Global Estonians: fashion designer Evelyn Toomistu-Banani (Frankfurt, Germany)

Evelyn Toomistu-Banani is a fashion designer, based in Germany.

Hi Evelyn, where are you based and how long have you been there?

I live with my family in Frankfurt,Germany – and have been here for over 5 years.

What made you to choose Frankfurt?

For some reason I was dreaming to either study or live in Germany since my childhood. Luckily, I picked up German language quite quickly, while watching German satellite channels – which made it easy to polish my language skills later. I got my first chance to study briefly in Germany via Erasmus programme (Erasmus Project is a European Union student exchange programme established in 1987). I studied product design at The Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design (Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden KünsteStuttgart). When I first arrived in Germany, it was like a dream come true – and funnily enough, I felt like at home.

Later on, when I was doing my masters at the Estonian Academy of Art, I was lucky to receive DAAD scholarship (The DAAD is Germany’s largest scholarship-awarding organisation and runs several programs to support academic exchange between Germany and all parts of the world), which enabled me to study again in Stuttgart. Unfortunately or fortunately my studies in Stuttgart were cut short – love had other plans for me! I was getting pregnant, so we decided to move together in Frankfurt, my husband’s hometown.

What is it like to live in Frankfurt and what challenges have you had?

Well, it was difficult at the beginning to deal with all sorts of bureaucracy, but thanks to my husband we got over it. I have to say that native Germans don’t warm up to foreigners very easily – you will be foreigner forever, especially if your name doesn’t sound German. And that applies even for those, who have born here and speak German fluently without accent – if their family comes from somewhere else, they are still not treated as 100% German. There are some substantial prejudices against foreigners, unfortunately – against Polish, against Turkish, and even against Swiss. Perhaps it’s inevitable – this kind of attitude probably occurs in most of countries, unfortunately – awkward perception that someone is better or worse than others. As Frankfurt’s airport is one of the biggest in Europe, and it’s also one of the biggest financial centre in eurozone, there’s no shortage of foreigners who are either working or have settled around here.

As a fashion/product designer specialised in leather design, it came as a bit of a shock to discover how hard it would be to find employment in my profession – almost impossible. It’s a kind of job which is not advertised publicly – instead, there are head hunters or agencies which track down promising fashion designers and professionals in this field. Even if you manage to land a job in one of the fashion design firms, you’d have to start as an unpaid intern first – it will then take for years to achieve a status as a junior or senior designer. It may well be considered normal, but it would have been hard for me – as I had already studied and accumulated professional knowledge for 12 years. With my education from Estonian Academy of Arts I could have in theory worked as an art teacher, but unfortunately Estonian qualification didn’t match with local, German requirements.

How do you make your living and what has been your best experience in your work life?

Unable to find a suitable position in local firms, I chose a no way easier route – to set up my own fashion firm, designing leather gloves, handbags, and other accessories. My own brand called Evelyn Toomistu Accessories has been in the development for years now – and it’s going from strength to strength.

I have to say that since I have a young child, it has been a very hard work to build up my own brand – there’s only so much you can do, when looking after your family at the same time. I have been a mother, chef, nanny, designer, saleswoman, photographer, web editor etc. all in person! Because of that, the development of my brand hasn’t always been as fast as I would like it to be – but I’m hoping that once it becomes more established, I will have more resources to outsource more help, rather than doing everything myself.

Compared to Estonia, German market seems to be even more difficult place for handmade products, especially if there’s some innovation attached to it – German consumers are actually quite conservative and not too keen to try new products. Despite or thanks to the size, it’s actually easier to find market acceptance in Estonia – because everyone knows everyone and hence it’s simpler to set up a marketing network. Perhaps handicraft is also more valued in Estonia. At the same time, Estonian market is obviously too small to put all your cards onto it – hence it’s worth it to think big and explore large markets, like Germany.

On the other hand, I have enjoyed the experience of a challenge. I’m also satisfied that last year I managed to write a book called “Practical making of leather gloves (Nahkkinnaste Valmistamine)”, which was published in Estonia in two languages – Estonian and English – and formed a part of my final masters degree project. It summed up my knowledge and experience accumulated over the years of how to make leather gloves – I didn’t want to keep this information just for myself. By the way, these kinds of books are rare in Western Europe on these days – making something with your own hands hasn’t been popular here for years.

What motivates you in life?

I’m always motivated by a certain internal urge to achieve more in whatever I’m doing!

Have you had any setbacks and what would be your recipe for success?

When you’re an entrepreneur, you have to be ready for setbacks – there has to be plan B, always. Especially, when you’re dependent on other people – in my case suppliers, sewing professionals, etc.

It’s important to be forward looking and positive, and not to get stuck too long, when circumstances are not necessarily going the way you want. At the same time – it’s important to identify the moments when you have to choose a new direction – there’s no point to swim upstream! For example, everyone working on their business and brand has  to redefine their brand from time to time and adapt a new strategy again and again, to survive – and so have I.

Do you still have a connection with Estonia?

In my busy life I have less and less contact with Estonia, unfortunately – I visit the country only once or twice a year. However, I do buy some materials for my products, such as fish skin, from Estonia – because many materials are still cheaper over there. Most of my friends are also scattered around the world, so I’m using social media to catch up. And Estonian invented Skype also helps!

Is there anything special you miss about Estonia?

Although a great variety of cuisines are represented in Germany, I do miss certain Estonian foods – such as local home grown apples, for example!

What are your future plans?

I’m planning to stick to what I know best – designing leather accessories under Evelyn Toomistu Accessories brand! I’m hoping to market my leather gloves and bags more globally – I’d love to accessorise everyone!

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