Two Designers on the cusp
Written by: Katarina Farley
It seems Bethany Meuleners and Sabah Mansoor Husain are living the dream. Their respective graduation collections for the Academy of Art University (AAU) were very well received at the Fall 2010 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. In 2011 they joined forces to launch a label — Mansoor Scott — and in January 2012, they were selected to spend one year as Designers In Residence at the Fashion Incubator San Francisco.
Read the full interview below…
Bethany and Sabah have an innovative approach to the marriage of craft and design. They’re not afraid to disturb traditional practices and conceptions and have high hope to revive the local fashion knitwear community. They are interviewed by Katarina Farley, Senior Fashion Student at the AAU.
Bethany, Sabah, first thank you so much for your time.
You’ve received great press for your fall ’10 graduation collections from the likes of WWD and L’Officiel Magazine. Has this helped with the launch of your Mansoor Scott label?
BETHANY MEULENERS: It is really useful because even before our label existed we were already there, on the web. Not as a singular company, but people can see the pieces we’ve produced and the stories written about them. If we had no media coverage at all it would be a lot harder to get the attention we want today.
SABAH MANSOOR HUSAIN: It is not so easy to get your name out there. But it is important because people must be able to immediately put a name and a product together.
Tell me about the inspiration behind your MFA knitwear graduation collections shown at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Fall 2010
SMH: A lot of my collection started from trying to find the relationship between craft and design. In my home country of India there’s a lot of emphasis on hand creation and taking the time to produce literally, one stitch at a time. I looked at traditional techniques of felting and knitting, and how I could give them a modern take. This was where my journey began with the collection.
BM: During my Fashion Design undergraduate course I worked mainly with woven materials, using cut and sew techniques to produce the garments. In the second half of grad school I became interested in combining knit and wovens into one single piece. I was also generally interested in layering, as an art form. The two interests combined and I worked to integrate the layers, knit and woven, into one piece.
What advice would you give to student designers starting their final collection?
SMH: Let it be a fluent process and remain open to ideas. Keep revisiting your work with a fresh eye, hold everything at a distance.
BM: I agree. It is important to step back. Doing so helps to get new ideas when you are stuck. When this happens to me I can sit there for hours and get only thirty minutes of work done. Step back and have breathers. Also, hold on to your research, things like swatches, fabric, and contacts. They always become useful.
SMH: And enjoy it, enjoy this final year: it is the only time you get a full year to work on a collection. You have the freedom to do anything without worrying too much about it being cost effective and producible. Enjoy that experimental stage… and be nice to everyone. When you’re a small designer and you cannot meet people’s minimums you realize that being nice goes a long way. People think that you need to have a chip on your shoulder – you really don’t.
You’ve recently started your line of contemporary Women’s Knitwear: Mansoor Scott. What inspired you to go into business together?
SMH: At the AAU we worked side-by-side on a lot of projects. We discussed sourcing, technique and concept and sometimes we lent each other a fresh eye. We started talking about what we’d like to do after graduation. Both of us wanted to stay in the Bay Area. So, we talked about starting our own labels, and that evolved into doing it together.
BM: At the time we were not working together on one collection, but we were able to work side-by-side for very long hours without any issue. We may do some things differently but we both use craft techniques and have similar aesthetics. We realized they meshed well so it made sense.
SMH: Staying in the Bay Area was a big factor behind our decision to start Mansoor Scott. We both would like to keep our production as local as possible. It is hard because cost differences can be great between locations. But this is a matter of principle for us. We would like to give back to our community and we want to be as green as possible.
What about the business management and marketing aspects of running a label? What has surprised you the most?
BM: We’re learning the business side as we go along. There is so much that needs doing: banks, factories, contractors, PR, money, and legal. It is doable if a little overwhelming!
SMH: We applied to the Fashion Incubator San Francisco program because we felt we needed help with business management. Creating a product, designing and even producing it has never been much of a problem for us. But pricing it right and selling it … that’s a whole other world you never really see at school.
Right now you are working on the launch of Mansoor Scott Spring 2013 collection, how is that going?
BM: It has been a challenge; it’s more natural to design a fall/winter knitwear collection.
SMH: Knitwear is always associated with fall/winter; in most people’s mind knitwear is a cardigan. Because knitwear is our focus it is a little scary to launch with Spring, we’d prefer Fall! But we want people to rethink knit. Most t-shirts are knit: it is jersey. So we need to break away completely from the idea of knitwear as a winter garment! Starting with spring will help us do that.
SMH: A lot of what we are working on is drawing on what Bethany and I did for our F10 collection. We’re doing a lot of layering with lightweight silks over knits, adding crocheting and lacing from our past collection. So, those influences carry forward, but we’re trying to make the garments unrecognizable as traditional knitwear.
How did you find yourself as a finalist for the Fashion Incubator San Francisco (FISF) program?
BM: We found the ad for the application on Fashion School Daily, the AAU School of Fashion blog. That was in November 2011 and the application was due in December. We were in the middle of writing our business plan. We had to put it aside and worked really hard on our application to the FISF. We were very excited in January when we learned we had been selected.
SMH: We were happy to find out that we got an office! The space was important because as young designers we were not in any position to renting this professional of a studio.
What has been the most challenging aspect of your experience at the FISF thus far?
SMH: The Incubator program is very much need-based. The idea is to get helped rather than being challenged. All of the six designers are on the same page and our collections are not competing on the same market. The Incubator program is actually relieving stress because we have people to ask questions to.
BM: Organizing your own time can be hard hard. We have made a rule of trying to arrive at 9am and leave at 6pm everyday and it is good to have this discipline. The part that has been the hardest so far has been managing deadlines, getting the samples done in time, etc.
How has it been working in a professional studio space.
BM: Awesome. I don’t have a large table at home so when I worked there I had to have my pattern board on the bed or the ground. It’s nice also to have the right height table, a really nice cutting table, and all of the machines we need here at our disposal.
SMH: It’s great. Each designer gets an individual space and we share a showroom. It really feels like this a business getting off the ground, not just us working in our little kitchens.
Tell me about the mentorship opportunities you’ve received through the Incubator program?
BM: So far it’s been on costing and production. We’ve also done some marketing and media training. I think as we move along and get closer to showing our collection, we’ll be getting more instruction in the marketing aspect.
SMH: It’s all very new, we started last month. The program is very specific to each of us and the situation that we are in. The most helpful so far has been costing because it is something easily forgotten in the creative process.
As AAU alumni, how has your degree and what you’ve learned in school helped you succeed in this program?
BM: The best preparation for what we are doing now is working on your final collection because you go through all the stages, basically on your own, from sourcing material to fitting. Obviously any schooling you have done before that also helps and leads up to that pivotal point.
SMH: School gives you a level of confidence because you have learned the process, and have gained skills. When we visit factories they are shocked that we actually understand knitwear. We are able to show them patterns and swatches. Know your craft; you are stuck in a box if you don’t.
You both are influenced by artisan techniques and traditional crafts. How do you blend these influences to make your designs modern and relevant today?
SMH: We try hard to keep our silhouettes fresh and young. The silhouette is driven by our customers.
BM: We do a lot of research on silhouette, figuring out how to use those craft techniques to produce new silhouettes. The way we used those techniques in our collections in New York isn’t the way they are normally used. Developing new application for those techniques is what makes us modern.
SMH: We’re not in the market to do what already exists. We try to use traditional techniques in new ways and people don’t recognize them for what they are. I think this works to our advantage. It’s not like anything people have seen before, yet it’s something familiar.
You will still be with the Incubator program for your Fall 13 Collection. What are your plans for the Mansoor Scott label afterwards, once you finish the Incubator program? Do you plan to remain in the Bay Area?
BM: Having a design business in San Francisco requires travelling to New York and Los Angeles to sell and to source. But, I think that it’s possible to stay here and design, as long as you’re willing to do the traveling. Also it is easier to be in the spotlight in San Francisco, especially with the Incubator program.
SMH: I don’t really see us moving. The Bay Area is an ideal place for us because of the way people dress here with layering. The way people engage with their clothing here suits us. I think our inspiration comes from the city we live in.
How important to you is it to keep traditional techniques alive?
SMH: We have a tremendous amount of craft as part of the Indian heritage, which today is dying because nobody understands it or sees value in it. The only way to learn them is directly from master craftsmen. Incorporating those techniques into modern fashion and products makes them visible to a larger audience. A similar thing happened here in the U.S. and in the San Francisco Bay Area with knit production. The big knitting industry we had could be rebuilt and shouldn’t just be left to die.
So, is one of your goals for your Mansoor Scott label to break away from fast-fashion?
BM: Having pieces that are sustainable not only because they’re eco or natural fibers, but also because the quality and beauty will last.
SMH: We want to use the best quality of yarn, and the highest level of skill that we can afford. We don’t want to make clothes that are trendy and you throw away after six months. It doesn’t quite make sense. I own pieces of clothing that my mother and my grandmother wore. Those were not luxurious clothes, but the fabrics were made well enough for them to last fifty years. It can be done. It’s just something we as consumers have to ask for, and we as designers have to want to produce.