"I'm married to my dresses" – BFFI designer Sandra Mansour on taking fashion seriously
Buro Fashion Forward Initiative exclusive
W ith an ever increasing collective of contemporary designers entering the market, it's hard to stand out, but not for Sandra Mansour. The Lebanese fashion designer has just been named one of the international emerging designers to represent their region in the Buro Fashion Forward Initiative — a platform that will see Mansour create a capsule collection exclusively for Farfetch in partnership with Buro 24/7. Here, the designer discusses the e-commerce collaboration, her dreamy new collection and why being a woman in design is important now more than ever...
Congratulations on being selected as the Buro 24/7 x Farfetch BFFI designer to represent the Middle East. What does that mean to you?
I think it's really cool to be a women in design today and to be a designer in an Arab country. I don't think there are a lot of women and it's nice for the next generation to see that it's possible.
This is the first year BFFI has opened the platform to an international cohort of designers. What do you think about the new direction?
I think it's really interesting. I think it's interesting that they have designers from different countries, working on the same project and for every country to see it in a different perspective. I'm really looking forward to seeing how every country is going to work on the same idea, the same project and how, from their different cultures and points of view, they're going to elevate the project. I also think it's a very smart idea to announce the launch during Paris Fashion Week, which is where I'm showcasing my Spring/Summer '18 collection...
The Middle East has a very strong cultural identity. Being from Lebanon, how does your upbringing influence your work today?
For me, it was very important to be recognised as a Lebanese designer. I grew up in Geneva because of the 15-year civil war in Beirut. My grandmother was living in Switzerland, and so this is where I was born. For my parents, it was really important for me not to lose my roots though. My dad tried as much as possible to speak in Arabic at home and then when I was 13-years-old, my parents decided to go back to Beirut, where I stayed until I was 18, graduated and went back to Europe to study. But it was always clear for me that I would go back to Beirut because we have such amazing craftsmanship — the embroidery is still an old technique that has been passed down from the mother to the child, from generation to generation. Plus all of the famous designers were Lebanese, men which I thought was strange. So I thought if they made it, women could do it too. I knew I needed to take it seriously and from nothing; I started with a budget of $5,000.
What's the most important lesson you've learnt since then?
Seven or eight years ago was when I went back to Lebanon. My Arabic wasn't so strong so I re-learned how to speak Arabic and then I learnt how to open a company. Being a designer is nice but you learn very fast that it's not only about designing, you have to be an entrepreneur and you need to learn how to manage a team, how to register a company. I think Beirut was the perfect base. I'm not going to say it's easier there but it's home. Now we're a team of 22 people, we do two collections a year, we come to Paris twice a year and we also do a lot of bespoke dresses and wedding gowns, which are customised and very unique.
There's a new cohort of emerging Middle Eastern designers, who are developing at a calibre on par with the international market. How do you stay competitive?
I take fashion seriously. I think when you really want something you pursue it. All I do is work (laughs). But, I love it! In my atelier, we have a loft, which is the showroom, we have the tailor on another floor and we divided the administrative area where we do all of the technical and commercial work and, on top of that, I have my apartment. In the beginning it was more of a space I would go if we worked late and I needed to rest. The space really inspires me and it really feels like home.
I'm married to my dresses. I'm not ready to get married and have children. I really wanted to be a painter so for now, I feel like with every collection, I'm painting.
Speaking of painters, tell us about the inspiration behind your SS18 collection...
I wanted something very flowy, very summery, very feminine and very colourful and I love swimming pools. I'm obsessed with the colour blue, it's something that makes me dream and every collection inspired by dreams; I try to stay in this zone. I went to the Guggenheim in Venice and discovered the work of Rita Kernn-Larsen, she's a surrealist artist. So this collection is called, La Piscine Aux Matins Clairs, and one dress in particular sets the tone for the whole collection: the Fond du Piscine.
Do you name each dress?
Yes, each dress has a name. It's like giving her a soul.
The fabric too is very aquatic-inspired, almost like the blue of the water set against a millennial pink sky...
Yes, we created a swimming pool print. Every season I love creating our own fabric because I feel like I'm more involved in the development of the collection.
What's the end goal?
I would love to have a boutique. I don't know where exactly yet but maybe in Europe. I would also love to do collaborations with other brands and maybe a bridal line but not traditional bridal dresses but something cooler.
Your name was catapulted into the international fashion world when you designed the wedding dress for Princess Ekaterina Malysheva of Hanover. What was your initial reaction when she called you?
Ekaterina is actually an old friend and one day she calls me up and says: "Sandra, I'm getting married." I was like: "OK, amazing. Congratulations!" And then she said: "I need you to do my wedding dress." My response? I said: "OK, no problem. Let's do it! Let's meet in Paris and I'll do some drawings, some sketches..." and she said, "OK, but you know it has to be conservative; long sleeves, a bit closed. We also need to talk about the veil because I'll be wearing a crown." I said: "OK, wait. What's going on?" That's when she told me she was getting married to a Prince.
What was Ekaterina's vision for the dress?
She's Russian and there was a protocol that we had to follow, but she was very clear that she wanted something from her Russian heritage. The dress had to be very classic but something very princess-y, because we'd seen all of these other princesses getting married in dresses that were very soft and very dreamy. We were going to go all out. So we created a drawing of embroidery and all of the drawings are actually inspired by Russian culture, Russian flowers, Russian ornaments, with a bit of beading, a bit of pearls, three different sizes of pearls actually, painted in a vintage colour. Then under the top layer is a base with the softest lace there is. The veil too was really drawn like her dress.
How long did it take you to create the gown?
It took a long time. Just the embroidery alone took about four months. Ekaterina came just twice to Lebanon to try on the dress and it was perfect. It was one of the nicest experiences for me. But at the end of the day I try to make people dream. Maybe it's working...
Now, go inside Buro 24/7's BFFI event in partnership with Farfetch and discover the highlights from the exclusive event.