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Out of Africa

Christina Iskandar talks to designer Helen Milne about life, love and her African heritage. Photo: Blamo

HELEN, describe your heritage and how the Milnes ended up in Africa.

My English grandmother’s family were some of the first white settlers in Zimbabwe in the late 1890s. She left Africa as a young woman, was married in the UK and with her new family returned to Zimbabwe years later – after WWII. My father, aged six, in tow.

He never left what he considered his true home. My mother’s family is of Greek descent but my mother was born in Egypt and moved to Zimbabwe when she was around 10. She’s never left her true home either.

What life lesson has growing up in Africa taught you?

I think the greatest gift I have been given this lifetime was growing up in Africa. It showed me first the wonders of nature and that there is definitely a wildness that pulsates through all Africans’ veins. It made me very resilient. Zimbabweans always “make a plan”.

We always had shortages of what you would consider to be basic commodities. You could not get petrol for quite a few months; there was no rain in my home town for three years … It always worked out though. Zimbabwe has had huge political turmoil and from having lived through that I realised at a very young age nothing is constant. You really have to simply enjoy the present moment.

What makes an African childhood so different?

I was one of the only white girls in my school. There weren’t enough classrooms so many times lessons were held under a tree. We lived in the city but my parents would spend every non-working minute in the bush. Our entertainment was nature. Life was one endless safari. Instead of the theatre we had game-watching in the evenings.

The sun would start to set and it was like the red velvet curtains opening at the theatre. All the animals would come down to drink and without fail the show would commence. Growing up in Africa, I think, things were a lot more simple and basic and we had a lot more freedom to just be children.

Where’s your place in Africa that depicts the poetry of the land?

I love Mosi-oa-Tunyaor – Victoria Falls. It is my favourite place on the planet. Its name means “the smoke that Thunders”.

What are you doing right now?

I am travelling through Europe for a couple of weeks, catching up with stockists, but most importantly with friends. Miss Milne opened in Jakarta in November so it is time to take a breath and get inspired by a road journey.

I am putting together ideas for the Summer 2016 Miss Milne collection, also working on project plans and range ideas for our Bali shop which is getting a little update in July. Every so often I need to remove myself and find some answers in the adventures.

Who do you miss?

My Father. He passed away five years ago … I miss him dearly.

What designer would you take to dinner and what would you ask them?

There is a long list of designers I admire and would love to meet. I once met Elber Albazand and asked him if he still gets nervous putting out a new collection after having so many under his belt. He answered: “My dear, it is because I have put so many out that I get nervous. In life now you can buy everything but there are only two things you cannot buy, you have to develop them – one is muscles and the other is talent. They have to be worked on continuously.” I loved that.

Another is Dries van Noten. I went to an exhibition of his at le Musée Art Décoratif de Paris last May and his work always blows my mind. Van Noten has been entirely self-financed since the beginning of his career, which is always my biggest challenge. I’d certainly appreciate some tips on overcoming the financial hurdles that all independent startups incur.

What would make you throw your lover out?

My lover is a real gent; he would have to do something very out of his character to warrant that kind of action.

What defines love?

I think love is a passion in your life. Real love truthfully sees the flaws – and still really loves fully. Love is constantly changing and we have to continue to fall back into love, we should climb into love not fall into love!

What song do you play first thing Sunday morning.

At the moment I’m listening to an album called Trouble Will Find Me by The National. Love the name! On Sunday mornings I might play something like Francois Hardy, or the Apparat album Krieg und Frieden – perfect for Sunday morning. Yann Tiersen; Chilly Gonzales; Vivaldi … for a more rock and roll Sunday, All Along the Watch Tower by Jimi Hendrix.

Where will your ashes rest?

Long story short, I think my heart will always belong in Zimbabwe alongside my family, but I would not mind being in the ocean either. The sea has always felt like home to me.

Never forget what?

A bank card (preferably overflowing with funds … then a bottle of Tam Dao, the perfume I have worn every day for the past 12 years … and a smile. A smile gets you through all sorts of things.


My Bali