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An Interview with Behnaz Sarafpour

By: Taghi Amirani,
Flick through any glossy fashion magazine and you are bound to see a starlet or a model wearing a Behnaz Sarafpour dress. Claire Danes and Cate Blanchet are among those who love Sarafpour's designs known for their simple, lean and elegant look. The young Iranian-born American designer who has been running her own business for five years is considered among New York's new guard and a name to watch over the next decade. A Parsons graduate, she worked with her mentor Isaac Mizrahi and designed for Barney's private label before setting up on her own. Now no runway show is complete without a Sarafpour performance.

Behnaz Sarafpour
We met on a cold January morning for a coffee in a french café in New York's suitabily fashionable meat packing district. She had managed to steal an hour from her final preparations for the upcoming autumn/winter 2006/7 Fashion Week.
TA: Forgive my ignorance, but in the league of fashion schools where is Parsons?
BS: Parsons in the United States is the best one. There are just a handful of schools which are considered very good. In England Central St Martin's is the best one I think. Part of the way people decide this school is the best and not that one, is based on who's come out of that school. The school with the most famous successful alumni therefore must be the best school.
TA: So you must have had your heart set on getting into fashion from an early age to have got into the best school.
BS: I always liked fashion but I didn't know that I would become a fashion designer because I grew up in Philadelphia and Philadelphia is not a big fashion city. I came to New York to go to summer school when I was starting college. Just to live here in the summer and take fashion courses. The thing is I never even applied to Parsons because I was very intimidated by its reputation of being really difficult to get into. I took summer classes there and I happen to get all A pluses. So I went to an advisor in the school and said I had fun this summer and I live in Philadelphia and I'd like to come maybe again sometime and take another class. She looked at the work I had done over the summer and she said "Actually we really like you to stay! You're doing really well." So I told my parents and they said OK and I just constituted going to school.
TA: Taking of your parents, was fashion something you were aware of when you were a child?
BS: My Mom shopped a lot!
TA: That made you aware of fashion.
BS: More than I wanted to. In my family I'm the only girl, I only have brothers. So I kind of grew up wanting to be like one of the boys, kind of tomboyish. I wasn't one of those little girls who really liked dressing up, or fashion, nothing like that. I liked playing with toy cars and trucks, you know. My mother, however, is very girly. My older brothers were going to boarding school in London and she used to go visit and keep an eye on them and I was the little one she used to take along with her. And I remember her always dragging me around Harrods for hours and I didn't want to be there. And that's how I suppose I got exposed to fashion.
TA: You'd think if you were resisting all that you'd want to get away from it but you went for it.
BS: You know that scary thing they say, eventually everyone turns into their mother!
TA: Is it true in the early days you developed a reputation for sweet designs or sweetness?
BS: Well, you know it's funny. You just do what you do. One thing I knew from the time I started was that it's important to do what you really like doing. Because what happens is soon after you start, people, that being mostly reporters in the fashion press, they start trying to put labels on you, to put you in a category, to sort of explain you, in terms of what your look is, what you stand for, whatnot. So I just started doing things that I liked and I knew that I would be labelled as that kind of designer, and then I would be expected to do more of that. Because if you veer away from that too much then people think "What's wrong with you? You're supposed to be 'that'?" You know it's hard to change but I try to push that. You constantly have this struggle as a creative person if you want to keep the projects interesting for yourself, if you want it to be a growing experience for you, because after all that's a reason you got into it to begin with. At the same time fashion is not a fine art, it's a commercial art. It's supposed to be about business and business doesn't do so well if you experiment too much.
TA: Do you see yourself more as an artist or as a businesswoman?
BS: Hmm, I try to keep it 50/50 as much as possible. But for it to be a success it needs to be slightly more than 50% business
TA: How do you sell your work? Through major stores or do you sell directly, how does that work?
BS: We don't sell directly to anyone in terms of retail. We're wholesalers. Basically we go through very basic calendar of having a runway show and then immediately after the runway show there's a market where the buyers from all the stores internationally, you know everybody who has any interest, will come by appointment to the show and place orders.
TA: So the runway show is the most important shop window for you?
A: For us because we're a small company it is. For companies that are much bigger than us their runway becomes more publicity driven, and it's not the big part of their business. For us the runway is our entire business. We sell everything that's on the runway.
TA: Tell me about celebrity endorsement. Celebrities buying your design, how does that come about?
A: Celebrities rarely buy things, celebrities mostly borrow things.
BS: Really?! Is that how it works? Borrow things? You mean they give them back?
BS: Yes, they borrow to wear to an occasion and then return it.
TA: Obviously that's good for business, surely.
BS: In a funny way it's good for the business overall because it makes people familiar with the name and the type of work you do. But not good in terms of selling that specific dress that an actress wore. When an actress wears something to a lot of women who are designer customers that dress is considered overexposed. They'd rather walk into a party wearing something that everybody hasn't already seen. In an ironic way being worn by a celebrity makes the thing lose its specialness to the customer.
TA: Is there any part of your designs that is influenced by you being an Iranian?
BS: No, I don't like to do that. It goes back to that thing of being labelled by the press as being one kind of a designer. Then you become this designer known for making folkloric sort of things, you know, and then that's all you have to do. There're many things that interest me, you know, things about my heritage that interest me, things about other cultures that interest me. But as a designer who wants to spend her entire life doing this, I can't be that specific, because it doesn't give me enough range to work with.
TA: Are they aware of your roots?
BS: I'm known as an Iranian-born American designer. 
TA: How old were you when you came here?
BS: The first time I left Iran for Europe was when I was in first grade at 7. And we spent part of the year in Europe, part of the year in Iran until I was about between 12 and 13. At that point after the revolution the war had started already, that's when me moved permanently.
TA: New York is home?
BS: It's where I have lived longer than I have lived anywhere else.
TA: Does the city itself give you any vibes or inspiration?
BS: You know I think when you live here you don't notice it so much. But sometimes when I go away somewhere else for a few days and I come back into New York, then I see what people talk about. People talk about the energy of New York. If you live here everything is so fast and you're so fast and you're just a part of the whole thing. New York is aggressive.
TA: Does that make you aggressive?
BS: It's a good place for ambitious people.
TA: And how ambitious are you for your business?
BS: As much as I can be. As much as I have energy and time to be.
TA: So where's your label going into the next few years?
BS: I don't know, it's funny, when I first started, I was just starting, right. I didn't really have any expectations, I didn't have any plans, in terms of what people call "going into your own business" or "entrepreneurship" overall. You know there's this general thinking that you need to have a business plan. People always ask you for a 5-year plan, 10-year plan, where you want to be. You have to do figures for financial investors, how would you expand, where are you going to get the next $10m. That actually held me back form starting to work on my own for a while. I was very intimidated by all that. So I waited for about a year, hearing people saying no, no, no, saying you must have a plan, you must have a lawyer, you must have an accountant. And then I thought, you know what, this is daft. I just want to start doing something, see how it goes. You don't need $10m or even a $1m to start doing anything. It's when you start immediately to make something, anything, most people can afford it if they have a vision.
TA: Is that your advice to aspiring fashion designers?
BS: No, my advice is if you think you've got everything else going for you, you just don't have a long-term plan or investors, don't let that be the thing that keeps you from doing it.
TA: What's the most expensive thing you've made?
BS: The most expensive thing that I have ever made was an evening gown that was hand-embroidered with 2 millimetre sequins. So if you imagine you had to individually hand-sew 2 millimetre sequins on an entire gown from neck to the floor! They do those things in India and that's the only place they do them. And it was a $13,000 dress. And everybody of course asks why is it $13,000? It's the craftsmanship. As a designer it's a pleasure to do occasionally pieces that are like that. Pieces in which you can incorporate arts and crafts, because those are the things that are timeless in fashion.
TA: Do you physically get involved in making things yourself?
BS: I know how to make everything, but I don't actually make anything with my own hands.
TA: And am I right to assume all ideas begin with pencil and paper?
BS: Yes. Cocktail napkin, post-it notes, hotel stationery, you know, whatever is around. Generally an idea hits me at like two o'clock in the morning. Unfortunately I am a very easily distracted person. Have a really hard time focusing with a lot of people around, the phone ringing and things like that. So I need quiet time and freedom to think.
And with that I let her go back to work on her new collection, soon in fancy stores near you.
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