An Interview with Behnaz Sarafpour
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.
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
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
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
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%
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
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
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
TA: Obviously that's good for business,
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
TA: Are they aware of your roots?
BS: I'm known as an Iranian-born American
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.
BS: It's where I have lived longer than I have lived anywhere
TA: Does the city itself give you any vibes or
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
TA: Does that make you aggressive?
BS: It's a good place for ambitious
TA: And how ambitious are you for your
BS: As much as I can be. As much as I have energy and time to
TA: So where's your label going into the next few
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
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
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
TA: Do you physically get involved in making things
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
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
And with that I let her go back to work on her new collection,
soon in fancy stores near you.
... Payvand News - 7/3/07 ... --