Layla Shaw – designed by nomadic life
She had to decline an offer from the late Franca Sozzani of Vogue who was impressed with her African designs; Accessories designer by passion, and expat by destiny, life took Layla Shaw to interesting places around the world, where she came across rare materials that inspired her designs.
Moving to Thailand was her 8th relocation since leaving her home country Bosnia-Herzegovina. And it doesn’t seem to be the last one. Her motto is to live each day to the fullest. She surely does.
“My childhood stopped early and abruptly when the war started in my home country of Bosnia-Herzegovina”, says Layla Shaw. “I had to grow up overnight living and working in a hospital in a city under siege. Since everyday
required another survival story, I am driven now by a thirst for life and desire to live each day to the fullest, as I know from experience that each day we have with loved ones is a precious gift”.
Layla, celebrated 40 this year, still sometimes looks like a teenager, and definitely has the lively youth energy – maybe as a compensation for the lost teenage years.
She is all out and about, knows everyone and everything that is going on in the city; she won’t miss any social/charity/ cultural event; she knows the best spots to shop, eat and hangout. If you get to know her, you will immediately think she is a veteran Bangkokian. Who could have imagined that she arrived to Thailand only 6 months ago?
A quick look at her apartment – with the extensive collection of antiques and artworks from all around the world – gives a glimpse to her fascinating nomadic life. Layla is definitely what you will call an ‘experienced expat’. Following her husband’s work, she lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Uganda (twice), India, USA, Botswana and now Thailand.
In some countries they lived more than once, and in some – for only a short period of time. Therefore she has learned to settle down and get involved in a new place in no time. What takes other people several years – takes her a few weeks. Within couple of months – her social and professional network in Bangkok seems to be larger than that of many other expats I’ve known in the city.
How did your nomadic journey start?
I met my husband in my home country, Bosnia, when I was working for the World Bank and he was working for a humanitarian NGO. As he spoke perfect Bosnian language and was helping with translation, I was sure he was a local guy. I couldn’t be so wrong. We moved later to his home country – the US – and then abroad from country to country following his work.
What motivates you in life?
After moving so many times, I realised we try to condense a lifetime of country specific experiences and friendships into a few years while we are there. I am driven by a desire to immerse myself into local cultures, languages, cuisine, cultural traditions, art and design scenes. I want to see as much of each country as possible and to get to know people from all walks of life. The end result is that we truly call each place we have lived home. I’ve always sought out opportunities to get involved in volunteer and fundraising projects to help the communities we live in. From raising breast cancer awareness to organising art shows and gala auctions to raising funds to support local orphanages, I love to devote my time and talents to helping others.
What brought you into the world of design?
Design was always my passion and I find inspiration in everything around me, especially in rare materials and art forms discovered on global nomadic voyages. I see art in African Kitenge prints, East African Ankole cow horn, fish skin, hand block printed Indian textiles and uniquely cut semi-precious stones. I am currently obsessed with Thai silk.
What are you proud of?
I am proud of the unique designs I have created through what I call my ‘expensive hobby’, while teaching single mothers in Africa tailoring skills so they could make a living with donated sewing machines. It was rewarding to see
this work acknowledged by the late Franca Sozzani, former editor of Italian Vogue, who shared my passion for the huge potential for fashion and for development around Africa. However, I am most proud of my best designs …. my two boys, aged 8 and 15. They continue to be ‘work in progress’, but they remind me every day of my success.
Perhaps inspired by his Mom’s use of recycled materials in creating handbags in Africa, my eldest son recently launched a Bangkok based non-profit called Rescued Glass, for which he collects bottles from bars and restaurants and new designs, volunteer, and keep up with Bangkok’s many social events, is developing great organisational skills.
As we all need some time off, to pamper myself, I love a good Thai massage as well as making time for yoga and reiki sessions. I also love jumping on a boat and heading down to the flower market to surround myself with exquisite colours, scents and textures.
Since you are obviously an experienced expat, please do your homework and research your new city and country before you arrive. This involves networking and using social media – things I’ve learned to do well. My husband jokes that I become a “social cyber-stalker” as I create a network of friends and contacts even before we arrive in a new city. Reach out in advance. If you have children in schools, contact PTA coordinators. If you plan to join a book club, a professional women’s organisation, or to volunteer your talents and time with a charity organisation, find them online and let them know you are coming and want to get involved. Sign up for events so that you are on track to get to know people just as your plane hits the ground.
Depending on your children’s and spouse’s interests, look up activities and clubs you can sign up for even before you get there. Life gets super busy after arrival with unpacking and settling the family, so advanced research into where you want to live, social activities, etc., really helps me and my family get settled immediately so we can more fully immerse ourselves in our new home.
What worked for us was joining the InterNations forum and reserving our spots in advance for their Bangkok events, before we arrived, so that we had a social agenda as soon as we landed. LinkedIn too proved to be helpful in building our network.
You are not a shy person and you are usually an open book. But still – who is Layla that not everyone knows?
Even though I might occasionally come off as a ‘dragon lady’, I am deeply committed to relationships and friendships and have a strong desire to please and make people happy.
Therefore I tend to give a lot of myself to people, even though we may have just met. This may seem unusual to people used to keeping other especially new acquaintances at arm’s length. And I am also a strong believer in the importance of uniqueness and madness. As Robin Williams used to say “You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.”
What or who inspires you?
I have always been inspired by the words of JK Rowling who said “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default”. Therefore I have never been shy at trying my hand at new things, sometimes with great success … sometimes not so much … but I always have fun anyway and learn from such experiences.
Even after losing my childhood to the war in Bosnia, I have never seen myself as a victim but rather as a survivor and a fighter trying make the world a better place with everything I do.
Another major inspiration to me has been Michelle Obama through the power and grace she displayed during her eight years in the White House, and the many causes she so passionately supported.
Where do you see yourself in ten years from now?
As a girl during the war, there were times I truly thought I would never survive. Since then, I really do live in the present rather than dream about the future. Of course, through my travels I have discovered a lot of places I hope to revisit and spend more time in, but for now I look forward to exploring more the social, art and design scenes of both Bangkok and Southeast Asia as a whole, while also getting to know new friends.
This is the first place we have lived where I have not lined up a job before arrival, so I am focusing on things I have always wanted to pursue including a certification in life coaching, advanced levels of reiki and yoga, and, of course, creating new designs inspired by Thailand. Stay tuned.