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Welcome to 10 Questions, a semi-regular series that explores L.A. through the eyes of its coolest citizens.
When Toit Volant founder and Et Tigre co-founder Alnea Farahbella arrived in Los Angeles, she set out to find a garment factory that boasted technical talent and skill, one that provided fair conditions, pay, and treatment for its employees. But while using other warehouse owners' machines, she was heartbroken over the conditions she witnessed and frustrated about the lack of cultivation of Los Angeles sewers.
Farahbella and her husband Arnaud "Arno" Nabos couldn't find a factory that checked off all of their ethical and sustainability boxes, so they took a big leap and decided to open their own. Empathetic to the life and struggle of an operator, Farahbella committed to creating a better, healthier space within which to produce Toit Volant's artful garments.
In 2017, the duo officially opened Nana Atelier – a 5,000 square-foot apparel service manufacturing warehouse in Boyle Heights – with the goal of normalizing fair and just treatment of garment producers. The founders thought it ridiculous to pay a technician less than the average price of a cup of coffee in L.A. to produce a T-shirt, which is why they built Nana Atelier upon four key elements: language, the physical space itself, treatment of workers, and environmental impact.
"We built something out of nothing. When we started the factory, we didn't really know what we were doing," Farahbella tells UncoverLA. "We had to learn to cut and produce everything ourselves. In one way it was good not to have the manufacturing background, we can set in a lot of the practices that we envisioned."
Already well aware of greenwashing in fashion, the duo was even more enlightened to that fact as owners of a factory and a brand. "When you run the whole chain, in that way it's been a really amazing journey for Arnaud and I to see what we can do and the changes we can make — real changes and solid impact," says Farahbella.
For starters, Farahbella and Nabos realized that you need more than just proper protocol to check off the certification boxes.
"What we realized with certification is that if you have money as a brand as a company, it's accessible. The OSHA-certified audit we had in June, that was so much of a reality check. We were surprised. You really see the loopholes," says Farahbella.
Plenty has already been said about how U.S. manufacturers circumvent or violate the rules, and Farahbella says that they prefer to serve as positive examples. "We're [more] interested in making better practices for ourselves. Hopefully, others can see that and make those changes. We've learned so much from owning a factory in three and a half years. It's so difficult to ignore the issues that we have because we have the background to voice these issues. How can we be proactive in finding the solution? [That's why] we as a brand have intention and commitment."
One of Nana Atelier's guiding beliefs is that empowerment starts with the micro ways we treat other humans. To reflect this philosophy, Nana Atelier has done away with archaic, demeaning terms; here they're referred to as "producers," "machinists," or "technicians" as opposed to "factory workers" or "sewers."
Additionally, the space itself is clean and open. High ceilings, yellow floors, bright light, and windows allow the space to be as conducive to producers' well-being as possible.
Having toured factories throughout Europe, Asia, and L.A., Farahbella and Nabos know what it takes to uplift those who make our clothing. They've structured their business in a way that aims to reduce the gap between creator and consumer and to promote empathy and understanding for the human beings behind the product.
"I lived in Asia for 10 years. I was really heartbroken what I found in L.A. It's a complex system," adds Farahbella. "When we came to L.A., we literally walked around to look for a manufacturer that I wanted to work with."
Their opportunity came in the form of one of their operation managers who was ready to retire. "She is one of the loveliest people; I knocked on her door, I saw the quality of production," says Farahbella.
Adds Nobos, "there was a good mood in the factory."
"She looked at me and Arno and said I want to slow down, I want you to take over my factory. I was like, Hmmm, is there a tattoo in my forehead that said I had money?," she jokes. "Maybe they saw something in me. You're suspicious of that kind of luck. It took me two months to say, 'Okay.'"
Nana Atelier has also committed itself to being as environmentally conscious as possible by utilizing every piece of fabric to its highest potential. The founders and producers work and design within and near the factory, allowing them to decide what to recycle and what to dispose of. Plus they donate large, unused rolls of fabric to local schools.
As far as fashion, Toit Volant recently debuted its fall/winter 2021 collection of experimental silhouettes led by the mantra, "I believe in love." Pieces range from chilly weather-friendly sweaters, dip-dyed tees, and midi skirts to organic poplin dresses with oversized puff sleeves and ruffles, pleated tapered cargo pants, fluorescent pink and lime shirts, and vintage-inspired blouses with shirred necklines.
We sat down with the couple over Zoom for a round of our quickfire 10 Question-style interview. Read on below and don't forget to shop Toit Volant online here and et Tigre here.
Additional reporting by Nina Aghadjanian.
Favorite "fast food" in the world?
Alnea Farahbella: Turkey! They have guys that wear white aprons that sell mussels…everyone snacks on them. The men in Istanbul are very tall and I didn't mind going to get a little bag of mussels. Nice street food, refined. People just had a plastic bag of mussels with rice. Usually fried food.
Arnaud Nabos: McDonald's! At 10:45 a.m., little cheeseburgers. Afterward, I just want a cheeseburger. It's divine when it's fresh, even a little sweet. Then again, I can be super picky. I like to cook.
Fiction or non-fiction?
AF: I haven't read a book in a long time, but I prefer non-fiction.
Favorite podcast right now?
AF: I've been logging into TED Talks a lot.
AN: My favorite is Le Cours de l'histoire – a podcast about specific moments in history. When arrived in the U.S., I listened to a lot of WTF with Marc Maron. It was very useful to learn English and helped me acclimate to the culture here. I also love Brett Easton Ellis' podcast.
Motorcycle or scooter?
AF: I trained on a motorcycle and have been riding a 250. But for now, a Vespa.
AN: I have an old BMW motorcycle. I like two-wheelers.
AF: A really good gin and tonic. The best one that I've had is at Arno's friend in Paris [who owns the Michelin-starred restaurant] Le Chateaubriand – it makes a difference when you have a good drink. I can't drink here in the U.S. The wine is more organic; when I'm in Europe I'm already on the floor. Also, it's only €55 for a five-course meal!
AN: I have too many. All of the vices. A bit of each!
AF: Typical French guy! [Laughs]
Favorite L.A. hiking trail?
AF: So many good ones. That's what's really great about L.A. I'd say the ones at Malibu Creek State Park.
AN: Echo Mountain in Altadena.
What's your hidden talent?
AF: I can do really good silent karaoke, where you're belting out a song but quietly as if the microphone is off.
AN: I don't have enough talents to name them.
Do you prefer the desert or beach?
AF: I like both! We were in Italy, Tuscany; it was just a beautiful place, and he was like, 'Done. I'm bored.' He doesn't like to lay out on the beach!
AN: Desert definitely.
What were the last three songs or bands you listened to?
AF: TLC, that's been what I've been listening to. Let me see what else…I also have the Whitney Houston essentials.
AN: Nice band from Congo, Le Mamans du Congo. And Robyn. I used to be a big fan of Christian Death. That was in the 80s…I'm still listening to them because I still love this band. The Fall, Psychedelic Furs, Suzanne. I love everything, but I don't like jazz too much.
Denim or leather?
Silver or gold?
We hate to make you choose, but…tacos or burritos?
If you could sit down for lunch with anyone dead or alive, who would it be?
AF: There are so many women who I would want to sit down and learn from. Maya Angelou is who I would want to meet, whenever I read her work her words left the pages and felt real.
AN: I'd love to meet a writer, like James Ellroy. He made me fantasize about L.A. since I was a teenager!