2011 MUST HAVE: Fashion Threads by Heilyke

Local designer’s passion for fashion stems from her upbringing and dynamic experiences.

Photo: Ross James

In a short time, Heilyke’s line of handmade women’s garments has garnered high praise for its founder, Heili Aun Nalla. Her inventive designs have been featured in numerous publications and fashion shows, where she has been awarded the highest accolades in the Seattle fashion community.

Aun Nalla was born in Estonia, when the small European republic was still a member of the USSR. She credits her mother, a proficient seamstress, and aunt, all professional tailors, for introducing her to fashion.

“The borders were closed, and resources were limited,” she told me, during a recent sit-down at her home studio in Redmond. “If you wanted to have a unique look, then you had to sew or get your clothes custom-made.”

Aun Nalla designed and made clothes throughout her adolescent years, and after high school, she enrolled at the Tallinn Light Industry Technical College in the capital city of Tallinn in Estonia, where she studied Apparel Design.

Photo: Ross James

After graduation, she took a part-time position as a pattern maker with Year, a local menswear supplier. However, it was her internship, and subsequent employment with Estonian fashion icon Kai Saar that truly inspired her ambitions as a designer.

Describing the experience as “richly fulfilling,” Aun Nalla says the position imparted a myriad of skills, related to development, design and production.

Though the bulk of her workload focused on men’s clothing, she did collaborate with Saar on one noteworthy ladies’ garment: a fur-textured wool winter coat for the First Lady of Estonia, a project she now describes as “nerve-wracking, but rewarding.”

It was her mentor’s work ethic that ultimately had the biggest impact on Aun Nalla.

“We had a really good relationship,” she says. “She trusted me, and she didn’t breathe down my neck,” which inspired a great deal of confidence in the young protégé’.

She also took particular note of Saar’s strong, interpersonal relationships with her clients. “She was such a great people person, and the studio was so welcoming,” Aun Nalla says. “She had very loyal clients that had gone there for years; there is nothing more gratifying than that.”

Hungry for more education, Aun Nalla arrived in Seattle in 2002, and began studying art and business at Bellevue Community College the following year.  In 2006, she transferred to the University of Washington, where she studied Fiber Arts.

“In Estonia, I got my technical skill set,” she explained, “but at UW, the program helped me not to worry about the technical, and find new, creative ways to design garments.” Aun Nalla greatly impressed her peers and instructors at UW; in 2009, she was presented with the prestigious Harold and Sylvia Tacker Award for a trio of handmade jackets.

That same year, her ‘Foliage’ jacket model was included in Fiber Arts Magazine, an eminent publication for aspiring designers. She credits Layne Goldsmith, her thesis professor, for greatly assisting her during the last steps of her educational process.

Photo: Ross James

While she worked toward her degree, Aun Nalla spent her spare time working for two prominent local labels, Luly Yang Couture and Michael Cepress. At Yang’s boutique at the Fairmont Hotel, she spent nearly a year as a seamstress.

“I worked with women’s daywear and coats,” Aun Nalla explained. “She had a lot of interesting fabrics, and it was a great place to work.” It made me realize I was ready to say something on my own.” Working with Cepress, for whom she assisted with tailoring and drawing menswear patterns, was equally gratifying.

“He was very encouraging,” she said of the well-known Seattle designer. “I met him when he was a professor of Design Concepts at UW. He was a very good teacher, and working in his studio was an amazing experience.”

With a wealth of experience to her name, Aun Nalla founded Heilyke in 2008. In June of the following year, she unveiled her inaugural line, a collection of jackets, dresses and evening wear produced with both handmade and commercial textiles.

“The first year, we mostly made jackets,” she explained. “The most popular models were our wool and silk fabric designs.” She claims the line has greatly evolved in the 18 months since its inception. “Much of the  garments in the 2010 line were inspired directly from the previous line,” she said, explaining that she likes to reinvent existing designs.

Photo: Ross James

The standouts from the Fall/Winter 2010 line, she says, include a wool jacket with organic lines, jackets and coats with removable ruffle collars and a pleated collar trench coat rendered from camel-colored baby alpaca wool. A very principled designer, she says she only likes to work with natural fibers, because they “breathe better and they are high in quality.”

Organic patterns, colors and textures play a large part in Aun Nalla’s craft. “I try to stay true to what actually exists in nature,” she explained. “Nature fascinates me. If you look at the structure of a plant, there is amazing intricacy, even though no human has touched it. It’s kind of spiritual in a way.”

She claims many of her designs have originated in the natural world; fungal tree growth has been the basis for ruffles, palm tree fronds have inspired pleats and ‘Stratification,’ a hand crafted fall jacket, began with the landscape of the Grand Canyon.

Natural figures are also important to Aun Nalla, and she strives to compliment the curves of the female form. She prides herself on designing garments that appreciate, rather than criticize the hourglass shape. “Our bodies are beautiful,” she proclaims, “and I don’t think we need to hide them.”

Today, Aun Nalla lives in Redmond with her husband Amar, who is also her business partner and collaborator. “It’s nice to have someone that gives me frank criticism,” she says of her spouse and colleague. She is also grateful for Saar, Yang, Cepress, Goldsmith and all of the other individuals that supported her in the early stages of her career, adding “I’ve been fortunate to work with nice people, and I have had great experiences.”