A new series of discussions with women we love, Raven + Lily In Conversation features interviews with the women who inspire us on a daily basis. Taking a closer look at the lives and stories of our collaborators, friends and other artists we admire, we continue our conversation with Tuulia Makinen Diallo. Tuulia is the artistic director of Tensira, a sustainably produced line of home and fashion textiles hand-crafted at their artisan workshop in the Republic of Guinea. Smart, warm and always laughing, Tuulia is the namesake of our newly launched spring/summer collection of Tensira tote bags, cushions, wraps, kimonos and kitchen accessories.
Discovered in Paris by our creative director, Kristen Caron, Tuulia says she felt an instant connection with Kristen and Raven + Lily. Speaking of the relationship, she says: ‘I first met Kristen in our showroom and I honestly felt like we’d always known each other.’ Working together came easily – a ‘joyful experience’ is how Tuulia describes it. ‘I feel like Raven + Lily and Tensira both strive for the same thing: to work with the most beautiful materials, to champion artisans and to do good work,’ she explains.
Ahead of the launch, we spoke to Tuulia at her office in Paris about Tensira’s origin story, her affinity for stripes, the women who inspire her, and her love of all things French.
Were you creative as a child?
‘I grew up in Finland surrounded by a beautiful landscape of forests and lakes. My father was an architect and we spent every summer holiday at the wooden house he built on the lake so I was always surrounded by nature and beauty. My father was an entrepreneur and would often take me with him to his meetings so I was involved in that creative world from a young age, even though I didn’t always understand what was going on! My mother was a Francophile and would take us all over France camping – she spoke French and was very absorbed by the country’s culture and I think she passed that on to me.’
‘I specialised in textiles – there’s something about the texture of a fabric, it’s hard to explain, but the relationship between us is strong!’
How did you get your start in the industry?
‘When I was 16 I came to France as an exchange student and decided I wanted to study political science. In the meantime, I met my husband, Hamidou. He’s from a French-speaking country in Africa, Guinea, and came to Finland with his mother who was working for a Finnish NGO. We fell in love and decided to pursue our studies together in France. I studied political science for a year at The Sorbonne but it just wasn’t my thing. I was living in Paris, surrounded by this fantastic and beautiful couture – fashion was the perfect fit. I specialised in textiles – there’s something about the texture of a fabric, it’s hard to explain, but the relationship between us is strong! Meanwhile, my husband was finishing his studies and knew he wanted to start a business to promote his mother’s handcrafts. I did an internship at Jean Paul Gaultier in New York and when I came back we fused our ideas and decided to create a line of modern home accessories made from Guinea’s traditional indigo, tie-dye and striped cloths. The company launched in 2010 and we’ve never looked back!’
Where did the name Tensira come from?
‘Tensira is a small village in Guinea famed for its indigo and tie-dye traditions. My husband was born in the village next door and his mother specialised in indigo dyeing. They are very passionate about their craft skills there. It’s very symbolic. Our indigo and tie-dye is still done in that village because the true indigo plant grows in that mountain area. Tie-dye may seem straightforward but the more detailed the pattern the harder it is to achieve because they do it with a needle and thread.’
Are stripes also part of Tensira’s traditions?
‘Stripes and weaving are very traditional in Hamidou’s village. The indigo is worn by women, and stripes are worn by men. In Guinea they weave the stripe using a very basic loom. As a Finnish person I’m very fond of stripes and I’m a huge fan of Gabrielle Chanel, who was one of the first designers to use them.’
‘We now have over 100 artisans working with us full-time.’
You cite Hamidou’s mother as the inspiration behind the company. How involved was she in its creation?
‘She was our number one fan and inspiration. Unfortunately, she died in 2014 but she was with us from the start. She really helped us to find the right artisans to work with. In 2018, we renovated an old hotel in Conakry, near the capital of Guinea, and transformed it into a beautiful workshop where we now have over 100 artisans working with us full-time. It took a long time but we wanted to do it right.’
What’s your creative process? Who, what and where inspires you?
‘Paris is a very inspirational place. We have the most beautiful park and architecture on our doorstep at our office in Place des Vosges. I’m still so inspired by Gabrielle Chanel and her story. I’m very classic in my personal style and I have been since I was, like, eight years-old! I’m not a fun dresser at all – I’m always in a pencil skirt and I love black. With our collections, I may be inspired by a person or place, art or literature. I visited the Palais Garnier opera house with my daughter and it inspired a stripe we created using the colors of the interior – red, green and blue. I also created a palette based on a winter garden when my younger daughter was born. We have created our own colors at Tensira, we don’t use Pantone. Like our pale pink – it’s impossible to copy because it’s a mixture of off-white and pink woven together. We even have our own black.’
Is your approach to interiors in your own home similar to Tensira’s?
‘I’m so careful with colors, like my clothing, my home is pretty simple. I’m Finnish – we like minimalism! In terms of furniture, I love mixing old and new, and Spanish and Danish furniture with the Tensira black and white stripe. But I like to have fun with tableware. And I’m more adventurous with accessories too. I love our fun totes.’
‘When I have an inspiration, I have to write it down immediately – it makes me anxious if I don’t have my notebook to hand.’
What do you keep on your desk?
‘My notebook. I have to make my notes on paper, it’s not the same thing on your phone. When I have an inspiration, I have to write it down immediately – it makes me anxious if I don’t have my notebook to hand. I always have a coffee on my desk too – I’ve had to replace my keyboard so many times. I also have a nice Tensira tablecloth and a view of a little garden outside.’
Name three women who inspire you.
‘Definitely my mother, mother-in-law and grandmother but also Josephine Baker. I’ve been a huge fan of hers since forever. I went to a swimming pool named after her when my daughter was born and I wanted to know more about who she was so I googled her and I fell in love! She’s a huge inspiration – an artist, dancer and singer, one of the first Black icons, an activist and a French Resistance agent during the Second World War.’
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
‘Listen to your intuition and it will never fail you.’
Illustrations by Kathy Phan
Kathy Phan is a pet portrait, illustration, and letter artist based in Austin, Texas. Her @kathyphantastic products include watercolor pet portraits, pet portraits on ceramics, paper goods, stickers, and magnets.