Travel Diary: Leyla Piedayesh from Lala Berlin in Tehran

Leyla Piedayesh, founder of Berlin fashion label Lala Berlin, travels to her hometown of Tehran to find inspiration for her current Fall/Winter 16/17 collection

A Journey Into the Past

After 27 years I return to my old homeland and I’m full of excitement. What drives me is the longing for my roots. A longing that is hard to put into words, because it is about the mixture of smells and sounds, about the food and the language. It’s about memories, impressions and emotions of a time when life seemed to be carefree and easy.

My childhood memories relate to chewing gums, pickles, deep red beetroot from the roadside, large broad beans, pumpkin seeds, sliced fruit on the plates, and the omnipresent melancholy: as a child I was at an unusually large amount of funerals. When someone dies, people in Iran mourn over 40 days in stages: first on the day of passing, then for a whole week, then on the 40th day, and finally after a year. Then it happens all over again. If you immerse yourself in the crowd of mourners with the all-pervading, touching music it almost had something soothing about it.

But now the present is calling: 00:20 – welcome to Tehran. With a headscarf and a vague plan I sit in the waiting hall of the airport. The last time I was here I was seen off the airport in an unfriendly manner. I wore my grandma’s necklace. At that time it was forbidden to transport valuables from Iran because it was marked as smuggling, so the airport police arrested me. For two nights I slept with strangers and acted as if I didn’t understand a word. The memory and the feelings that I associate with this have so far prevented me from visiting the country again. Now I finally managed to come back – back into my past!

Fairly different to my memories, people at the airport are all very friendly: No machine guns, no mean faces, there are food and drinks. The women are loosely veiled; in fact I’m the most covered of them all. Some have short jackets, which just go over the bottom; others place their headscarves at the far end of their heads.

Finally, they call me out and I can pick up my passport. The pictures from my last farewell rush back through my head and my heart starts beating fast. I stand in front of the customs officials and with each question I get more churned up inside and my face goes bright red. My Iranian vocabulary has stopped at the level of a second year student, and so he has to repeat his last sentence: “Don’t stay any longer than a year!”

In Tehran I wander around as a tourist of my own memories. Once where there were glorious mansions with swimming pools, the lushest gardens with walnut, fig and mulberry trees, are now large concrete apartment buildings stretched everywhere and without any order in height. Everywhere you see construction sites and the last ancient houses are being demolished.

Even the remaining memory of those bakeries spreading the delicious smell of freshly baked bread is still stuck in me but unfortunately the shops themselves have also disappeared. A growing city needs housing space, so the aesthetic often has to suffer. The city even extends into the desert.

There’s hardly any time of leisure to think about these things on a daily basis. Tehran has eight million densely packed living citizens. You can feel it in the bustle of the streets – the people are full of energy. It seems as if everyone – after the lifting of the embargo – is just waiting for the shops to finally bloom again. It is full, cars and hunks everywhere, dust and even more people. It’s loud, it’s wild. I love to walk along the streets – it’s an adventure.

Two hundred kilometres southeast from the buzz of Tehran you can find the comparatively small city Kashan – a former trade centre – on the edge of the Kuhrud Mountains. Here I’m a tourist in my own country and explore the houses of the former traders of the city who once built their grand houses with large courtyards and fountains near the bazaar. Everything is so beautiful, all the people are friendly, the food tastes so incredible, and it’s so cosy – you just want to grow old there.

The beauty of the Old Town in Kashan is unbelievable. It’s also unbelievable that this was built hundreds of years ago – with its own heating system. The way all facades are adorned with gesso. Adornment – Iranians love that! Whether it’s a beautiful decorated table, or walls bedecked with mirror mosaic, or even the gesso paintings: it can never be ornamental enough. Another very impressive place is the bazaar. It’s overflowing with goods and in the corridors you can beautifully get lost. The Iranians tend to exaggeration and love excess.

I love the old; I love the preservation, the beauty, and the smell of traditions. I like how it used to be and yet I live my life in the now. All this unleashed a deep longing in me, a desire for more, but also for peace. A hunger for perfection.

Even nature seems to follow this motto. If you drive through the mountains of Shemshak, the impressions are simply overwhelming. You just want to leave everything behind and fight for the preservation of the environment.

The mountain roads used to be narrow and difficult to pass, now everything is expanded and laid with asphalt. In the past Mother Nature had unfolded in all colours, shapes and scents. The land is so rich in all; there is nothing that does not exist here. That amazes me every single day – when you have something so rudimentary in memory and you realise that it’s considerably more cultivated… Today you find the most modern buildings here – something you could have never imaged in this place.

It’s the last day and I’m back at the airport – this time with tears in my eyes. I’m looking forward to seeing my family in Germany, yet I’m sorry to leave my homeland and my other family. Where this sadness repeatedly arises from, I can hardly tell. I’m always sad when I think about Iran, and even after this trip nothing has changed. It’s like an inexplicable pain, like an open crack that you are trying to stitch closed, but it keeps ripping open again and again. Perhaps it’s simply part of the ritual of mourning, as I have learned in my childhood. The conscious meeting with the pain, which helps you to look forward again. Finally, I have new images in my head that I can now add to my old memories. And I now know that I do not want to wait another 27 years until I return.

Thank you to Inga Griese from ICON Magazine for this story. Their web presence was recently re-launched at You can read more about the amazing Leyla in our “My World” feature.

photos: Leyla Piedayesh