Ester Manas: "We Owe It To Ourselves To Imagine The Future"
Ester Manas and Balthazar Delepierre
A graduate of La Cambre, Brussels' renowned visual arts school, French designer Ester Manas now calls the city her home. Living and working there with associate Balthazar Delepierre, the young creative was a finalist at the 2018 edition of the Festival de Hyères. Her calling card? Inclusive creations that adapt to their wearers.
Printemps.com : What pushed you to start your brand, guided by the "One Size Fits All" concept?
Ester Manas: Definitely our critical success, thanks to the prize at Festival de Hyères, where I presented my graduate collection on models who were fuller bodied than many in the business. One day, flipping through an Ikea catalog, I'd seen one of those expanding tables and wondered why we didn't have similar structures in fashion. But we also didn't want to just create another plus-size brand. Our goal wasn't necessarily to glorify any one body type, but to stop sorting people by their size in the first place.
It also echoes your personal experience.
EM: Yes. At first it was a pretty selfish choice! (Laughs). I just wanted to create clothes that looked good on me. And then I wanted to widen access to designer pieces, especially to women who are ignored in luxury, but without alienating the size 2s or 0s either. We believe that everyone has their own kind of unique space and presence, and the fitting rooms shouldn't feel like torture. The press called us a plus-size brand because of the name of my graduate collection, "Big Again," so when I see smaller frames wearing our line I'm always thrilled, because it means we're distancing ourselves from that label.
Each piece is imagined to adapt to different body types. Technically speaking, how did you pull that off?
EM: Mathematically, between a size 34 (US size 2) and a 50 (US size 18), you have 40 centimeters. So, if I integrate four distinct fabric extensions of 10 centimeters around the bust, for example, it works. Of course, we use a lot of flexible fabrics and draping so that excess material gets absorbed. It's a bit like blowing up a balloon. We avoid overly complicated designs. Buttons, elastic waists: we use methods that already exist, we play with them, and we place them unexpectedly in the garment and in ways that serve the wearer. At first, we thought a lot like industrial designers: problem, solution, product. Now that we know what works, we have greater creative freedom. The constraints are so intense that we end up putting out really novel pieces.
You seem to care deeply about sustainability. What have you implemented in those terms?
EM: We work a lot with deadstock. Our collections are made twenty minutes from our workshop, and we produce them with a socio-professional reintegration organization. We've woven this fabric ourselves: we take our bikes or public transport and go meet with our teams in person to see what they think about our workflow. It's all very short circuit. During the lockdown, we got hard proof that it was working to our advantage. But beyond our concerns about sustainability, it's also more practical, because our needs are very particular. It would have been difficult to explain, remotely, how to make our prototypes. At first people said to us, "but why are you putting buttons here?" or "this is too much fabric, are you sure you don't want to take some off?"
"At first, we thought a lot like industrial designers: problem, resolution, product. Now that we know what works, we can allow ourselves greater creative freedom. The constraints are so intense that it makes us put out really novel pieces."
The single-size concept is also quite environmentally friendly.
EM: Yes, especially because we only need to produce one prototype. Plus, buyers don't need to worry about sizes that don't sell. On top of that, when a person comes to buy our pieces, they can keep them for their whole lives, even as their bodies change. Really, these are clothes that are meant to be passed down, because they'll always fit.
Plus-sized fashions often try to slim down or even hide fuller-bodied women. But you aren't at all worried about oversized, baggy looks. Is this kind of a metaphorical approach to the idea of taking up space?
EM: Completely. We also use a lot of color. In fast fashion — which is unfortunately where we get the most options for curvy women — it's all black, brown, khaki, or grey. Bright color says, "I exist!".
Do you ever think about doing a men's line?
EM: Yes, but I would want to work with someone who already has experience in that sense. For women's we had mine, and then plenty of friends who also had similar issues. It's silly, but personally I don't have as many plus-sized men in my close circle. But a lot of our pieces can also be considered unisex. That probably comes from the fact that we both, myself and Balthazar, try them on as we're designing.
In early 2020, you were shortlisted for the LVMH Prize. What did you gain from this experience?
EM: It really dawned on us that we had what it took to compete with brands that had been around long before us. We felt like kindergartners up against high-school seniors. Everyone else showed up with their clique and a huge truck, we just came the two of us on the train, with our suitcases! (Laughs). But it was incredible.
Your Spring-Summer 2021 collection, the first you've presented on the official calendar at Fashion Week, is entitled "Superhuman." Why is that?
EM: We arrived at that idea when we were coming back from the LVMH Prize. It was Fashion Week and we'd seen these new collections and made fun of how totally depressing and somber a lot of them were. Balthazar said to me, "you'd need superheroes to save all these people." And as young designers, we owe it to ourselves to imagine the future. Today, of course, a lot of young creators are selling prospects that are anything but desirable. We want to stay positive. Of course, there are problems, but we're here to sell a product that makes people feel good. I don't know that many people who go shopping to feel bad! (Laughs). The idea was kind of an inside joke between the two of us. Humor is a big part of our world. The subject we're defending is serious and political, which means that laughter and self-derision need a seat at the table.
Do you feel that you've paved the way for other designers? In retrospect, do you see a change in how designers are educating themselves?
EM: Yes, because so many students are using themselves as models, I think. They're doing the work with the body they have. I watch a lot of grad shows and recently I've noticed a huge diversity of weights and body types, mostly in Northern European schools, like in Belgium or England. On our end, we love doing workshops at fashion schools. You can feel this creative energy, like at Mugler, or Olivier Rousteing for Balmain, who recently collaborated with Yseult the French singer. But still, we need to take it so much further.