The inclusive Belgian fashion label fighting back against ‘curvewashing’
Ester Manas is lighting up Paris Fashion Week with sexy, sensual collections designed for many bodies
Ester Manas and Balthazar Delepierre are in the habit of finishing each other’s sentences, or otherwise just fully talking over each other as they rush to get their words out. The Belgian designers behind rising label Ester Manas met at Brussels’ legendary school La Cambre a decade ago and have been inseparable ever since, so it makes sense that they pretty much know each other inside out. The result is an audio file that’s equally a nightmare and a joy to transcribe, on account of how rare it is to speak to someone so bursting with enthusiasm for what they do.
If you’re not familiar with the label, now’s the time to pay attention. Totally committed to inclusive fashion, the duo are lighting up the Paris Fashion Week landscape with their sensual, sexy shows in which models of all shapes and sizes storm up and down the runway. Tokenistic, or “curvewashing” as Manas puts it, they are not. The collections themselves are largely made up of diaphanous, second-skin dresses, sinuous bra tops, and slinky pencil skirts bearing décolletage or hip-flashing cut-outs and big, bouncy ruffles. In a palette that spans soft, earthy neutrals, through punchy citrus brights, and deep jewel hues, a big proportion of the offerings are crafted using deadstock or salvaged fabric.
It helps that Manas herself has skin in the game. The designer is a size 46, which in UK sizing translates to around a 16 or 18. While studying alongside Delepierre at La Cambre, she became frustrated by the fact fashion “wasn’t for me, or many of my friends”. The two came together to channel those frustrations into a solution, as they began to develop new construction techniques to allow for a wider size range while bearing in mind the financial constraints of a burgeoning, indie brand.
Now, the label’s ‘one size’ pieces are stocked by the likes of London concept store LNCC, and range from an XS through to an XXL. Unsurprisingly, they have no plans to stop there. Though they’re understandably cagey about a few “very exciting” projects on the horizon, the two are currently working away in their Brussels-based studio on Ester Manas 2.0, as they figure out how to scale their offering both in terms of sizing and distribution. Here, we get to know them a little better.
You met at La Cambre 10 years ago. What drew you to one another – what did you like about each other?
Ester Manas: I think we are quite different, especially thinking back to the early stages of our relationship. Balthazar can be quite strict and regimented, whereas I am quite an excessive person in everything I do both personally and professionally. I’m an excessive woman! So I think together, we have quite a good balance.
You both had quite an unorthodox entry into fashion. Could you tell me a bit more about that?
Ester Manas: It was never ‘the big dream’ – you read so many magazines and interviews and big designers are always saying they knew from five years old they wanted to go into fashion, and they were dressing their dolls or whatever. For me, it was not like that. I was studying graphic design and decided to change, because I wanted to work in 3D, though not making clothes at first.
Balthazar Delepierre: For me it really was the same – I wasn’t interested in fashion at all, and to be totally honest I found it maybe the dumbest thing in the world. Maybe I shouldn’t say that (laughs). But actually, I realised you can apply a lot of different art to fashion, which is really amazing. And to create a brand, you really have to employ all these different mediums to become a 360 thing. Print, photography, graphic design – you do it all, which is really interesting.
When you did start getting into fashion, were there any designers you did look up to or find to be a source of inspiration?
Ester Manas: When I started learning about fashion, because we are in Belgium we looked a lot at Belgian designers, so not couture, but kind of. So you know, Martin Margiela of course, and the Antwerp Six, and others like Matthieu Blazy and Anthony Vaccarello. So I suppose it wasn’t about the designers in general, it was in the volumes and the shapes and the art in general that I found inspiration. The course was way more crafty than it was about looking at individual creatives and how they worked.
Balthazar Delepierre: I think something that inspired me was to be working with 3D design and send it to Paris to show it to someone there who could bring it to life. Being a guy in Brussels, and the starting point for a collection was super interesting.
What’s a typical day in the studio like for you?
Ester Manas: The biggest surprise about starting a brand is how little time you spend designing. We see ourselves a little bit like firemen, trying to maintain everything on track every day. I suppose it’s quite special for us in that we have a really unique vision of fashion, and we get to spend a lot of time on new tasks.
Balthazar Delepierre: Because of the nature of what we do, we probably spend a lot more time than other designers on fittings. So many fittings. We obviously need to find solutions and to maximise our concept of being truly, truly inclusive. That’s in our DNA.
Can you talk me through your aesthetic and what you’re trying to achieve with the brand?
Balthazar Delepierre: So, we have two sides. We want to be as inclusive as possible, which means a lot of what we do is about exploring new techniques and technologies, which brings us to a whole new kind of vocabulary of fashion.
Ester Manas: We have really intense discussions about and with the girls we want to dress, and try to bridge the gap between technique and sensuality. We’re always exploring ways for the person wearing our clothes to be able to express their sexuality, their body, their skin. And we try to balance this with a lot of bold and really deep colour, because the girl we want to dress is fierce! It’s about sexiness and joy, and also positivity, too.
Why is it so important to you to be dressing people with larger bodies, and what made you make a commitment to being so inclusive when fashion still hasn’t made a whole lot of progress in that respect?
Ester Manas: At the start, it was all about me (laughs). I’m a bigger size [than you’d usually see on the catwalk] – in the UK, maybe a 16 or an 18. When I first started studying fashion, I would be frustrated by the fact it was never for me or a lot of my friends. So in the end, for my graduation, I decided to do something about it. I invited new girls on the catwalk, and by doing so, I invited myself and others like me onto it too.
How do you feel about representation in fashion at the moment? We’re seeing more curve models on the runway, but progress is still pretty slow…
Ester Manas: I suppose [putting a larger model on the runway] is good for Instagram or a brand’s image, but that’s the first step really, so I think it’s a good thing. But then, when people go to shop, is where it comes unstuck – the looks on the catwalk are custom, and those customers who got excited about seeing women who represented them can’t actually buy the clothes they’re wearing, so it becomes obvious their inclusion is as a token. But it’s not only the designers. Buyers, as we have found when meeting with them, have a huge role to play in this movement. If they are not buying larger sizes, having conversations during appointments, and convincing retailers it’s important and necessary that they carry an extended size line, where do we go from here?
You’ve recently started showing in Paris, which hasn’t had the best track record for representation. How are you finding it? Did you face any opposition when you were applying to join the schedule?
Balthazar Delepierre: We’ve done two physical shows now, and they’ve been really successful. At the beginning, it was so hard to sell the collection through a PDF presentation, because it was really difficult to convince people what we are doing is meaningful. But since showing in real life, it’s crazy – all we have had is positive feedback and concrete opportunities coming from that.
Ester Manas: I think it also really helped to show the dream and the attitude of Ester Manas in real life, which you just can’t capture across Zoom or email or whatever. There’s no feeling to that.
What’s next for you?
Balthazar Delepierre: Right now, we are super focused on finding solutions, and expanding what we do as a brand. We have a lot of new stockists that want to work with us, so we need to find a good way to produce for them all. We need to figure out how to apply our approach on a much bigger scale.
Ester Manas: And we also have some very exciting things on the horizon that we can’t talk about right now. But soon, you will know!