Five years ago, the first Handicraft fair was held in Baku. It was not the first fair for craftsmen, but it changed the rules of the game for such events in the country. The project was masterminded and organized by two friends – Ayla Bagirli and Zhale Nadjafova. In this interview with Təzə People they tell us how this small fair has grown into a major festival, surviving the pandemic and becoming a multi-profile creative hub.
Ayla: Here is how it all came to be. Five years ago, while on a maternity leave, I got a proposal from Zhale – to organize a small fair for handmade craftsmen, to show them how such events should be made. I had the necessary skills, vast experience in marketing. So it was a fantastic opportunity to participate in something which I do best – creating a festive event.
Zhalya: At that time I was finishing my work with the “House and Interiors” magazine, while opening and architectural bureau at the same time. Back then, I came on a business trip to Kiev and saw a large showroom “Vsi Svoi” at Khreschatyk street. I was so impressed with how Ukrainians valued their own brands! And, at the same time, I felt a bit of a shame that I had no clue about what brands there were back in Azerbaijan. Having returned home, I started researching that subject. Me and Ayla saw that we had many interesting brands which needed adequate presentation, PR and a big stage.
Ayla: In reality, we wanted to hold one small event – just to teach these guys how to organize such things, so they could do it themselves in the future. That is why preparation took only 10 days and only 10 handmade craftsmen took part.
Zhalya: We had 10 days, 10 craftsmen and 10 manat for participation.
Ayla: We broke even then, simply covered our expenses. And we had no plans to take all that any further.
Zhalya: We showed how this needed to be done. And now, dear artists and craftsmen, please do it yourselves. But the first 10 participants brought another 10, and literally made us face the fact – we needed to organize another fair, for the love of art and our country. Ok, so a fair of 20 participants turned into a fair of 40, and so on. So 5 years on since that maternity leave, we have abandoned all our aspirations of an architectural bureau and an agency, directing all our skills into development of small businesses and art.
Ayla: Frankly speaking, it was at our third fair when we understood that this was no longer just a hobby. That we are creating a platform for creative people, who want to create, show what they’ve created, develop themselves and move onto the global level. And these people are totally different. In age, status or lifestyle. But they are united in their love of art.
Zhalya: The best thing was that most of these people had not known each other prior to these fairs. But when Handicraft got them together, it became clear – all of them were like-minded.
Ayla: They proved to be useful and interesting to one another. At first, there were craftsmen who had no business cards, no Instagram accounts, no branding, no beautiful photos of their works. And these fairs brought these guys up big time. Back then, a handmade craftsman producing soap and the one producing something from wood gave each other evil looks, they saw competition. But that is not a competitor of yours! You are making soap and he makes stuff from wood. He should make a soap-dish for you and you should both sell it as a set. We steered them towards this kind of thinking and generated interesting collaborations, which have led many brands to strong partnerships. At the same time, we have always been very thorough about who participates in our fairs.
Zhalya: We do not handpick our participants, me or Ayla. This is done by independent people, the names of whom we prefer to keep secret – to maintain our objectivity and impartiality.
Zhalya: In a year after our first fair, we understood that while handmade craft was very cool, there were also many sectors of local production and art, which remained out of the spotlight.
Ayla: First it was about handmade crafts, then we turned to fashion, now we also run “Wake Up Artist”. It is another project where we are trying to develop art. We want people to get used to the idea that a picture, a painting or a poster could be hanging in their houses.
Zhalya: We had worked like that for two years before finally opening our own showroom. We opened it on February 14th 2020, but in just two weeks the pandemic lockdown began in Azerbaijan. Handicraft might be the only store in the country, which did not close for a single day during the quarantine. We secretly took back alleys to work then. In the two hours permitted by the authorities for movement across the city, we managed to make deliveries across the city and beyond, receive goods and pay craftsmen.
Ayla: We did everything so that people’s interest to handmade products and their authors lived on. And it was actually very difficult. Taking so much time and effort to prepare for the store’s opening, investing so much – and then face the risk of losing everything just because something unforeseen takes place.
Zhalya: Just as nobody expected that in the quarantine year our 100-square-meter show room would expand into a 280-square-meter hub. Not only we survived, but we managed to grow.
Zhalya: So today Handicraft is not about the two of us. It unites more than two hundred like-minded people, who have always been helping us. They have greatly contributed to making Handicraft what it is today. Some of them became our partners too – and together we turned fairs into major festivals. For example, Stock – this is an association of designers. Together we organize the BİZİMKİLƏR festival (which translates as “our own” from Azerbaijani). This is how our small fair of 10 participants has grown.
Ayla: And our showroom has grown from a small store into a hub. There are times when there are 15 workers in the showroom, but in reality there are 50 people there – and there’s no place to spare. Just happens so that a designer and a handicraftsman walked in, they met and spent four hours drinking tea and discussing something. They walk out of the showroom with a project blueprint and a budget sheet.
Its like a beehive here – people are constantly creating something together
Ayla: Once, a business expert came here and said that our model worked in such a way that it deserved a dissertation. Its like a beehive here – people are constantly creating something together, working in unison for a common goal. All this mixes together and creates a fantastic atmosphere for this community. In the future, we want to open another spot where craftsmen would be able to create comfortably – not with complications, as it usually happens.
Zhalya: Yes, we want to open a major incubator. We have managed to generate demand for it, now we need to create the infrastructure. It will provide different services – from workshops to SMM, photography, branding and legal support.
Lets be honest, handmade crafts used to be our grandmothers’ thing 30-40 years ago. They taught their daughters and granddaughters, so that they made good wives and mothers. And we began with the same notion – to create a platform for those mothers, wives and daughters, who sat at home.
Ayla: But today it has grown into a serious venture. People start believing in themselves, they leave major companies after years of work, which they didn’t enjoy, and create their own brands.
4 brands, residents of Handicraft, worth a look
One day we were taking a walk in the Old Town, and saw a girl taking a picture of a beautiful decorated vase. The girl’s name was Aisu, she was a first-year student at the Academy of Art. She studied ceramics and made this vase with her own hands. Today Aisu has her own corner at our showroom with her own brand FIRÇHA IZI (and she always jokes that we are like her second parents).
To the Moon and Back
Today Sasha makes soy candles with incredible scents for our showroom. And, of course, her famous “Salamakhina” headscarves can leave no one indifferent. Its hard to believe that in the past she worked as a lab chemist at an asbestos plant.
Photographers Emin and Sharaf from the F37 community participated in our first “Wake Up Artist” fair. We then persuaded them to print out and bring their works, which was an incredible experience for them. The guys got so inspired that later went to a Georgian “Colga” festival representing Azerbaijan. They received a grant there and held an exhibition.
Printing text or a drawing on a t-shirt – that is something any print center can do. But Print Bar is distinct for its concept and a philosophical message – “all for the art and in the name of it”. Hard-working Tural supports beginner artist and helps them to put their illustrations on top of clothes.