Words Kirk Truman
Photography Astrid Schulz
“I use a lot of elements of people’s lives in my work: history, art and culture. By juxtaposing them I try to create a sense of an immersive tangible sublime…”
If you speak, do so with grace. Silks, cottons and threads. Shades of nude and turquoise. I first came to know of Shabnam through designer, Andreas Kristoffer Feet, in the Summer of 2013. Though I did not meet her personally, I was (quite embarrassingly) working alongside a group of striking young girls who were modelling her collection. Stood just behind them was me, fairly nervous, wearing a sleeveless shirt and getting ready to step up onto the runway at the London College of Fashion press show.
Shabnam was raised in Tehran, Iran and has led a rather cosmopolitan life. As a youngster, her passion was very much in art; she painted and still does today. When it came to making a decision as to what to study, she was torn between studying the arts or the sciences. Her family background is in business and sciences, and she was encouraged to have her passion for creativity and her interest in art as something partial to a career. And so, a little different to her life in the fashion world today, Shabnam decided to study natural resources engineering. Her passion, however, has always been with the arts and creativity, though she does admit, herself, to a small affair with mathematics and physics.
Her degree lasted for over 6 years in total: exploring natural resources, specifically different elements of aquatic systems. Although in a somewhat unconventional way, her degree gave her the opportunity to explore her fascination with nature. She began to focus on learning about population genetics, a branch of molecular genetics and thus exploring just what can be taken from the environment or a population, without then damaging it. For instance; how many of a particular breed of fish can be taken from the ocean before the species population becomes damaged, or on the verge of extinction? Following her degree, Shabnam began working in a prestigious research centre in her home country of Iran.
After some time, she decided that it was time to leave, a choice she discusses with me: “It is home, but at some stage in life we have to leave home or we’ll never grow up. Iran had given me whatever it could and at that point I had already offered what I could. Had I stayed there longer, it would have become a plateau situation,” she says. On leaving Iran, she lived for some time in various other places, believing that living in different locations would help to bestow a better perspective of the world.
A career in engineering behind her, much to the surprise of those she knew, Shabnam made the move to settle here in London, initially settling in the East-End of the city. With her passion for creativity and the arts looming, she decided that it was time at last for her to pursue her passion and apply it to fashion design. She began studying Fashion Design Technology: Womenswear at London College of Fashion (LCF): “The best place to do something internationally in fashion was always going to be in London.”
During her studies she came to meet the man who would become her husband, Yann, and she soon found the home that she knew she’d been searching for all along. Love at first sight as she would describe it. It was thanks to her husband that Shabnam soon discovered Fitzrovia as he has lived in the area for almost 10 years. “It is the perfect neighbourhood. There is a unity but also an amazing diversity here. As a result, it provides you with ‘the feeling of belonging” but, unlike some other areas in London, Fitzrovia doesn’t put a label on its residents. It also has had some sort of direct and in-direct input on my work. What I love is that it is an all charm area, it is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in London. To me it is like living in a piece of history, not just an area. There are also some modern buildings such as the BT tower in the neighbourhood without damaging the historical charm” she laughs.
Shabnam had already built up a smaller label back home in Tehran at the time she was studying engineering and her studies at LCF offered a chance to develop her skills as a designer, setting the groundwork towards creating a larger label here in London. I ask her how she found studying fashion in England: “It was a very mixed bag whilst I was at LCF. Sometimes, especially during the first year I felt it wasn’t getting me where I wanted to be” she admits. But in the last year of her studies, her involvement in different external projects and through working directly with Rob Phillips, creative director of LCF, the situation turned into something challenging, more productive and interesting. Here she began to experiment with various ideas and concepts for her designs, resulting in the creation of a collection entitled ‘The Plateau’: a modern interpretation of her homeland, a bricolage of different elements from history, costume and both Persian ancient and modern art and literature. In other words: a contemporary homage to the history and culture of Persia. At the end of her course this collection was exhibited on the runaway by LCF at The Yard, Shoreditch.
‘The Plateau’ is riddled with subtle hints to its cultural roots; the sculptural shapes of the bodices and sleeves were mainly inspired by ancient Persian statues and clothing from royal dynasties in Iran – this certainly explains Shabnam’s obsession with shapes and the mixing of different elements. She also chose a dominant use of pale colours inspired by the ‘wabi-sabi’ aesthetic: a simple and rustic beauty, and the colour ‘white-crème’, the primary colour used by the Persians to express serenity and peacefulness. These shades are occasionally accompanied by the symbolic use of expressive block colours such as different blues and ochre yellow.
Shabnam explains the reasoning behind her eclectic aesthetics: “My designs are contemporary narratives created by juxtaposing different elements of human life. By reflecting on culture, history and art in my work I create objects of beauty which are socially conscious.” Elucidating on this point, she talks about what exactly goes into crafting the effect: “Abstract forms and voluminous shapes, as well as symbolic use of block colours accompanied by pale shades are the other highlights of my aesthetics to create a sense of an immersive tangible sublime. If time allows me, I would love to make the first samples for my designs myself. In the process of making, I think about the pure joy of creating something. It feels natural to me.”
Shabnam is currently designing her new womenswear collection and is also working on building up her business; though she believes it will still take a few of years to become well-established. Although based in Fitzrovia, she works and designs from her studio in Hackney. She hopes to open a boutique whilst also focus on wholesale. She aims to manufacture her womenswear line right here in England, in order to help maintain a high level of quality in her products, as well as to guarantee an ethical production process.
Today, Shabnam has lived in the Fitzrovia neighbourhood for almost 5 years. She finds herself inspired by the environment of the area. From what she tells me, Fitzrovia is rife with the inspiring spirit that helps fuel creative endeavours: “As a designer I get a lot of my inspirations from people and the world around me. I just walk around and see so many things that inspire me. I get lots of ideas from literature also, walking past Virginia Woolf’s house always inspires an urge to create in me.” On a whole, she never intended to just ‘make clothes’; she wanted to bring an artistic sensibility to her fashion. If you speak, do so with grace.