Well yes, it’s true that the country has always been a crossroads and many and varied have been its visitors, so you come to expect the unexpected arrival. But it still came as a pleasant surprise to hear that a leading Paris designer of fashion was in town for a photo shoot. And, as ever, there was a connection. So it was that I found myself in a quiet section of the Marriott Absheron Hotel’s expansive entrance lounge waiting to meet Tilmann Grawe.
If you are a follower of Gaga fashion, you may just have noticed the headwear, often spiky, always with a glitter, that the Lady has used to help her on her way to another dimension. The man responsible for that look was on his way down to explain his most recent creation, for TEAS…. Ulduz Buta. But first, a little background.

A native of Dortmund, Tilmann was single-minded in turning early tailoring experience into fashion design and headed for Paris, where he has been based ever since. After a period of further practice with the needle and some serious study, his major break came in being taken on by a top fashion house, where his imagination was given free rein:

I was with Paco Rabanne for seven years, from 1992-99. I have this streak of eccentricity, so Paco Rabanne saw this and I was in charge of creating experimental dress. Every collection had experimental clothes which were created for image work for his label. So I had to think about the image of Paco Rabanne and how far I could go in eccentricity; what was too much and what was not enough, but always to make strong statements. And for me that is something pretty natural, I don’t know why. I have never had this reaction, ‘How can you wear this? It’s too difficult to wear, or painful.’ I go in for stuff where they say ‘It looks nice and it’s perfect for the catalogue’, so I didn’t have the pressure of being commercial.... It was image work. The funny thing was that everything we did, we sold. We had clients in the world who bought these dresses, so if you do something that is art and especially if it is outstanding, you will always find some outstanding person in the world who is into that. Like people like Lady Gaga, or even private clients who say, ‘Ok, we like that.’

Imagination flowed for the next hour and a half from a man elegant in appearance whose only imposition on his interviewer was an engaging enthusiasm for life, beauty, his art… and Azerbaijan.

So what is the statement in your designs?

Perhaps statement is not the right word. It’s not a manifesto. I do this work because it’s the pleasure of beauty… The moment comes when I know, that’s it. Look, for example, what happened with Azerbaijan. When I got the proposition to do this photo shoot, it was a great thing, but before then, I wasn’t thinking about Azerbaijan, but at the same time I got the invitation to join the delegation [to Eurovision]. There is the possibility for everybody to read the signs of life. And when you try to be sensitive to it, very often the solution is in front of your nose, but a lot of people don’t see it, they’re blind. People don’t find the solution because they are not able to read the signs. But what happened with Azerbaijan, for me it was a sign. It was just like it had to happen and now everything has happened so perfectly. The editor said, ‘Yes Tilmann, but I don’t want a documentary about Azerbaijan. I want a documentary about you and your work.’ And I said ‘Yes, but I feel a different energy, I feel perfectly in harmony with this context.’

Why exactly are you in Baku now?

Very precisely, because of a photo shoot for the international lifestyle magazine called Luxure. The thing is that Luxure asked me to do a reportage for them. So of course I was very happy.... It was originally meant to be in Paris or in London, and when I got this proposition it happened to be at the same time that I got an invitation to join the French delegation for the Crystal Hall, to come to the Eurovision contest.... I said ‘Perhaps that’s a sign, let’s think about it.’ I talked to the editor, that I had something in mind not to do it in Paris or London, but I would be more excited about the idea of doing it in Azerbaijan, but I would see what I could do....

When I came here I said to myself ‘Ok, this is a pretty good place to do it.’ And when I came here, I had five days with the French delegation that were really great. We had an incredible reception in the presence of the First Lady, Mehriban Aliyeva, who’s an incredible woman, she’s really outstanding from every point of view. So it was a tremendous pleasure to see all that she did, to see how she received the people… I was touched by this mixture, this cocktail of, on the one hand of the history they have – we visited Gobustan.... I was there and this was a place.... I felt a really special energy there. The inscriptions on the stones are very interesting, the archaeological point of view I enjoyed. It’s really a place I appreciate a lot.

And then, of course, this whole background to the oil. All the money, all the lifestyle we see today is because of the oil. Again, that’s something coming out of the earth. So there is something very earth-connected. There’s earth, there’s fire – all these very strong earth-connected elements.... Wind.... there’s the water as well! We are near the water, we can hear the water. It’s very pure in this way and at the same time they have this wish to do very modern, contemporary things, to develop the country, with all these modern constructions.

The Crystal Hall is one of them, there, today, we will do one of our photo-shoots.... When I came we enjoyed a lot the light shows they did outside.... The first time I saw it we had a little trip on a boat, on the Caspian. We stayed in the bay and looked from the water at the Crystal Hall at night and there was a whole light show outside and it was just breathtaking. The Crystal Hall wasn’t a construction anymore, it was suddenly organic. It was moving, you felt it was alive. The whole light show was in movement, so it was like a crystal necklace, you know, it was as if it was alive and brought a very strong emotion. The light went really high into the sky – tremendous!...

Then there is the opposite side, the tradition in the Old City. But we will be shooting in the places connected to the earth: Gobustan, and yesterday we had a great day shooting in the oil fields, in Salyan, and it was just wonderful. We had a fantastic reception and the whole day we were shooting there, using ostrich feathers next to the oil pumps. And we went to the reserve, so we saw the wonderful gazelles. We had a little wind storm tornado – we had everything! It was incredible and there were very strong emotions – we had the air, the wind, so it was perfect! Sometimes we had to wait because the sun was so strong. I’m very sensitive to these elements… We did a shooting at the house of Nobel, Villa Petrolea – we shot in the courtyard. You know, I saw all these places two months ago when I was here for those five days and in my mind I was thinking about the photo shoot, ‘No, not in Paris, not in London. It has to be here’, because all these places were talking to me…
In Baku you have this strong cultural background and I appreciate this very much. I am travelling with a friend from Azerbaijan and so I know pretty well people from the Azerbaijani community… And what happens in Baku is that they try to consider these things in parallel. Modernity is one thing, but don’t forget your roots, your authentic knowledge, and that’s good, as well as with a point of view of the free spirit. Last time I was here I visited the old mosque in the Old City, which is very beautiful. They have restored mosques, synagogues and churches at the same time.

We moved on to the frimousse that Tilmann has made on behalf of The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) for UNICEF’s annual auction of designer dolls – all to raise money for a particular charity, as he explained.

Formally, it’s a doll

But when the French say frimousse they mean, you know, it’s a sweet little girl or little boy.... that you want to cuddle.... ‘doll’ is too stiff, no? too formal.

In English, the nearest word is probably ‘moppet’.

So, I have been doing frimousse for about six years, and this year will be the tenth year of the whole operation. It has always been dedicated to the children in Darfur in Africa, precisely for vaccination. So all the money collected will be destined for vaccinations for the children or for things necessary for that. For example, one year they bought a cold room to preserve the vaccines… So, I do something to create a doll and basically make a little story. A lot of designers don’t do it, but I do, because I think it’s nice and I know that children like this, that you go into a fantasy world and leave reality. You can say things that don’t make sense; if it’s not right, it’s ok, and if there is no logic, it’s not a problem.... They’re supposed to have a name, a date when and where they are born – and you write a little story around the subject, which I always do. Concretely this time, when I was with TEAS.

Did TEAS contact you?

I met them because, as I said, I have contact with the Azerbaijani community, so I was there when TEAS had their first reception to introduce themselves at the Maison des Polytechniciens in Paris.... I met them afterwards and the person I work with is from Azerbaijan as well, and we said, ‘It would be great’ and of course TEAS had an idea as well; they like to communicate other sides of their country too and do good things… and so it happened, because I know that with UNICEF, designers sometimes do things for others, so we thought that we could make something by Tilmann Gawe for TEAS.... So I talked with their office in Paris. Of course I had to respect the idea of making something directed to Azerbaijan, otherwise it doesn’t make sense, and they were confident that I would do the right thing; they could see what I had done in the past, the dolls that had sold and that I did a little story, or presentation, or event, and so we started.

So the little doll is Ulduz Buta, that’s the name. Of course it was important to find the right name. I always keep the same shape for the doll. There was originally a basic doll from UNICEF, but I changed it a little bit. It’s a shape that I like – the doll always has my head, by the way! And I changed it a little bit this time, for the buta form. I make it out of suede, not fabric. Out of respect for everybody I did not use pig skin, I would feel bad if a Muslim wanted to buy it and then found it was from pig skin. So it is made from goat skin – which is traditional and causes no problem for any religion. The head form is in buta shape and the whole body is covered with different buta elements, in different sizes. We start from the basic colours of the flag: blue, red and green, starting down with the blue and going up to green. And every little buta shape has a piece of red, so we have some movement on the doll. And of course, she or he, it is unisex, was born in Baku, in Azerbaijan and the birthday is, of course, 1991, the birthday of Azerbaijan.... Then I wrote my little text and showed it to TEAS, to make sure they were fine with it. The text is about the idea of the doll, the idea of doing something good, the idea of the country. I know the photos were done by a very good photographic artist, Eric Bottero... I have had the text translated into English and it’s very good, but I prefer the French version, because, as we said with frimousse, it’s difficult to get the exact meaning and I wrote it with a rhythm that works in the French language, but it doesn’t really work in the English version. But then I don’t catch the English language like I catch the French....

So, are you happy with your doll? Has it captured what you wanted?

I love my doll! I think it’s the best, you know. I mean, I hope it will be sold. As soon as we have the photos, we will be active in connecting all the people we know, including the Azerbaijani community. We should never forget the idea is to sell the doll as expensively as possible because it’s for the children. That is the goal.... It is possible to bid in the auction by telephone. So, you could be in Azerbaijan and participate in the auction in Paris.

I didn’t mention that all these colours on the doll, the basic colours of the flag, are in crystal, so it is pretty sparkly – a sparkling Ulduz Buta doll!...

Of course she’s wearing diamond-shaped glasses. She’s wearing my glasses!... And for the event I very often do a little performance, because otherwise life is too sad, you know. You have to do a little something… So I will see what happens with Ulduz Buta! I have something in mind, but I can’t tell now. It’s not done and perhaps it will change. It will be a surprise; of course I will do something to make it more fun and to boost the case that Ulduz Buta is the one to get attention.

Then Tilmann brought out the headpieces used in his photo shoot and previously worn by the aforementioned Lady Gaga. The designer – and maker – kindly modelled them for me, and they looked good, as you see from the photographs. In his world imagination transforms essentially simple materials – plastic tubing, metal and crystals – into something exotic, other-worldly or, at a party, just plain fun.
  ULDUZ BUTA Design: Tilmann Grawe for TEAS Photo: Eric Bottero

Meeting a man so fond of moulding the elements to his own vision close by the waters of the Caspian in the Land of Fire was certainly an earthy breath of fresh air. All that remains is to help UNICEF and get bids in for Tilmann Grawe’s unique, Azerbaijan-themed Ulduz Buta – here: