It all started with The Most Beautiful Yurt in the World. Kyrgyzstan, a tiny country in Central Asia to the north of Afghanistan, was cut loose from The Soviet Union during its “collapse” in 1991. As closed territory, it had manufactured bullets. In celebration, the government mounted a Manas Festival celebrating indigenous (traditional?) performing and artisanal arts in the newly independent country. A nomadic, horse and sheep-based culture, the people are known for their wool/felt making. One end use for the material is yurts, a portable wood framed structure, often a home, covered by a thick layer of sheep’s wool felt* for insulation and weatherproofing. Included was a contest for The Most Beautiful Yurt in the World whose award winner would receive a Volkswagen Beetle. When the artist arrived to collect, however, there was no prize. “Mad as a hornet, he throws the yurt in a truck and takes it home.” (Candra Day)
While visiting a friend in the State Department an art appreciator from Jackson Hole, Wyoming was driven 5 hours to the artist’s village to see the 26’ hand-embroidered yurt. She found the yurt extraordinary, offered to buy it for the price of the missing car, and later, took it home. “How’s your yurt today, honey,” her husband would greet her with in lieu of good morning.
Step Two: From Yurt to Vista 360 and Beyond
In 2004, former arts administrator Candra Day, a resident of Jackson Hole, established VISTA 360° (referring to the view from the top of the mountain), a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and exchange of culture among mountain communities. She was looking for a country with which to partner for a festival to be held in the US when fate sent two signals: The United Nations convened the World Summit of Mountain Peoples as part of The International Year of the Mountains in Kyrgyzstan, chaired by that country’s president, and her good friend had possession of the most beautiful yurt in the world, created in Kyrgyzstan. Day went to the confab. “I was welcomed. The people are warm, open hearted, and live lightly on the land which is beautiful.”
She and her group subsequently invited 17 artists to Jackson Hole for a festival called VISTA 360°. Musicians, dancers, a fashion designer, rug makers, and yurt creators, including the prize winning artist, Meken-bek traveled to the states with requisite translators-no one spoke English. The event was a great success. Two more exchanges followed as they exported cowboys to Kyrgyzstan. Mad for horses, it seemed only natural. Attending her first horse festival, Day noticed the beautiful, wool felt, hand stitched rugs. And began to bring some back to this country to sell. Duty is very low as Kyrgyzstan is a “preferred country,” one the US is trying to help. She wandered markets interested in the local handiwork.
One day, in a shop, Day saw Aidai’s felt lace scarf. It was a “wow” moment. She tracked down the artist and “fell in love with her.” A 32 year-old, single mother, Aidai (below) had been sent to art school by the Soviets. While there, she invented a process by which wool felt bonds to silk without stitching. Patterns are cut out of the felt, laid on the silk and rolled up so the pieces will stay in place. The rolled cloth is then kneaded like bread in soapy water. Both being porous, silk and wool fuse. There are no hanging threads, nothing that distracts from the smooth lines and textural marriage. Even cut-out holes are completely clean. Aidai had been creating things using the process since her twenties. Over apricots “they have the best apricots in the world,” bread and tea, the women began to know one another.
VISTA helped get micro-financing for the small business. “Aidai was making a good living up till 2008 with profits from Turkey and Russia. We sold 300 scarves a year at Takashimaya on Fifth Avenue (now closed.) She takes pictures of the landscape (in Kyrgyzstan) and uses its colors to inspire her. These are all her own designs. (And very high style.) We don’t direct. Sometimes they’re all felt, sometimes they’re silk and felt. Ethnic pieces are also made, but not for this market.”
“This is our first project to really launch a designer as a brand in the US, starting with a pop-up store Christmas 2010, followed by trade shows. We’ve been pretty successful placing the scarves, especially in the west.” Aidai now has a staff of 25. She teaches her employees. In fact, she travels elsewhere in the country to teach, has invested in her native village with a shop, and is trying to build a little arts center. “She’s faithful to her country, her people and her family. There are so few designers from the emerging world at the shows we attend.”
The new web site, with scarves in 3 sizes and 25-30 styles will open more doors. Inventory is being warehoused for the first time. An office has been opened in Bishkek to manage the business at its source. Day finds she has to be there less and can concentrate on spreading the word here. Unfortunately, road blocks sound like something out of a Sacha Baron Cohen film: “There’s so much corruption, they closed down the ATM system. Direct deposit or cash is the only way.” Aidai is also competing with Chinese companies who are buying huge quantities of fine silk. Day is looking for backers to increase their buying power.
Currently, some of Aidai’s scarves can be found at Yuta Powell Gallery in Manhattan and The Clay Pot in Brooklyn, as well as online at www.aidai-design.com. By September, the scarves will be available at ten boutiques in the City, including A Uno Tribeca, Minnela, the Museum of Arts and Design store and NYpull. They are extremely soft, highly distinctive and beautifully made.
*The oldest textile in the world after animal skins.
The Most Beautiful Yurt in the World is now part of the collection at Mingei International Museum in San Diego, California.