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Iranian-American Fashion Star Draws Inspiration From Persia

Leila Yavari, an Iranian-American former model turned fashion director, spoke with Al-Monitor's Sophie Claudet about her career, which began during a Berkeley Ph.D. program; the art scene in Iran; bridging the Eastern and Western fashion worlds and drawing inspiration from her Persian roots.
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PARIS — Al-Monitor met on the sidelines of Paris’ fashion week with Leila Yavari — an Iranian-American former political science Ph.D. student at Berkley turned fashion model, turned fashion director for StyleBop.com. The stunning young woman was born in Iran in 1978. A year later, she left with her family during the revolution that toppled the Shah and gave birth to the Islamic Republic. She talked about her trip back to Iran as young adult and her Persian heritage, which informed both her professional choices and esthetics. She would love for Iran to be known beyond the news, as an art-loving country. Read her interview:

Al-Monitor You left Iran as a baby, have you been back since?

Yavari:  I went back twice as a child and in 2001 to do research on Brechtian theater in Iran for my Master’s essay. I felt more connected to Iran before I went back as an adult […] I realized that not having lived through the Iran-Iraq war, not having lived there through the past 20 years, I didn’t have a meaningful relationship with what the people have gone through so I felt a little bit inadequate, not very authentic.

Having left right during the revolution, I think I grew up with a lot of assumptions of what the country what like before and what the country was like afterwards, and a lot of those assumptions were put to the test. For example, Brecht’s plays were not allowed to perform before 1979 and they were after 1979, which is really interesting. And a lot of the people I spoke to were playwrights, artists. These people were kind of the foot soldiers of the revolution and they hadn’t really given up on the revolution, and they were saying, “You know, before the revolution I could wear mini-jupes [skirts] and drink whisky, but I couldn’t vote.” That was really interesting.

Al-Monitor:  It has been 11 years since you were last in Iran, are you planning on visiting again?

Yavari:  I always have this dream that we open a department store in Tehran, that we bring all the brands there. Sure I would love to, of course! For the moment, I am really busy working [as a fashion director in Munich, Germany], and our business is more Euro and American-centric.

Al-Monitor:  Do you think your Persian heritage influenced your life choices, your fashion sense?

Yavari:  Absolutely. I have these beautiful pictures of my mom from the 1970s. Women were so well dressed and so chic. Iranian women were also very Francophile in that period. So without question, my mom’s fashion sense, which was obviously informed by her Iranian-ness as much as anything, really influenced me and still does.

Al-Monitor:  Wasn’t it a Western sense of fashion rather than an Iranian one, though?

Yavari:  Yes and no. She is first and foremost an Iranian woman. [Iranian women] are so elegant in a very classical sense and she is a very classic beauty. Then again, I think my Iranian side also informed my rebellion in a really meaningful way, and coming to fashion was a way of taking control again and expressing myself, and it is in some part a reaction to maybe what is going on now. Dressing and expressing myself, how I wore my clothes and what my skirts’ lengths were and all of these things came into play.

Al-Monitor:  Are you at all aware of a fashion scene in Iran?

Yavari:  Not so much, to be honest. One the reasons I was always interested in culture when I did my own research is because I feel we don’t get that kind of news about Iran. We hear a lot of sound bites, and so I was really interested in what was going on. One the reasons I like [Iranian filmmaker] Abbas Kiarostami so much is because his films are so universal, and I think culture can universalize a place, and it is very important, and I would love to hear these stories. I think if I ever went back into political science, I would probably come at it from a fashion point of view.

Al-Monitor:  There is a very active art scene in Iran. It is possible that there is a fashion scene we are not even aware of, behind the veil?

Yavari:  Absolutely, I am sure. But it is all happening behind the scenes. I know that a lot of women — because my family has been there from time to time — have women who make their clothes for them. It is very difficult. If you go into a showroom now in Europe, almost every single country is present, the exception being a lot of African countries, some South American and then Iran and North Korea. There are no buyers from those countries. Everywhere else, they are engaged in fashion. It is a little bit sad, I have to say. […] I don’t think Iranian women have the same access as in the rest of the Middle East, especially the Arab Gulf, which is a meaningful, very important market. For Iranian women, they have to travel to Europe. I don’t think they have access to the latest collections from Yves Saint-Laurent or Valentino.

Al-Monitor:  It could very well be because of the sanctions against Iran.

Yavari:  Exactly. I think it is just a matter of exporting luxury goods to Iran.

Al-Monitor:  There is blossoming fashion scene in Pakistan right now; do you think it will eventually happen in Iran?

Yavari:  I don’t know about Pakistan. But I know that Turkey, for example, has a meaningful fashion week, and they are a huge exporter of textiles and lot of clothing is produced there. And they have a handful of designers. I think Iranians are very esthetic people. I even think of my father, who always had such amazing taste, and it really mattered to him what he was wearing and how he was dressed. I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t happen again in Iran.

Al-Monitor:  Without going back to the Western-style fashion of the 1970s, could the famous, round-collar Iranian shirt, for example, become an inspiration for designers?

Yavari:  You find a lot of designers going to the East for inspiration. This year you saw a lot kimonos and Geisha-inspired fashion on the runways. And Indian influence as well. So why not?

Al-Monitor:  Could you bridge both fashion worlds?

Yavari:  I would love to! In fact there is a huge gap; there are a lot of women that now travel to the Middle East from the West and they want to wear clothing that is appropriate to that region and it is really difficult to find. […] Actually, there is a market for that.

Al-Monitor:  Let us talk about your modeling career, how did you move from being a Ph.D. student at Berkley to becoming a model?

Yavari:  I was getting my Ph.D. and modeling at the same time. It was a fun thing to do and that kind of brought me to Paris, and I was traveling in the summers and working as a model. More and more, I had these opportunities to travel during the school year, so I took one semester off. But I went back and I took another semester off. And then I kind of just felt it was an opportunity I would have missed. I got to travel over to great places, like South Africa, Greece and Germany, and Paris and Italy. And I fell into this, and then I transitioned from modeling into styling, and freelance work, writing a little bit on the side about fashion and culture. Now I’m a fashion director in Germany for Stylebop.com, an online luxury retail site in continental Europe. We ship all over the world — except North Korea and Iran!  [She laughs.]

Al-Monitor:  Do you sometimes wonder what your life would have been if your parents hadn’t left Iran? Would you be a totally different person?

Yavari:  That is for sure. I wonder, of course, all the time.

Al-Monitor:  What do you think you would be doing if you had grown up in Iran?

Yavari:  All of my siblings and myself, we are probably at heart more creative. In the transition from Iran to the US, we had a lot of pressure to overachieve, and we were bitten by that bug, and we oppressed and didn’t follow the creative calling that we had because we felt we had to do something really serious. And then we all kind of came back around to it! If we had grown up in Iran, we would have gone into the arts or creative fields much earlier. Obviously, it was a very traumatic experience to have to leave the country. Things get upset and you reroute yourself in a way. I don’t necessarily think it would have been a good or bad thing. I had major opportunities coming to the United States, and I am so super glad that I got to grow up there. But I think it could also have been very interesting to grow up in Iran.

Al-Monitor:  But maybe you wouldn’t have modeled?

Yavari:  I definitely wouldn’t have modeled! And in fact, I think that the modeling, even if I was living in the US, was very difficult for my parents.

Al-Monitor:  Why?

Yavari:  It was really a challenge for them to see me go that route. I think that we [in Persian culture] value women’s bodies; we almost put them on a pedestal, they are sacred. Modeling liberates you from that in a way, because you are just a hanger and it is really not sacred at all! Your body is just a way to show clothing. I think it was really good for me.

Al-Monitor:  And your parents came around to it in the end?

Yavari:  It was so funny, because my dad was my biggest fan. Our families are so supportive in the end, no matter what I would have done, or choice I would have made.

Al-Monitor:  What was an issue when you modeled swimsuits or lingerie?

Yavari:  It was a matter of what kind. I think if you did a catalogue, it was still very family friendly. I would have never done Playboy out of respect for my family.

Al-Monitor:  What kind of modeling career did you have?

Yavari:  I was never a supermodel or a top model. I had a normal modeling career. I definitely had a moment where I felt I was peaking, I was doing a lot of really great jobs, but those things pass really quickly. I have done the whole gamut, in a way. It is a really tough business. What is really interesting about the political economy of modeling is that things really changed after the [Berlin] Wall came down in Eastern Europe. A whole new kind of beauty came in. I think I would have done really well in the 1980s. When I came onto the scene, it really shifted to this Eastern European beauty: 1’80-meter high, really skinny, almost androgynous-looking.

Al-Monitor:  But you are not very ethnic looking; very few ethnic-looking women actually make it big?

Yavari:  Definitely, it is not actually the trend. There is one Iranian-British model that has made it big: Yasmin Le Bon. She is half British, half Iranian. She was a supermodel in the 1980s. And she is still working as a model. And in Europe, there is an Iranian-German model, Shermine Sharivar. She had a very good career. She is very like “la bomba.” She looks more like Sophia Loren, not very Middle Eastern.

Al-Monitor:  You don’t see a lot of Middle Eastern models, in fact.

Yavari:  I have to say that an American brand doesn’t necessarily want to put a Middle Eastern face on their commercial to sell their cereal [laughter] … at this particular historical moment! There are a handful of Indian girls coming through, but again, it is because the Indian market is really important and meaningful. In Asia, you found before that the Chinese were gravitating towards girls like me, who look a little bit Eurasian, or blond, blue-eyed girls. Now you find the Chinese market is really embracing its own girls. Even on the European runways, you now see Asian girls, because again, it has become such an important market. There is a political economy to it — and unfortunately, Iran is not a very important market!

Sophie Claudet is Europe and Middle East correspondent for Al-Monitor, based in Paris. She previously was Senior International Correspondent with France 24, and also worked for Agence France-Presse English service in the Palestinian Territories/Israel and Egypt.