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This Space Is Your Place: Connections Forged Through Belgian Design and Iranian Craft

Interview Cort Cunningham
Photos Thomas Nolf
Fabian Jean Villanueva Back to Rider Stories Top

Fabian Jean Villanueva is Communication Director for MAD Brussels, a fashion and design creative hub in the heart of Brussels. With Cowboy's entrepreneurial roots and design focus, he sees the brand as a natural fit with the MAD community, the Cowboy Brand Store is just across the Brussels Canal. A chance trip to Iran, and 20 visits to the country later, sparked a side passion project for him called Pardis — vintage handmade kilims and other treasures from Iranian Kurdistan with which he, his wife, and two friends return to Brussels to sell and share their love for a culture that has treated them like family time and again.

"It's something that I'm trying to bring here at MAD. There is this fantastic building—not as a venue, but as a platform and community. And I'm just saying, as I experienced it the first time I've been to Iran, I too can tell people here, “This space is your place."

Let's start with MAD. What's it all about?

The idea here is that we support the creative scene of Brussels through coaching, funding, events, and international action. Like in September, we'll be bringing a batch of designers from Brussels to Beirut to get them visibility and to connect with the local scene. So the idea is to actually grow their business potential. So it's a Brussels-based and Brussels-funded public institution.

There's also a residency program at MAD, correct?

Yes, MAD Lab. People come here as residents to manifest an interest or push their practice through ecodesign, sustainability, and social design. It's located in this incredible building which has one of the best views you can have on the city center of Brussels which is quite rare. We don't have skyscrapers here so it's really not like the kind of view we are used to.

Fabian Jean Villanueva

You also have an Iranian side project, correct?

I'm not Iranian. My father comes from Haiti and Mexico, and my mother is Belgian. I'm a Belgian citizen. I did my thesis on Iran, but it was always remote. I had a kind of glimpse of Iran through books, documentaries, movies, people I met here in Brussels who were from the diaspora. And then, I don't know, I just decided to get there after my studies. With my wife and a couple of friends, we decided to bring back a few stuffs from a remote location in Iran, which is already a country that no one really visits but which has fantastic craftsmanship and antiques. We started bringing back ceramics, fabrics, rugs, and kilims. And people were saying it's nice so we decided to create a project. It's called Pardis which means a kind of heaven in old Persian. The idea is to go into very remote villages, knock on the door and ask people if they have something to sell, and we have a kind of framework we use to say, "Okay, that's for us." It's always vintage, it has to be handmade. Or sometimes very old, like the ceramics we gather as a kind of collection that we showcase here in Brussels and sell it. And the proceeds we use to pay and sponsor the next trip. I love that what we bring back always leads to a story.

So you combine the story with the object in how you promote it?

Yes of course, it's just true stories. We like when people have incredible stories and sometimes you bring things that are just dead. For instance one day I broke a vase, very old, but it was totally crushed. It was just pieces. I asked a friend, who is ceramist, to spend an afternoon rebuilding it piece by piece like a puzzle. Oh, the stories it told us. It told us everything, a guy, a place, a story, and maybe life. Maybe we made it a bit more beautiful. I don't give a shit. It was just like the way it has to be, you know?

How did your Iranian journey start?

Well that's why I'm telling you the story. One of my closest friends at the time was living in Istanbul. He's a photographer who's been to Iraq, Syria, Georgia… So it's why he was based in Istanbul in the middle of all this mess [laughter]. And he told me, "Okay, let's go together." On the trip between Istanbul and Tehran, there was a woman next to us. She told me, "Okay, now, you are home. This place is your place." And that was actually my first true taste of Iran. She offered, "You know what? My brother is waiting for me at the airport. Tell me anywhere you go. We'll bring you there." That doesn't happen in any other country. Here we were driving on this dirt road heading to Tehran and then we arrived at the place and they welcomed us like we were their sons. I was raised in that kind of family. We used to have a table where we always leave empty seats in case someone just arrived. Someone would show up and we'd say, “Okay, don't worry. If we're for five, we're for six.”

Fabian Jean Villanueva

It's crazy because it's something that I'm trying to bring here at MAD. There is this fantastic building—not as a venue, but as a platform and community. And I'm just saying, as I experienced it the first time I've been to Iran, I too can tell people here, “This space is your place.”

I heard you're a big promoter of Cowboy at MAD, too.

Yes! I'm even riding in the building. It's totally forbidden but I do it. I don't give a shit. I do it. When I met my first interview, the HR manager, I told him, "If you hire me, we need a fleet of Cowboy bikes. This is clearly a kind of design, a better world kind of thing. They arrived on Monday.

How long have you been riding with Cowboy?

I still have the bike I got a year ago, actually.

Oh so you have the old model, but your office fleet is the new model.

I prefer mine [laughter]. It's an original. You can't beat that. Actually it's really good because they are all here. We are famous for being the main actor that spurs creativity in Brussels. Riding those bikes just stretched that dimension.

Fabian Jean Villanueva

What made you fall in love with the bike?

The experience itself. The way I was welcomed there [at the store], the hospitality was something quite natural. A good looking guy in front of you saying, hey, bro, bam! Of course the second you ride it, the first push of the pedals you're convinced. And the fact that it's a kind of statement. So yes, I have to admit that it's a bit of, "All eyes on me," like Tupac used to say. It's really cool.

“I love that what we bring back always leads to a story.”

Ah, Tupac. How would you describe the bike to someone new to Cowboy?

It's something that changed my daily life. The freedom it gives you, and the kind of status. You are part of the community. Anyone who asks me, “Hey, can I try it?” I just switch it on and then, “Be my guest.” But always at the end I make a little elevator pitch. It's nice, trendy, super practical… I think I've sold about 30 bikes, actually.

Wow! You should be getting a commission or something.

Yeah [laughter]. It's so iconic. Once you try it, you're hooked. I love seeing the face of someone who tries my bike. It's always the same picture, actually.

When you say it changed your life, how so?

All the trips. The way I'm going from point A to point B. It's just like in a second, you are right there, which is near impossible with a car or even with public transportation. I also love the fact that being on a bike you can rediscover things about your city. Just noticing things more. I see the bike as a facilitator.

Fabian Jean Villanueva

That's interesting. Why do you use that term?

Because it brings me faster than a car anywhere else within the city. Because the app helps me not care about the key. The fact that it goes fast and that I'm not sweating like hell even if it's super warm outside. Quality time. It facilitates everything.

Do you feel a connection with other Cowboy riders on the road?

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Actually, I would like to make a suggestion: Multiply the kind of initiatives to bring people together. There is a kind of pride to be part of it and Cowboy should multiply it. And of course, it's always nice when you meet another cowboy in the street. It's always like… you know?

Yeah, I can imagine it.

I always do the same thing. The guy's waiting at the traffic light and I just come. And he's like, "Oh." And I look at him. He has the time to say, "You have a nice bike." I say, "Yeah. We are the same. Kind of." And I really like that kind of. I always do the same joke which is a crappy joke but I always do it this way.

I have friends sending me pictures of bikes they've spotted in Hamburg and Berlin. What I do is always showcase my bike in various places. I have a house in the countryside, and I'll take my bike there. It's really linked to the urban environment, but I like to link it to a more natural environment, too.

Well, I hope to catch you and your nice bike on the streets or in the countryside very soon!

Yeah. We are the same. Kind of. [laughter]

Fabian Jean Villanueva


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