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For those who don’t know, Behnaz Sarafpour is a woman.
It might have been irksome at first, but the designer now chuckles at the fact that people who haven’t met her or seen her picture often assume her exotic name corresponds to a male designer.
“A couple of years ago, I was passing by Barneys and my collection was in the Madison Avenue windows,” Sarafpour recalled. “I was just standing at the sidelines looking at the mannequins. There was a couple standing there looking at the windows. The man was telling the woman about my work, and he kept referring to me as he, which I was very amused by. I didn’t end up saying anything.”
She won’t have to anymore. Of New York’s rag pack that sprouted up in the past four years, Sarafpour, 35, stands out as the lone woman designer in the company of Zac Posen, Proenza Schouler, Jeffrey Chow and Derek Lam. She could use it to her advantage and carve out a woman-to-woman niche like Donna Karan did decades before her. Yet Sarafpour has no such agenda.
“That’s not where my thinking is coming from at all,” Sarafpour said. “I really don’t focus on women’s physical insecurities and imperfections. For me, that’s not what fashion is. Fashion is much more psychological than it is physical. The truth of it is, with the exception of a few top models, no one is physically perfect, and I don’t make that the focus of my designs.”
Since launching her first collection for fall 2001, Sarafpour has artfully tweaked classic sportswear with seasonal inspirations. Her spring collection, for instance, drew from a summer trip she took to Japan and featured waist-cinched dresses with full skirts, sequined tanks and geisha-print skirts, all presented on the legendary main floor of Tiffany & Co., her sponsor that season.
Sarafpour has come a long way since heading to Philadelphia from her native Iran as a teenager. She graduated from Parsons School of Design, did accessories for Anne Klein in her senior year there, became the senior designer of the women’s collection at Isaac Mizrahi in 1994 and stayed with him until Mizrahi closed his business in 1998. When Barneys New York asked her to become the designer of its women’s private label collection shortly thereafter, she gladly accepted.
“When you work for a fashion house, especially one that has a strong image, you learn to think in the culture of that company,” she said. “I never understand designers who work for Donna today, for Calvin tomorrow, for LVMH the next. I don’t get that, so for me it was a much more sensible transition to go and design for Barneys. Their motto was ‘taste-luxury-humor,’ which was very much my way of thinking already.”
Sarafpour is just as interested in the business side of fashion as the design aspect.
“I was getting to Barneys, and first thing Monday morning, I had a selling report on my desk. Initially I had no idea what those numbers meant,” she recalled. “I like knowing about business. I know some people think it may hinder their creativity, but I find it inspiring….People who are strictly focused on business are always looking to repeat a past commercial success. I am the person who designed that thing that became the commercial success, so I am aware there was a day when that idea didn’t exist yet. Instead of trying to repeat a formula, I am focused on the next exciting thing with great potential.”
Sarafpour’s business rakes in about $1 million wholesale a year. The line is manufactured in New York with fabrics she sources globally. She sells to stores such as Barneys, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.
Starting with fall, which she presents on Wednesday, she hopes to push into the global market. Her plan calls for distribution to Japan, China, England, Italy, France and Germany. To that end, Karl Morge has joined the company as sales director from British designer Adam Jones, where he held the same post.
In addition, Sarafpour is in talks with potential partners or licensees to add more classifications, including a fragrance, cosmetics and handbags. She anticipates to have new categories by fall 2006.
“It’s one thing to grow the collection and to grow distribution, but we also want to add other product lines to complement the collection, and for me, that’s not going the route that some other people go, like doing a bridge line. It’s in terms of beauty and accessories.”
Julie Gilhart, vice president and fashion director at Barneys New York, has been a staunch supporter, and the specialty store has carried the collection since its first season.
“What makes Behnaz so interesting is that she designs for someone who is very much like herself,” Gilhart said. “She has excellent taste, she is not excessive in terms of details, but it’s a mix of luxury and quality. But there is a luxurious and youthful spirit there.”
Ivanka Trump met Sarafpour four years ago through the designer’s business partner and public relations’ director, Phoebe Gubelman, and has been to every show except for the first two.
“Her clothes transcend generations,” Trump said. “When you go to one of her shows, you see equal an number of people my age and my mother’s age and older. The first show I went to, I went with my mother. She loved it so much, and surprised me with two great summer tie-dye dresses. She also bought herself a few pieces but I stole them from her.”
For now, Sarafpour has a lot of plans, but she remains loyal to one main goal. “There is a great focus on growing our business, and making sure, even though we are really young and starting, that we come across as dependable and professional people to do business with,” she said. “But at the heart of it, none of that would matter if I couldn’t design a creative collection that could catch people on an emotional level.”