region known for its culture and education.
VILLARREAL: Can you please describe your life in Albania? Did you have good memories?
ELSA NILAJ: I was born in an artistic family. My father is a folk singer and my uncle is a sculpture artist and writer. Therefore, the love I have towards arts comes to me by my genes. I am the youngest one among 2 siblings. I have an elder sister and an older brother. So, naturally, I am the most naughtiest, but also the most lovable child in home. I inclined towards fashion by an incident in childhood when I was around 10 or 12 years old. Once, while playing around I fell down and my trouser tore apart. It was one of my favorite trousers and I never wanted to throw it away. I thought to redesign it somehow so I made beautiful shorts with asymmetrical hem out of it. That’s where my creativity for fashion took place within me. I was very much supported by my parents and siblings since then. Later, we all moved to Shkodra to complete our studies and to pursue our dreams. I was studying and working at the same time, participating in few fashion competitions in and around Albania.
VILLARREAL: Wow! What an interesting story! Now I know what inspired you to become a fashion designer. I am guessing that you have known about your career choice since that incident.
ELSA NILAJ: Yes, fashion has been my passion since childhood. To decide to be a fashion designer wasn’t influenced from the outside world nor anyone suggested it to me. It was within me. As I grew up it developed further. As I mentioned before, I was born into an artistic family. It helped me in discovering myself. I remember I was in a very small age when I used to sketch. I still have those sketches with me. I used to show to my father and uncle to get their feedback. Even as a teenager, whenever I bought some dress, I used to redesign them according to my wish. For me, fashion designing is not only a profession but it is an art. I believe that fashion is more than making clothes.
VILLARREAL: You are right! Did you go to fashion school?
ELSA NILAJ: When I moved to Shkodra, I finished a 6 month course for pattern making which helped me a lot to develop creativity in my designs. Even now, pattern making is a strong part in my designs. Later on, I started working in the fashion industry. When I came to India, I wanted to learn about Indian culture, clothes and regional costumes. India is a vast country with multiple traditions, customs and languages. So, I joined a fashion college to have better understating of this beautiful nation which will help me in the future as fashion designer. This year, I complete my graduation in fashion designing from INIFD Mumbai. However, for me school is not that much compulsory for an artist. If we become fashion designers only because of schools then anyone would be. Schools can teach basic education but they can’t create artists. As I always say, designers are born, tailors are made. I see many people who wait years to graduate and call themselves fashion designers only because they complete their graduation. If you feel that you are a fashion designer you can be without degree or diploma. You can’t be with both. I am still surprised that I see big artists mention the name of their schools. None can become an artist because of school. There are many graduates around the world but still very few artists.
ELSA NILAJ: Europe has always the best taste of fashion in the world. France , Italy, and the U.K. are big countries in the fashion world. Then, being their neighboring country, Albania can’t be far behind. Albanian has a similar style with all these countries. Albanian Fashion Week takes place twice in a year which invites all artist to showcase their collections. There are worldwide successful Albanian designers like Katrina Boci which is doing very good in Bridal wear in USA. Also, Joni Peci. in Italy and now in Albania. Albanian tradition, customs and culture is so rich which makes it a great place for artists to get inspired from.
VILLARREAL: You make a good point. Can you describe your favorite style of fashion?
ELSA NILAJ: Style, hmm. As Coco Chanel said, ‘‘Style remains forever, fashion fades away.’’ I always present something unique in my designs. If I don’t create something new, then I feel that I haven’t created anything. My style is all about uniqueness and to make others to find their personality in clothes. As I always say, fashion is a compulsory luxury.
ELSA NILAJ: My designs are full of detail, creativity and imaginations. I can talk hours and hours about them. They are not only a wearable garments, but also pieces of art. Every stitch, line, pocket or detail in my design has a reason and it represents or tells something. Either a story, an idea or a meaning. I am fond of pattern and combination of fabrics. I like the quote, “I am not only a fashion designer but I am a writer who writes stories through designs”. I don’t create for people to follow my style, but I help them to develop their own style and personality through my designs. Inspiration depends, mostly stories or pieces of arts have been my inspiration in my designs. But, I always tend to research deeply and get something new. For me, it doesn’t matter the concept or the inspiration because in the end we wear the clothes not the concept. What is important is how you represent it through your designs. It may be a repetitive inspiration which big designers have already taken for so long, but if you bring something new out of it then it doesn’t matter. Peaceful environment and beautiful sunny days inspire me a lot and has big impact in my work and creativity. I always love to imagine and create amongst the beautiful nature.
VILLARREAL: Can you think of a piece that you are particularly proud of?
ELSA NILAJ: I am proud of every piece of my work. They are all my kids. There are designs which are completely different from others. Like the dress which I made with more than 6000 thousand condoms for “1st Indian’s Condom Fashion Show”. It was held in 2015 in India. The design and the work was done was completely out of the box. It was made within a month. Everything was done by me, hand stitched. It was a different experience. But, coming up with design for the first of its kind fashion show was not too easy. I didn’t know how the texture is going to look or how all these pieces can stay in the dress. It was very experimental as the time was limited. I had to come up with a design which is not only unique but also has a message. The first thing I picked was the faces of a man and a woman getting attracted towards each other. And, while making the dress, I never allowed the thought of HIV and AIDS to leave my mind. The people who are suffering from the disease and the message that I wanted to give to the young generation and the society was clear in my mind. Another collection which I am proud of is “E Bukura”. It is my final year collection for graduation. This collection is all about me. I was inspired from my Uncle Pjeter Vukaj’s artwork. Taking his artwork and putting it into my clothes was something very unique and challenging. None has done before. This collection was very touching to me. I tried to take every bit of art from my family and use it in my collection. Background music was taken from my father’s instrumental music. My showstopper was my husband. I decided to sing in Albanian language on stage. I sang a song called Moj e bukura more, an old Albanian song. It is something new and very close to my heart as an Albanian performing in India. And, believe me, people were surprised and loved the concept. Especially the art and the Albanian culture that was put into it.
ELSA NILAJ: I still don’t have my own brand, but I have gotten the opportunities to showcase my designs through the competitions in Albania and India as well. A big fashion show I was in was the graduation night tassel lifetime award. There, I showcased my collection “E Bukura” out of 7 garments. Another was India’s first condom fashion show, where more than 11 universities and 80 students took part.
VILLARREAL: Have you been recognized for your designs?
ELSA NILAJ: I am not fond of awards. It doesn’t matter to me, as it is given only from few people. Every day, more and more, I am making my mind that competitions in the artistic field shouldn’t exist. Nobody can judge a piece of art because everyone thinks different. That’s why we are called artists. To get an award is a good way to gain popularity in the crowd. Even if you didn’t deserve it, some people recognize your work only because of that. Sometimes even if your work is the best and you don’t get any awards, people don’t have much interest to see it in detail and know about it. Only because you didn’t get award. To me, what matters is to showcase my design in the way that I want it to be, even if the designs are not understood from the others. I got an award in a Youth Fashion show competition held in Tirana, Albania. I got first place for the “Beachwear Design” and runner up in the “Red Carpet Style”. The next award I received was in India for “India’s First Condom Show”. I was declared the winner of the competition. Recently, I was chosen as a finalist for “GenNext Designer” at Lakme Fashion Week in India. It is a world class fashion show.
VILLARREAL: Congratulations! What is your favorite part of being a fashion designer?
ELSA NILAJ: The best part of being a fashion designer is creativity, exploration and history. We learn new things every day. I am a person who does not like to repeat things many times. I always like to create, create and only create something new. Obviously, being in the fashion industry, there are beautiful moments that are full of glamour, fashion and style. But, very few know what happens behind the stage. People see only that ramp walk which lasts only a few minutes. How much time and energy are needed to make it happen is something that only a fashion designer can know. In the end, that hard work, dedication, creativity, invention and idea eventually pays off as huge satisfaction inside you.
VILLARREAL: That is true. Do you have a favorite fashion designer?
ELSA NILAJ: For me, whoever has contributed in fashion something new is my favorite. Being into fashion is not only making and selling clothes. There are few names which are my inspiration, like Coco Chanel. Christian Dior, Charles Frederick Worth, Paul Poiret, Giorgio Armani, Mary Quant and Yves Saint Laurent are others I admire. These names have brought something new in fashion. It’s not about their style. Everyone have their own different style, but it is all about invention and changing the fashion. Working in fashion and bringing something new in fashion is completely different from one other .
VILLARREAL: Why do you think fashion is important?
ELSA NILAJ: Many people say that fashion is luxury and it’s not that important, and that we can live without fashion. But, for me, fashion is a compulsory luxury. Fashion and style is what represents who we are. Clothes represent our personality and clothes speak for us who we are and what we are. It’s not about that we have to wear only branded clothes and we are fashionable. Even if they are branded and we wear it wrong then it doesn’t work. We don’t need to wear branded or non-branded clothes, but we must wear them right as per our personality. Don’t change for fashion. Fashion changes you!
VILLARREAL: I agree with you. If you were not a fashion designer, what do you think you would be?
ELSA NILAJ: I can’t imagine myself of not being into fashion. I never dreamed of becoming something else. Really, I don’t have an answer.
VILLARREAL: I think it was clear from early on in your life that you were meant to work in the fashion industry. What do your Albanian friends and family say about your work?
ELSA NILAJ: My family and all my friends are very proud of me. I always used to talk only about fashion. All are so happy that I am fulfilling my dream day by day. Now, they are waiting that one day soon I’ll open my label and they’ll wear my designs. When I moved to India, I immediately started college to finish my graduation in fashion designing to know more about fashion. Especially Indian fashion, style and fabrics, as it is different from my Albanian culture, customs and traditions. It wasn’t so easy for me to join a college immediately when I landed here. It was everything new for me. The culture language, Hindi and English and 1000 more! The food was also different from what I was used to. I have learned English speaking in Albania a year before moving to India. However, I never dreamed to finish a college in English medium language. I owe a big thanks to my husband who is my biggest support. He motivates me and gives me confidence in every step I take in India to make everything possible. We both are dreamers and artists and want to succeed in life. We share our dreams and goals together. So, our dreams become one as we are one. When we love something and we are dedicated for it, we must fulfill it as well. I must also mention my mother in law, who is a teacher and my father in law. They supported, motivated and helped me in every way to fulfill my goal to be graduated in fashion designing. They happily await and they are excited to know about my competitions, exams and shows. For them, I am winner of every test. Now, all the family is so proud of me.
ELSA NILAJ: When people understand and talk about my designs, even if they don’t like or like it, I respect them. I respect everyone’s taste. I like when people show their interest to know about my designs and works. I like when people ask about details and ideas. I love to talk about it and see their reaction. That is the biggest satisfaction of an artist . But, sometimes, you have to explain your work to people who doesn’t understand anything about art. That hurts. I am known as stubborn person about my work because I never change or listen to anyone even if they don’t like my designs. Sometimes people even feel bad that I don’t take their suggestions. I am very loyal to my true feelings and work. I have been told that I should take others suggestions sometimes because they are bigger than us and have more experience in the industry. But, why do I need to change my designs only because they don’t like how my designs are as per their taste? I only take suggestions from my husband. He is my biggest critic. Eventually, you need critic to get perfection. I take revenge when it’s my turn and his creativity. My designs are different, I think it is me. I have a suggestion for a newcomer: take suggestion from your heart.
VILLARREAL: Great advice! What is one thing people do not usually know about fashion designers?
ELSA NILAJ: The fashion world seems so glamourous. I have seen many people joining fashion institutes because they think that they want to become a fashion designer because they have money and wear branded clothes. They think that is enough to be a part of this world. After two years of study, they realize what is really behind it. To be a fashion designer we have to be prepared to work day and night from the smallest thing until the biggest one. As it happens in fashion, things can change last minute even before entering into the stage. Let me tell you my story which happened recently. When I showcased my condom dress, my female model was replaced in the last minute and I had to change all the measurements of my dress one night before. I had a sleepless night. If the zipper breaks while wearing it, then I would be hopeless. All the hard work which we have done for a month goes to waste as it won’t be showcased. I remember going on stage and taking my award with thread and needle in my hand. I didn’t realize it only after that. The most difficult part of being a fashion designer is that you don’t have a fixed time for anything. For us, the work-day is finished when work the is done. There are days that we spend so much time in creating something and in the end, it comes to that point that we ourselves don’t like it and we have to start again from the start. We can’t predict anything in fashion. Fashion is not easy, fashion is crazy.
VILLARREAL: That is true. What has it been like showing off your work in India?
ELSA NILAJ: Mumbai is the fashion capital of India. I live here. Fashion and movie industries are based here in Mumbai. There are many opportunities for designers nowadays to showcase their designs in fashion shows, competitions, exhibitions and online competitions. They connect us with other parts of the world. I do participate everywhere. Recently, I got the opportunity to work in a big Bollywood Movie as an assistant costume designer. The experience was fantastic. One more movie project is in hand.
VILLARREAL: How exciting! Why and when did you move to India?
ELSA NILAJ: Well, all is written in our strange and interesting love story. I never thought of going to India and never imagined to live here. But, as I said, it’s written in heaven. I met my husband Vishal on Facebook. He sent me a friend request. We haven’t spoken to each other for 2 months. Then, after 2 months on the 24th of June 2011, we started chatting each other. We introduced to each other and started sharing our dreams. We both are artists hence it was a natural connection between us. We immediately started understanding each other. Then, we became best friends and started missing each other. We had lots of sleepless nights chatting with each other. We expressed our love. However, we were not teenagers so we talked very maturely about our future. We both knew that our parents would not agree. However, we decided to convince our sisters and let our sisters convince our parents. The idea worked. Our parents understood us and perhaps the wish of God. It is a strange bond between people of two different parts of the world. Within 6 months, Vishal came to Albania to meet me and my parents for the very first time .We only saw each other on Skype. We got engaged and decided to get married and move to India the next year. In June of 2012, I came to India as a married woman. Vishal has been living and working as an actor in Mumbai where Bollywood and the Indian Film industry is based. Therefore, we both decided to live here in Mumbai. Although I never thought of living in India, now it seems Mumbai is my second home. I am enjoying living and working here.
VILLARREAL: It seems like you have a great love story! Tell me a little bit more about what it is like to be in India.
ELSA NILAJ: It was tough at beginning because of the climate, foods, city culture and other things. I was born and brought up in a European climate and culture. But, gradually, I familiarized with everything and now it seems that it’s my second home and I am an Indian. I love the food, the people, the culture and the family relationships. These remind me of Albania. Being married to an Indian? It never seems like that. We love each other so much. We both are dreamers and artists. We are ambitious people. We share each and everything. Our likes and interests are same. We don’t feel like living with another person but we always say that “VE are One. VE are Same.” V stands for Vishal and E stands for Elsa.
VILLARREAL: How sweet. How would you describe the Indian culture compared to the Albanian culture?
ELSA NILAJ: I would like to say that Albania and India has similar family culture. They are both very connected to each other in the way they live and respect each other. It is very similar to Indian culture and customs. But, I would also like to add that Indian people are more romantic.
VILLARREAL: Interesting! How many languages do you speak?
ELSA NILAJ: The most important language for me is the language which people understand each other. You really don’t need any language to understand each other. I speak Albanian, English, basic Italian, French and Hindi. The English language I have learned in Albania. It has been always my favorite language. Even Italian language I used to study with my brother and sister at home while watching television. French, I studied in college in India. Hindi language I just learned myself in daily life while living here and mostly talking with my parents in law.
VILLARREAL: You are a polyglot. That is impressive. Has your husband Vishal learned any Albanian? What does he think of Albania and its people?
ELSA NILAJ: Yes, Vishal has learned a lot of Shqip, even before he came to Albania. When he came there for the first time he started talking in Albanian. We were all were impressed and surprised. He has learned the basic Albanian thus he talks with my parents and friends back in Albania. He is in love with Albanian culture and people. The very day he arrived in Albania first time, he was surprised to receive the warm welcome and friendly atmosphere. He became friends with many Albanians within a short period of time. He loves Albanian foods and often asks me to cook in India. He loves the winter of Albania, especially the Christmas season. He insists to visit during this season only. He did many times. He has already planned to own his home in Albania someday and want to spend his all holidays amongst the beautiful and incredible Albanian nature.
VILLARREAL: Your husband seems like such a great person. What makes him stand out from the rest to you?
ELSA NILAJ: Vishal is a very important person in my life. I always used to dream of a person like him. He is a very ambitious person. He is a dreamer, an artist, a good life partner and family guy who knows how to respect his family. He has been my motivation, my family and my friend since I met him. I don’t think that I would have done what I have done until now without him. I always wanted a friend to be part of my life not only a husband. God sent this gift to me and I am thankful for that always.
VILLARREAL: How sweet. What was it like telling your family about this love?
ELSA NILAJ: For every parent, it is not easy that their child is leaving home and going somewhere else. It can be for studying or whatever. In my case, it was different as I got married that time and same time I left for abroad. I used to live with my family together. Obviously, it was painful for them. Mostly for my dad as I am very connected to him. This is the best part to my family that they have supported us or what we wanted to do in life. It was my destiny and they understood and supported me and my decision as well. They are very happy with Vishal and my life that I am doing and feel proud of us, the same way we are very proud of them, too. I see many parents that support their children only in what they think is good but never think for their children’s feelings. My family is very important to me, even if I am living in India. I go very often and visit them but I can’t sleep if I don’t drop an SMS or make a call daily to talk to them. We are very connected to each other. I miss them like hell, but this is life. Now, I have a family here too and they also love me and treat me like their daughter. We are planning to have big get together soon in the near future.
VILLARREAL: That sounds fun. What about your wedding? What was like combining two cultures together?
ELSA NILAJ: As I mentioned before, it was a strange story so our marriage was as well. We call it an international marriage. It wasn’t that easy in reference to a legal and formal marriage. However, God is with us always. First, we got married in Albanian in 18 June of 2012 in a church. Though it was new for church as per Albanian rules and regulations and it was first time for Shkoder church to perform Indo-Albanian marriage. They helped us in every possible way and eventually we got married. It was a small family celebration with few relatives and friends as we didn’t have much time. We needed to leave for India within 10 days. Then, we both visited to Rozafa castle immediately from church in our wedding dresses. It was an incredible moment. It was interesting for the tourists presented in Rozafa. They just loved us in wedding dresses and started capturing us in memories.Vishal’s family couldn’t attend the marriage in Albania because preparation was going on in India as well. We arrived in India on 21st June. The marriage ceremony was held on 24th June, followed by the big dinner celebration on the next day, the25th. Indian weddings are known for big celebration, songs, fun and good food. Around 500 plus people attended our celebration, including relatives. Everything was new to me. The culture, food, dresses. The way they celebrate marriage was also new to me. It takes 1 week to finish the wedding in India.
VILLARREAL: Wow! Going back to fashion, how would you describe Indian fashion? How is it different from Albanian fashion?
ELSA NILAJ: I can say that it is very different as both countries are in two different parts of the world. India has many traditions, customs, cultures, languages, foods, climates and lifestyles. In every 100 kilometers, you find new things. The fashion is also different. I enjoyed learning about all the states and different cultures and fashion. In a broader way, it is more of traditional wears than western wears. India is an international country and has a lot of international brands and companies. There are huge scope of work and demand for western fashion. Few metro cosmopolitan cities have international fashion. The Indian film industry and television industry are following both Indian traditional and western fashions. It is interesting work here as you create something fusion out of a mix of demands.
VILLARREAL: Interesting. Now, going back to Albania, do you have plans to move back?
ELSA NILAJ: Vishal’s work is here as an actor. Moving back is not in my plans. In the future, we can expand our works there definitely. But, yes, very soon we want to go and visit our family in Albania in this summer. It is more than a year that we couldn’t go due to my college. Finally, we are going now and enjoying with family and friends.
VILLARREAL: I am sure it will be great. I know you are happy in India, but what do you miss most about Albania?
ELSA NILAJ: Of course I love the life in India. I miss my family back there too much and my friends. I also miss the peaceful environment of Albania which is difficult to find in some business cosmopolitan cities. After all Europe is famous for its nature, peace, harmony and healthy life styles. I miss one more thing desperately. I miss Albanian cheese!
VILLARREAL: I hear that often from Albanians living abroad. What about the music? What comments do you get about your music in India?
ELSA NILAJ: Albania is known to India only for Mother Teresa. They love to know more about Albania and Albanian people since they met me. Vishal describes Albania more and better than me. As I told you once, I sung an Albanian song in my final year show and I was surprised to receive their response. They just loved the music and the songs. I am often asked in small get together to sing some of Babi’s songs which I proudly do.
VILLARREAL: I am glad you do. What other things do people tell you when they find out that you are Albanian?
ELSA NILAJ: Few know about it. Many ask about Albania. They are proud when I mention that I am from the Mother Teresa country. Now, my classmates refer to Albania and Albanians to a famous Hollywood movie named “Taken”. That is funny. We both keep talking about Albania’s beautiful nature, incredible towns and breath taking Alps. As of today, so many people desire to visit Albania with us in the future. They keep asking to take them along whenever we visit Albania next time. Now, the list is increasing day by day. It seems that next time we both will not come alone but at least with whole bunch of Indian people.
VILLARREAL: It is great to hear that you are inspiring others to visit your beautiful country. You should be proud. For my last question, would you just mind telling me about your future plans?
ELSA NILAJ: I am looking for a break in the Indian film industry and also to work as an independent fashion designer. I did a song of big budget Bollywood movies and searching opportunities to be an associate with some big production houses as costume designer.
Apart from this, I have planned to open my brand and boutique in the near future. I want to take it to an international level, I hope it will take shape soon. We both wish to work internationally because for an artist there are no boundaries. An artists’ work place is the whole world.
VILLARREAL: You are an amazing and inspiring Albanian woman. Thank you so much for this amazing interview. Good luck with everything you do. I am sure I will hear great news from you very soon.
END OF INTERVIEW