I’ve been on a string of French movies lately, including revisiting almost all of François Truffaut’s films, making me fall in love with his films all over again. But today I want to talk about style in French films. It so happens that so many of the films I have been watching display timeless wardrobes. I am talking about the Nouvelle Vague, of course, which not only experimented with new film form, but approached costume design differently, too, making street wear and every New Wave muse (from Jean Seberg and Anna Karina to Anouk Aimée and Jeanne Moreau) cool. But there are films of the 70s and 80s as well, which prove time and again that simplicity never goes wrong and that menswear often looks better on women.
Le choses de la vie (The Things of Life) (1970), by Claude Sautet (another director who occupies a unique place in French cinema), is about life, love, about the personal choices you have to make in life, about life governed by chance. What I love so much about many French films is that they are about real life, about things we have lived, about things that can happen to us. We identify easily with the characters, with how they feel, act, dress. Romy Schneider’s men’s inspired blue shirt and blue jeans look is universally appealing. Yes, that has to do, in great part, with Romy’s unequalled allure – warm and inviting yet always mysterious – and with the ageless beauty and elegance of the classic pieces she is wearing, but it’s also about the familiar, totally at ease, not trying too hard feeling that look evokes. Sautet’s films often indicate that his protagonists are always among us. The clothes you are wearing are a reflection of your life. Les choses de la vie.
Romy Schneider and Michel Piccoli in “Les choses de la vie” (1970)
photos: film stills “Les choses de la vie” | Fida Cinematografica, Lira Films, Sonocam
Susan Sontag’s On Photography is not entirely what I expected. There are certain ideas that I agreed with, others that were revelatory, other that I questioned, others that I disagreed with entirely, and yet others that I was appalled by. But I guess it would be wrong to expect from any book deemed essential on the subject matter it approaches to connect with your own reasoning entirely. I however always appreciate a book that requires a good quality of thinking from the reader. That’s what I felt Sontag’s book did.
I suppose what intrigued me the most about it was that the writer seemed so detached from the subject she writes about, there is no sense of warmth towards photography. I now understand why it caused so much controversy when it was first published, in 1977, and why it still does. The writer always uses absolutes, generalises too much, reads all photography in the same way. It hardly enables dialogue. It barely sustains any positive thoughts about photography and the craft of photography – I believe a more accute delineation between unassuming snapshot and fine art photography, between a Japanese tourist picture and Henri Cartier-Bresson would have been in order. She is direct, even tasteless and caustic in her writing. And the fact that, in time, she changed her mind about some of her views presented in the book should make us aware that we must form our own opinions. On anything, not just on photography.
That being said, one of the most remarkable things about these essays is how much they apply to our present day image-saturated digital world. Suddenly, Sontag’s penetrating critique on photography that doubts the value of the activity of taking photographs, questioning its nature, meaning and future, does not seem so blameful. She portrays with great precision the irrevocable changes that the advent of this technology has had on our world and on how we experience it. It is incredibly prescient, a 20th-century criticism that speaks a rampant, painful, disquieting truth, decades in advance, about the state of 21st-century culture.
“Today everything exists to end in a photograph.”
I wonder how Susan Sontag would have handled the digital revolution unleashed in the decades after her writing. The way we are obsessed with ourselves, and with how others see us, and with how we view others. We do not take pictures for ourselves (if we did, we would not share them on social media), but to appeal to the complete strangers in the vacuum of the internet. We don’t even take photos of ourselves, but of what we aspire to be, of ourselves looking our best – perfect, happy, successful at all times. We have lost our ability to appreciate the attention and appreciation of the individual because we are consumed with appealing to the unidentified masses. Our online presence takes precedence of our being present in our own lives.
Every one of us, even those of us who are critising and making efforts against the digital culture (myself included) stocks up a storehouse of images. I don’t put personal photos on my site or on social media, but that doesn’t mean that reaching for the phone camera has not become a sort of a reflex for myself as well. And I hate it. So on a recent trip to the mountains, I struggled not to take too many photos of the beautiful snowy surroundings. How about trying to record those beautiful memories with your mind’s eye rather than snap one photo after another and losing that special moment? How about remembering how your child grasps your hand with enthusiasm and anticipation his first time on the slope, or how his rosey, cold cheeks felt against yours as you both gazed quietly, feeling connected yet each one lost in your own thoughts, into the big white rather than trying to keep the distance so that you can capture the “perfect” moment?
Once again, I return to the words of one of my favourite interviewees, photojournalist José Pablo Cordero Iza, who, when I asked him “Do you wait for a good photo? Are there times when you simply witness the moment without taking/making any picture?”, he gave me one of the most thought-provoking answers: “With respect to your question, there have been many photographs that I have kept in my mind. There are personal moments that are magical, and I keep them for me. I feel that being without the camera in some moments allows me to catch those seconds in my mind. It is my intimate moment with the observed.“ That was one of those rare moments that opened up a new way for me to view photography. I can sincerely say that, from that moment on, I have often taken a moment to think before pushing the button, and I have tried to respect the ones I photograph, but also the act of photographing more, and the special moments that I have kept just for myself have become much more regular. And I sometimes hear myself saying: “Don’t spoil the moment, don’t take a photo.”
Returning to the book, the thing is that the way we engage photography has not really changed, it has just evolved, and that evolution has culminated with the digital modernity that we are unfortunate to be part of. That’s the brilliance of Susan Sontag’s view on photography.
“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience
enhancedby photographs is an aesthetic consumerism
to which everyone is now addicted.”
“There is a rancorous suspicion in America of whatever seems literary, not to mention a growing reluctance on the part of young people to read anything, even subtitles in foreign movies and copy on a record sleeve, which partly accounts for the new appetite for books of few words and many photographs.”
“So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying
the world that photographs, rather than the world, have
become the standard of the beautiful.”
“Instead of just recording reality, photographs have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby changing the very idea of reality, and of realism.”
Robert de Niro and Harvey Keitel in “Mean Streets” (1973) | Warner Bros.
This could have easily transformed into an hours-long Martin Scorsese film songs playlist, and I am sure we’ll get there at some point. Still, I couldn’t resist including as many as three songs from his movies. Because Scorsese revolutionised movie soundtrack, being one of the pioneers (before Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, who both get two entries along with Jim Jarmusch) in using preexisting music, approaching soundtrack construction with a record collector’s curiosity and passion. The music in his films is so good. People listen to the music in Scorsese’s films. And I couldn’t begin with anything else than The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” that opens Mean Streets, showing us Charlie (Harvey Keitel) in happier times, before everything comes apart.
You know that moment when you are watching a film and a song starts flooding the soundtrack and you feel that there is nothing in the world right then that you’d rather do? That that is what you are supposed to be doing? Because the right song can not only jolt a film to something wild and emblematic, but it can transform your own existence, too. And you may already know the song, but in that moment, in that movie, it reaches new heights, new power, new life.
Before hitting the play button, just one more thing: This will be the second year in a row in more than twenty years when I won’t be watching the Oscars, but the news that Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga will perform “Shallow” at the ceremony almost got me reconsider. Almost.
But enough talking. Let’s hear some music. Play them loud, and the movies, too.
1. Be My Baby, The Ronettes (Mean Streets, 1973) / 2. Lust for Life, Iggy Pop (Trainspotting, 1996) / 3. Jockey Full of Bourbon, Tom Waits (Down By Law, 1986) / 4. You Never Can Tell, Chuck Berry (Pulp Fiction, 1994) / 5. Play with Fire, The Rolling Stones (The Darjeeling Limited, 2007) / 6. Just Like Honey, The Jesus and Mary Chain (Lost in Translation, 2003) / 7. Dreams Never End, New Order (Carlos, 2010) / 8. I’m Shipping Up to Boston, Dropkick Murphys (The Departed, 2006) / 9. Heroes, David Bowie (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, 2012) / 10. The Sound of Silence, Simon and Garfunkel (The Graduate, 1967) / 11. The End, The Doors (Apocalypse Now, 1979) / 12. Tell Me Now So That I Know, Holly Golightly (Broken Flowers, 2005) / 13. Hurdy Gurdy Man, Donovan (Zodiac, 2006) / 14. Needle in the Hay, Elliott Smith (The Royal Tenenbaums, 2001) / 15. Born to Be Wild, Steppenwolf (Easy Rider, 1969) / 16. The Power of Love, Huey Lewis & The News (Back to the Future, 1985) / 17. Layla, Derek and the Dominoes (Goodfellas, 1990) / 18. Stuck in the Middle with You, Stealers Wheel (Reservoir Dogs, 1992) / 19. Lookin’ Out My Back Door, Creedance Clearwater Revival (The Big Lebowski, 1998) / 20. Shallow, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born, 2018)
Susi Sánchez in “La enfermedad del domingo” (2018)
“Anabel is a woman whose wrapping does not keep her safe from what awaits her,” says costume designer Clara Bilbao.
We first see Anabel walking the halls of her palatial home impeccably dressed for the evening and wearing towering heels. She stumbles briefly. A subtle but distinct foreshadow of her imperfect perfect life, a preordained sense of future events.
Anabel (Susi Sánchez) abandoned her daughter Chiara (Bárbara Lennie) when the girl was 8 years old. Thirty-five years on, Chiara finds her mother and she has just one unusual request: to spend ten days together in a remote house in the mountains. The two protagonists deliver extraordinary, full-bodied performances, contained on the surface, simmering with tormented emotions beneath (which, at some point, they unleash through dance: Anabel on the sound of “Dream a Little Dream of Mine”, and Chiara on the beat of Nena’s “99 Luftballons”). The emotional disorder of a mother and a daughter who have been apart for so long, but who are forever part of each other. A mother and a daughter who challenge one another from their contradictory selves: Chiara’s defiance and Anabel’s arrogance and apparent security.
La enfermedad del domingo (Sunday’s Illness), directed and written by Ramón Salazar, is a haunting examination of an enstranged mother-daughter relationship that avoids melodrama platitude. It is so beautifully crafted that there is a dramatic intention in each word and a narrative thread in each movement of the camera, in each frame, in each piece of clothing, in each beam of light or musical note. It is such a visceral and ravishing story that it stays with you, long after the end credits.
La enfermedad del domingo is not only one of the best films, and my personal favourite, of last year, but it is a strikingly beautiful film. Photography (Ricardo de Gracia), production design (Sylvia Steinbrecht) and costume design (Clara Bilbao) work like a whole to weave a thrilling visual narrative that takes you to an almost indeterminate, improbable time between past and future, to an eerie state of mind fueled by the picturesque countryside and by the painterly, dimly-lit interiors of the mountain cabin. Anabel has created a completely crafted exterior, but the perfection she designed from the outside hides an inner world marked by bruised feelings. And it is her clothes, probably more than any other element, that have a defining role in getting us on this journey with her, a journey of her retribution for the sins she committed as a young mother.
In my interview with costume designer Clara Bilbao (who has just received the 2019 Goya Award for Costume Design for La Sombra De La Ley), she reveals why she seldom talked clothes with director Ramón Salazar, why naming one of the costumes “Dark Vader” made perfect sense and why she chose a profession of story teller.
Susi Sánchez in “Sunday’s Illness” (2018), wearing “The armour” costume designed by Clara Bilbao
“It’s easy to find a vain person”, says Bárbara Lennie’s character, Chiara, when asked how she had found her mother, Anabel (Susi Sánchez), who had abandoned her when she was eight years old. How would you describe Anabel? What did you want her clothes to convey about her?
Anabel is an intelligent, proud and arrogant woman. She decided to change her daughter and her austere life for a new and sophisticated life surrounded by first class peers. Sunday’s Illness is about the hard journey of this woman who will be taking off all that crust of glamour that envelops her until becomes the mother and the woman she was so many years ago. A strong, risky and visible wardrobe was necessary for each step of this path. From the beginning we understood that this wardrobe could not be subtle but had to be audacious and narrative.
In Anabel’s first scene, when she is walking her somptuous home, dressed for the evening and wearing high heels, she stumbles briefly. It’s the moment that sets the tone for the film. You already sense that there is a hidden meaning to her clothes, to her “perfect” life. What is she wearing in that scene?
We call this wardrobe “The armour”. It is a two-piece gown composed of a white skirt of natural silk crepe with two bellows in the front and back that give it that light and elegant movement for the presentation of her home. However, the silver top is made from a fabric of small metal pieces that reminds us of those medieval meshes. We tried to get an elegant and sensual silhouette, but, at the same time, discover a character under an armour; someone who wants to protect herself from the outside, who does not show everything, who is not completely natural.
She then appears in this sculptural, imposing long white coat when she goes to meet Chiara at the hotel after their first encounter in her home. Throughout the entire film Anabel’s wardrobe seems almost too perfect. It almost makes you feel uneasy, it builds up tension and it helps the narrative tremendously. Like you said above, her clothes are like an armour. A façade to mask the turbulence beneath the surface. Is her life only empty wealth and beauty?
We called this piece of wardrobe “The arrogance of the white”. From the beginning, I imagined this wardrobe in white colour. White should mean purity and innocence. However, Anabel appears in front of her daughter as a cold, powerful and imposing figure, ready to show her strength, her determination and her untouchable status. To emphasise her coldness, I designed a coat with geometric lines, almost architectural, with a military look. We wanted Chiara to see in her mother a hard and impenetrable wall. Another armour. The idea was that this coat would end up being uncomfortable for Anabel and also for the spectator. We understand that Chiara does not let herself be scared by her mother.
Susi Sánchez in “La enfermedad del domingo” (2018), wearing “The arrogance of the white” costume designed by Clara Bilbao
What was the inspiration for Anabel’s wardrobe? Was the director, Rámon Salazar, who also wrote the script, a big part of the costume process?
Ramón Salazar and I have been friends for a long time. We know each other well and we have worked together before. This script impressed me a lot, especially because I had just given birth to my daughter 2 weeks before. As a mother, I thought it was a disturbing story with a huge force. To design a wardrobe, I need to talk to the director, listen to him. Ramón is an intelligent and sensitive director. He is bright and generous. He puts his total trust in his team and that is a wonderful incentive to work. His gift is the word and allows it to introduce you to his head and into the soul of the characters. But we do not talk about clothes in these conversations; we talked only about the characters. I witnessed the process of rehearsals with the actresses and that is a privilege for a costume designer. At first, Ramón had a more subtle idea for the costumes. But step by step I convinced him that we had to take a risk. In the fitting sessions he asked me: “Clara, are we crossing the line?” But he had confidence in me and the result touched him. That’s why we named some of the costumes; those names came out from the discussion of each sequence and each detail of the evolution of the characters.
Costume design sketches by Clara Bilbao for “La enfermedad del domingo”
From left to right: “The armour” / “Dark Vader” / “The arrogance of the white”
Another example: the dress I designed for Susi in the sequence in which she washes Chiara’s hair is called “Dark Vader”. When I showed him the sketch and the fabric that I had chosen for this outfit, Ramón was not very convinced.
He told me that it seemed dark and reminded him of
Dark Vader. So I told him: “Perfect, Dark Vader is
another bad father”, and that convinced him.
It is a privilege to create from the eyes of the director.
For me, it is also essential to work with the support of my team. My assistant, Maite Tarilonte, and the dressmakers have known me so well since a long time ago. I care about their opinion and their ideas. They make me feel secure in my decisions.
Susi Sánchez and Bárbara Lennie in “La enfermedad del domingo” (2018);
Susi is wearing the “Dark Vader” costume designed by Clara Bilbao
A costume designer’s job is to reinforce the story and help the actor form an identity of his/her character. But what exactly goes into the work of a costume designer today? All Susi’s costumes you’ve talked about so far were designed by you. How much ready-made shopping, how much vintage and how much making did the costumes in “La enfermedad del domingo” involve?
Susi’s wardrobe was exclusively designed and created for her. Each garment was drawn and custom-made. Only in the last part of the movie, Susi wears some used clothes that supposedly are not hers, that she had found in Chiara’s house. A blazer of her daughter, an old sweater, a raincoat, some rubber boots.
For Chiara’s wardrobe, we chose used clothing from the 80s and 90s.
The clothes, just as the entire aesthetic of the film, have a tremendous narrative power. When the two women arrive at Chiara’s home in the mountains, Anabel is wearing a beautiful wrapped blue coat. It stuck with me, because it seemed to blend with the surroundings and the austere decor in Chiara’s home. There is a great attention to details with every room, every piece of clothing, every shade of dark colour throughout the entire film. Sunday’s Illness has a distinctive look, it is such a visually beautiful movie. Undoubtedly, a collaborative work with the cinematographer and art director.
Of course it is; it is not possible to achieve a harmonious film that tells the same story if we do not work together with the artistic director, the director of photography and the makeup and hair styling team.
All the members of the crew were involved in the same influence of the director who managed to captivate us all in absolute communion. I admire the awesome work of Sylvia Steinbrech (production design), Ricardo de Gracia (cinematography), Ainhoa Eskisabel (makeup artist) and Sergio Pérez (hair stylist).
Bárbara Lennie in “La enfermedad del domingo” (2018)
”Her whole world stopped when her mother left her
that Sunday afternoon. We can imagine her rebellious and
destructive youth. Some of all that pain survives in her clothes.”
Even after she arrives in the countryside, in the first days, Anabel continues to wear rather inappropriate clothes, too elegant for the setting. Is this a way of trying to tell her and everybody else that she doesn’t belong there (the home she left many years ago)? Towards the end of her stay there, though, she finally changes into something more casual, like a well worn knitted sweater and jacket. She sheds off her armour. Is she starting to come to terms with the choice she made those many years ago?
We intended Anabel’s wardrobe to show her as a fish out of the water. Show a woman whose wrapping does not keep her safe from what awaits her. We pretended that she looks absurd and fragile in an environment that does not belong to her. But reality prevails and she finally takes off her armour to approach her daughter and go back to being the mother and woman she once was.
When she goes to Paris to meet her ex-husband, Chiara’s father, he makes a remark about her clothes, that she is dressed too lightly for the weather. She had taken a flight to Paris without planning, so her not being properly dressed for the cold weather is excusable. But that is not the point I want to make, nor her ex-husband. He goes on and says that Paris had never suited her and that they had to leave and live somewhere else. But that wasn’t enough either. And he continues by asking her if she had found what was looking for. She says she did, but adds that it was never enough. So I guess she had always tried to communicate something through her clothes, before and now.
On this trip to Paris, Anabel has completely left her shell. For the first time in many years, she makes a decision without thinking about herself. She doesn’t care about the cold, she doesn’t even care about the impression on her appearance that her ex-husband or any other person may have. She left with no more clothes than what she was wearing: used clothes that were in Chiara’s house. Anabel has been the main character of her story and now her daughter Chiara, finally, is the only object of her concern. From this new perspective, away from herself, Anabel can explain to her ex-husband, without inconveniences, the kind of life that she has left. Her inability to get satisfied. The inexhaustible vital gap.
Bárbara Lennie and Susi Sánchez (Anabel is starting to wear he daughter’s clothes, like this oversized blazer)
in “La enfermedad del domingo” (2018)
There is another moment, on their way to the fest in the village, when Chiara asks her mother why she gave her an Italian name. Maybe I have watched too many films, also being a fan of Fellini and Marcelo Mastroianni, but I immediately thought of Chiara Mastroianni, Marcelo’s daughter, before Anabel starts telling her daughter about that actor from back in the day who always wore a suit and sunglasses. Obviously, she was inspired by someone famous in naming her daughter Chiara. Do you think it was because she was aspiring to that same kind of life? Was it part of her dream to be able to dress so elegantly every day of her life?
Anabel aspired to a movie star life. Sophisticated and remarkable. Nobody is surprised at that moment in the film that even the name of her daughter is inspired by the family of a movie celebrity. It seems that Anabel has always dreamed of living in a palace and dressing like princesses.
Bárbara Lennie in “Sunday’s Illness” (2018)
Chiara lives in the countryside and her casual clothes are, first of all, a reflection of her way of living. Jeans, worn-out oversized sweaters, coats and blazers, boots. But are her clothes trying to tell us more about her character? Does she use them as a way of hiding from the world because of what happened to her in her childhood?
She is a woman stuck in time. She never managed to recover from the abandonment of her mother. She became an introverted and lonely person. Chiara lives in a very small world, made on her own measure, surrounded by memories. Her whole world stopped when her mother left her that Sunday afternoon. We can imagine her rebellious and destructive youth. Some of all that pain survives in her clothes.
The only premise that Ramón gave to me for this character was that Chiara has not bought clothes in the last 20 years. All her clothes are more than 20 years old.
Yes, the feeling I got seeing Chiara in her clothes was that she seems so lost, as if her clothes, just like her life, do not belong to her anymore. But I would like to ask you something. I have been wondering about that time when Chiara is in Anabel’s house, together with the other waiters and waitresses, receiving instructions from Anabel before the grandiose dinner, before the mother realises who she is. Anabel asks everyone to take off every piece of jewellery they have on them. You don’t see Chiara’s face, but the camera shows her from behind taking her hand to the earring in her right ear without taking it off. Is she wearing just one earring? Is she wearing her mother’s jewellery? Why doesn’t she take it off?
This earring is the one that her mother forgot on the table at home on the Sunday before leaving forever. There is a short film titled El domingo (Sunday) that works as a preface for the Sunday’s Illness film and takes place on that Sunday when Anabel left.
I couldn’t find it with subtitles, but you can watch it below.
Chiara doesn’t take it off because she is defiant by nature. She has no fear of Anabel and does not intend to obey her mother at this point in her life.
Bárbara Lennie and Susi Sánchez are incredible actresses and are incredible on the screen together in this film. They inhabit their roles with the same ease with which they inhabit their clothes. Do you usually collaborate with the actors on the costumes? How was it in this case, with Bárbara and Susi?
I need to talk to the actors about their characters. That helps me a lot and expands my point of view and I put myself in their place.
If I could, I would work in all my films with Susi and with Bárbara. I admire them deeply as actresses, but especially as human beings. I think the whole crew learned from their professionalism, their partnership and their humility.
Seeing your fascinating work in La enfermedad del domingo reminds me of the fact that contemporary costume design does not get the attention it deserves. How do you feel about that? And what do you prefer, contemporary or period costume design?
I prefer the films in which my work is relevant and defining in telling the story. It is true that the historical films are usually more fascinating in a visual way and more enriching for a designer. However, I prefer the stimulating scripts and to work with directors like Ramón Salazar, for whom my work seems to be a fundamental piece to put their story on.
I feel sorry that the value of this kind of work is often unnoticed by the majority of the viewers. I have been so excited by the deep analysis you have done to my work. It’s unusual, I assure you.
Susi Sánchez (Anabel is finally shedding off her armour) and Bárbara Lennie in “La enfermedad del domingo” (2018)
Thank you. I am a fervent proponent of costume design as one of cinema’s most far-reaching influences and I am saddened that contemporary costume design is often not acknowledged as it should be and that many overlook the fact that in a good movie, nothing is left to chance, not even a plain t-shirt or an oversized coat. Clara, on an end note, what inspired you to become a costume designer?
I envy people with a vocation. I never had it. In fact, I wanted to be an airplane pilot, because traveling has always been the closest thing to a vocation for me. The school which I was supposed to enter disappeared overnight and my future plans collapsed.
My mother has been a haute couture dressmaker and I am lucky that she continues to work with me hand in hand in my costume atelier. She is the great reference of my life on many levels. The clothes, the fabrics, the designs have been part of my vital decor since I was born. Since my sister and I were girls, my mother used to allow us to choose the fabrics and the style that she sewed for us. So it was not so crazy to study fashion design as an alternative to being an airplane pilot (!!).
However, very early on I realised that Fashion did not really interest me. I found it difficult and boring to design costumes without an object. Fashion created directly for a concept and not for someone real.
I had fun disguising the whole neighborhood though, my cousins, friends… I always liked to read and also write and tell stories… When I met Diana Fernandez and Derubín Jacome, my teachers of Scenic Costume, a new horizon opened before my eyes. They are a Cuban couple, a costume designer and an artistic director respectively, with a brilliant and well recognised professional career. They told me about their profession, their films, their travels, their characters… I thought there could not be a better profession than the one that combined as a cocktail the stories, the characters, the costumes, the emotion…
Today I feel lucky. I am happy with my work despite how hard it is because it fills my concern to tell stories and to contribute my personal vision to each costume that I design. I feel privileged because every film I make contains something from me and it would be different if it had been made by another costume designer.
They are again mother and daughter | Susi Sánchez and Bárbara Lennie
in “La enfermedad del domingo” (2018)
photos: movie stills | Institut Català de les Empreses Culturals, Instituto de la Cinematografía y de las Artes Audiovisuales, Zeta Cinema, Netflix
On mountain slopes | photo courtesy of Ioana Istrate
It’s the thick of winter in the Northern hemisphere. Daylight is still in short supply and the biting cold won’t go anywhere anytime soon. I am a summer girl, but I have never contemplated escaping to some warm destination in winter. Where is the magic in that? Winter is beautiful in all its frosty glory. But, admittedly, experiencing winter solely in the city makes it hard to enjoy it. Again, where’s the magic in that? So the only reasonable thing to do is to go to a place where the snow is even bigger (and whiter). Yes, that’s right. There’s nothing quite like winter in nature, and better yet, in the mountains. The inner peace and calm from being in the midst of the pine forests and pristine snow slopes combined with the equally fascinating and intimidating feeling of being up there.
With snow season fully underway, I have reached out to a snow sports enthusiast and expert in the hope that we will open up your appetite for venturing out and experiencing winter properly. Ioana Istrate is the co-founder of Boarder’s Snowboard Store in Bucharest, an advocate for an active lifestyle and initiator of many educational projects that have as goal getting children (and adults) familiarised with winter sports, and sport in general, and fostering an interest in sport to last a lifetime. I am fortunate to know Ioana personally and her positive vibes and energy always inspire me, and I am sure she will send an inspirational message to you as well.
And because you can never fully enjoy winter unless properly dressed (you know the saying, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing), we have that covered, too. I assure you, this active winter wardrobe will not boast all of the elegance of your everyday style. Burton, the Snowboard attire brand carried in Boarder’s Snowboard Shop, combines the technical knowledge of contemporary skiwear with the sophistication of the classic to create clothing that not only keeps you warm, but looks good, too.
On mountain slopes | photo courtesy of Ioana Istrate
The last time we spoke on the phone you were up on the mountain. How often are you up there in winter?
Well, when I am in my hometown, Sinaia, I go up in the mountains pretty much every day or, at least, every powder day. The thing is that now I have to live in Bucharest almost half of the time, due to business, but I try to be out in nature as much as possible and my long-term plan is to move back to Sinaia at some point.
You grew up in the mountains. Is this how your love for the mountain and for snow sports came about? Have you always had a sporting life?
Yes, for sure the fact that I grew up in the mountains contributed to my love for them. Snow is something that I’ve always loved, ever since I had my first memories. I used to spend hours out in the snow when I was a kid and would get back in the house all frozen and only after huge effort from my mom.
At kindergarten, I started attending the ski training at the local sports club, but I didn’t enjoy much the military-like style of teaching there, so I quit after two or three years and started attending the ballet classes, which I did for almost five years. I started skiing again in high school and never stopped until I switched to snowboarding. Also, I’ve always loved hiking in the forest and biking, too.
What age did you start snowboarding?
I started snowboarding in my twenties – 21, maybe 22…
Boarder’s Snowboard Store
What makes you choose a particular slope? What are the best slopes for snowboarding you’ve tried?
I prefer backcountry riding. The best places I’ve ever ridden are in Hintertux, Austria, and both Chamonix and La Grave, in France. But the place I love the most is my home mountain, in Sinaia. It offers great landscape and riding possibilities, plus I know it very well and I know when it’s safe to get out there and when it’s not.
What’s the most challenging thing you’ve done up on the mountain?
There have been some moments up there when I didn’t have the experience and I exposed myself to unnecessary dangers, or when I overstated my physical limits, but probably the most challenging moment was when I went for backcountry riding on a steep and icy slope in Făgăraș Mountains, many years ago, together with a couple (husband and wife). We were hiking up so we could ride down after. At some point, after about half an hour hiking, when we were about to reach the peak, the woman slipped right in front of me and fell all the way down screaming; her husband put on his skis and went down after her and I remained up there, alone and scared as hell, unable to move an inch, stuck on an ice lens. It took me a while to pull myself together but finally I put my skis on and rode down to find out the woman survived, but was badly injured. I’ve chosen more wisely my riding terrain and my companions since then, so I guess it was a useful lesson.
Boarder’s Snowboard Store
When did you open your first Boarder’s shop? What’s the story behind it?
We opened the first Boarder’s Shop in 2001. We were already involved in the business with a sports shop opened in 1994, called Surmont, where we used to sell mountaineering, climbing and skiing equipment and mountain bikes. We got in love with snowboarding and started to sell some snowboarding gear in the old shop, so it came naturally that we had to open a snowboarding store, which was the first one in Romania to sell snowboarding gear exclusively. In 2002 we got the Burton Snowboards distribution for Romania and things have only got bigger and better since then.
Boarder’s Snowboard Store specialises in sportswear and snowboarding equipment. But it is so much more than that. It’s about the love for the game, it’s about a certain life style, too. Do you feel you have created a little community of cool and conscious people who can be an example for others as well?
I like to believe we did this. The thing is that we really love what we do and, when you do things with passion, I think it’s impossible not to touch others’ lives in a good way.
Boarder’s Snowboard Store
I believe that what is also important is that we all get out there and experience the mountains and nature. Isn’t this the best way to find inspiration to want to protect it?
Absolutely! The more time people spend out in nature, the better. It’s good for the mind, it’s good for the soul and a good soul and a calm mind can only work in good ways. Nature is the most amazing thing and spending time out there is the best way to make one’s life better. I also think parents have a very important job to get their kids to love and protect nature, as we cannot get another once we’ve ruined the existing one.
I wholeheartedly agree. It’s never too early to instill the love for sports and nature in your child. It’s important to develop their sense of wonder, their curiosity and their wild spirit. In this regard, could you tell me a little about Boarder’s Learn To Ride Center?
Burton Snowboards initiated Burton Learn To Ride Program in 1998, in cooperation with snowboarding schools around the world, so snowboarding would be learned easily and in a fun way. The goal of this program is to give the rookies a first happy experience in snowboarding, with proper, quality gear and with professional instructors, so they would stick to the sport and get to the slopes as soon as possible.
Our Boarder’s Learn To Ride Center in Sinaia is part of this program with experienced instructors and gear especially built for beginners (kids or adults). For more advanced riders we also offer freestyle and freeride/backountry guiding.
Boarder’s Snowboard Store
You encourage people in micro-adventures, so to speak, to spend time outdoors, to exercise as a way of life, and that’s wonderful. What is the best age for children to start snowboarding?
Any age is good for starting snowboarding, but kids can start as early as two years old. At Burton, we’ve got gear specially made for this age (boards, bindings, boots, clothing, protections).
We know where to find you on a beautiful winter powder day. Come spring, what sports will you take on to?
In spring, there are still amazing places for backcountry snowboarding, at higher altitude: I particularly love the wild valleys in Bucegi Mountains. When snow is really gone, I stay close to the mountains, trekking and mountainbiking. Apart from that, I enjoy very much going with my SUP (stand up paddle) on mountain lakes and to the seaside.