Mae Engelgeer / Textile designer: "Let what truly interests you guide you."
Dutch textile designer Mae Engelgeer opened her studio in 2014. Her distinctive graphic style, characterised by geometric shapes and playful minimalism, lends “Mae Engelgeer”, her brand that is, its visual identity. “I’ve never considered calling it anything else. That would make it a ‘label’."
Interview by Siji Jabbar
Photography by Jerome de Lint
Were you born a designer? I don’t think so. Or at least I’ve never considered myself one. On the other hand, designing now feels so natural to me that I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Does art of any sort run in the family? Not that I know of.
When did you first develop an interest in making things? It was probably during my final year secondary school exams, which included a textile design project. I spent hours on it, and I remember how happy that made me. I can recall thinking that this was what I wanted to keep doing.
Can you tell us about your childhood? I was born and raised in Harderwijk, a small Dutch city, and had a very happy childhood; nothing to complain about, really. I had a warm and loving family that gave me lots of freedom and security.
How would people have described you as a child? Footloose and fancy-free, cheerful, a bit mischievous, perhaps ;)
What remains of that younger you today? I think I’ve retained my optimism and positive outlook. I still love being around people, and feel at ease pretty much anywhere. My mischievousness typically expresses itself in curiosity these days.
Tell us about your parents. My dad was an electrician and worked for NUON, the energy utility company, while my mum worked in the healthcare industry until she had us. I remember the convivial atmosphere they created at home, which made everyone – kids and adults – feel welcome.
How did they feel about your chosen educational path? They probably had no idea what you could do with a fashion-school education, but they thought it was great that I was going to study in Amsterdam. I was the first in my family to study so far from home. I guess I’d always been fairly independent anyway, and was used to figuring things out myself. My parents always supported my choices. I think they knew I’d do it anyway. Even so, I think they found it hard to let me go. It still feels that way sometimes, which of course makes sense. They’re often amazed at my ambition, and at the risks I take and the commissions that come my way. My parents were more the “doe maar normaal dan doe je al gek genoeg” type (popular Dutch saying that means: “Normal is already crazy enough”). Of course by now they know what I’m like. I think the stability and security I enjoyed as a child gave me the courage to take risks later on.
What’s the most personally significant event you can recall from your teenage years? Moving to Amsterdam was hugely significant. It still feels liberating to be here, as if everything’s possible. I remember cycling through Amsterdam for the first time and feeling a world of possibilities open up before me. It just felt different from where I’d grown up.
Your interest in textiles grew long before you enrolled for the textile design course at the AMFI (Amsterdam Fashion Institute). Why textiles, exactly? I didn’t really have much choice. One secondary school stream offered textile design while the other offered fine art. At the time I’d have preferred the latter, but I ended up in the other stream. It’s worked out brilliantly, though. Haha! Then I choose textile design at AMFI, rather than styling, as I knew by then what I wanted to specialise in. I was always more interested in fabric as a thing in itself than in experimenting with form, and I was especially interested in the manual craft of creating fabric.
On its website, AMFI describes fashion as a “serious business”. Do you see it that way, too? I think they mean working in fashion is more than just a job; it’s hard work and takes a lot of effort, dedication and focus to create something worthy of a place in fashion. The training is no cakewalk; I mean, we can joke about it, but you have to be the right sort, and you discover quite early on that the demands of the course don’t leave room for much else.
You worked for a while as a stylist, but chose not to continue along that path. Can you tell us why? Yes, I did that while studying. Styling, in my opinion, is about creating an image or a mood. I still do this, just in a different way and with a different medium. Certainly, when I design, I’m thinking about composition and about conveying a certain mood or feeling. That love for fashion is still in my bones, and I still sometimes miss the buzz of a fashion show. That mix of fabric, design, music, models, fashion community, movement and momentum feels like the ideal combination of elements.
You opened your own studio in 2014. Any challenges, fears? My part-time job at a fashion label had just ended when I opened my studio, so that was a pretty exciting period as I’d also just given birth to my daughter. But I felt in my gut that it was the right time to jump in at the deep end. Fortunately, my partner and family gave me their full support, as did my close friends, for example Rozemarijn Alsche, who told me to trust my instincts and go for it when I dragged her out for a coffee. Of course you worry a bit in the beginning about making a living from what you’re doing and paying for studio space, but other than that I just went with the flow, dealing with whatever came up.
How did being your own boss change you as a person, as a designer, and as a mother? I think I’ve grown more decisive in the last few years. The desire to make a living and build my life around what I love has become more focussed, as has the importance of making it work. This grew naturally with experience, but becoming a mother also played a very significant role in making me recognise that this was “serious business”, and not a license to mess about without purpose.
Do you enjoy the freedom that comes with being independent? Obviously, the freedom of being your own boss is wonderful in itself, but it also gives me flexibility as a mother. Furthermore, it’s taught me to stand up for myself. You realise at some point that, okay, this is where I draw the line. For instance, in the beginning you find yourself doing a lot more than is necessary, and you bend over backwards to meet people’s demands. I stopped doing that at some point and began either asking for something in return or making demands of my own. It’s something I learned by experience, and I think that’s a good thing. You can’t very well start making demands as a novice. Those experiences allowed me to grow.
What qualities do you think a person needs to set up a company? You need to be flexible, think positively, recognise opportunities and be ready to act on those opportunities and work very hard. But the most important thing is to stay true to yourself, and let what truly interests you guide you.
Who inspires you? I believe each person you meet influences you in their own way. I’m buoyed by the people in my generation of designers, people like Sabine Marcelis, Germans Ermičs, Lex Pott, Renee Mennen and Stefanie van Keijsteren, Wendy Legro and Maarten Collignon, each with a strong signature style, and each innovating in their own manner.
Mae Engelgeer is now a brand, which you’ve said sometimes feels surreal. Did you ever consider a different name for the brand? It is sometimes kind of surreal, even though I am a designer and that’s how I see myself. I can well imagine that to others my name is a brand rather than just my name, but I’ve never considered calling it anything else. That would make it a “label”. The fact that it’s named after me gives me the freedom to get involved in things anywhere along the spectrum, from commercial commissions to more autonomous stuff.
What do you consider the hardest part of designing a collection? I guess it’d have to be the bit where you’ve trying to hone your rough idea into something precise; you more or less know what you want to do, but the idea now needs precise definition. I can stretch that moment out forever, wondering if I should execute it this way or that, and it gets kind of annoying if I’m forced to make a decision because of a deadline. The image in my head is usually a feeling that needs to be translated into a product, and I sometimes find it hard to stop if I haven’t yet found a way that works. It’s hard then to shake the feeling that I’m leaping ahead before solving the puzzle to my satisfaction.
Every creative needs to be able to kill their darlings. What darling should you have killed, and regret that you didn’t? I don’t believe in having regrets. The whole process is necessary, so there’s no point in looking longingly or with regret at anything. You’re trying to improve as a designer with each collection, to add something new and different. So, sure, I sometimes have to kill a “darling” if, say, I have an idea that will only work with a specific yarn and it turns out no one makes it anymore. That can be annoying, for a moment, but then you look at the next best alternative and figure out how to work with that.
Your design style is often described as graphic minimalistic with a touch of pastel, orange and black. True? Graphic elements, sure, and minimalism, to a certain extent, but not in a boring way, because I always want to have something going on in my designs. My colour-use is ever changing, but I’ll probably always include some variation of black and white in my work, and something soft … and colour. I just always like to have options. As a designer I think in terms of entire collections rather than in constantly changing variations on a theme.
Do you ever worry that having a distinctive style might also rule out potential commissions? Never. I’m commissioned because of my signature style, fortunately. Your style becomes meaningless if it loses its distinctiveness. It’s true that this defines the sort of commissions likely to come your way, but that’s perfectly okay.
You do quite a bit of travelling for your work, and Japan’s one of your favourite destinations. How has Japan changed you? I just love Japan. Everything about the place. I don’t know if it’s changed me in any way, but it certainly inspired me and focussed my ideas for the collection I happened to be working on at the time, which I’d started designing based on what I knew about Japan without ever having visited. But being there allowed me to immerse myself in the richness of the real Japan and bring all those experiences back with me to Amsterdam to make the final adjustments. I now knew exactly what I wanted based purely on feeling, which is how I always design. It inspired me with a certain sense of aesthetics, subtlety, symmetry and structure.
What effect do you hope your designs will have on people? That’s not something I think about often. I mean, of course I hope to establish myself even further as a textile designer and execute lots of timeless commissions, as opposed to creating designs whose relevance is limited to the period in which they were made.
What’s your advice to someone considering the leap into the uncertainty of self-employment?Just do it. At the same time, though, understand that this way of life doesn’t suit everyone. You need to know if you’re the type this makes sense for. But if you’re considering the leap from a place of passion and feel strongly about realising your dream, I’ll be first in line to tell you to go for it.
And what advice would you give your younger self? Everything happens for a reason. The only advice to myself that I can think of is to maybe take it a bit easy sometimes. Tomorrow’s another day – a little timeout wouldn’t hurt.
What do most people not know about you? I don’t have a loom in my studio, and have never worked one either.
What can we expect from Mae Engelgeer in the near future? I have a couple of really wonderful projects in the pipeline that I can’t say too much about yet, but they have to do with public space. I also plan to carry on producing my own twice-yearly bed linen collection, and I’ve got loads of products hitting the market via some really nice labels.
Finally, if you were asked today to redesign the Oval Office in your own style for a million euros, with the assurance of complete anonymity, would you do it? Why not? I would give it a cool twist.