Bridal gown designer Yasmine Yeya’s daring creations are turning heads all the way down the aisle
Written by Dominika Maslikowski
Egyptian-French designer Yasmine Yeya first learned to sew from her mother, and later studied fashion drawing at the American University in Cairo to sharpen her skills. But it was while designing her sister’s wedding dress in 2007 that Yeya fell in love with the craft and launched her own atelier. She competed that year in the TV reality series Mission Fashion, and after training with world-renowned Lebanese designer Elie Saab, Yeya came in second place.
At first Yeya dressed Middle Eastern socialites and celebrities like actress Arwa Gouda in daring, original designs that were seen on red carpets at film festivals in Cannes, Tribeca and Abu Dhabi. She now focuses exclusively on wedding gowns and the demanding art of haute couture, or handmade and custom-fitted clothing. Egypt Today talks to Yeya at her atelier, Maison Yeya, in Heliopolis to get her take on the local wedding industry, the changes in trends and the sense of purpose she gets from making women’s dreams come true. Edited excerpts:
In the 1960s and 1970s, and later under Sadat, Egyptian women were influenced by European fashions and French magazines. Recently more and more Egyptian designers have been inspired by their own heritage. You also have collaborated with jeweler Sabry Marouf on a Pharaonic-style wedding dress. What led you to seek inspiration from Egyptian culture for that dress, and why are we seeing more designers look toward the East for inspiration?
I don’t think the fascination with the East is something that’s only relevant to our part of the world. I think we’re getting that from an international inclination toward anything that’s Eastern. By doing that, we’re still following an international trend.
However, with the last job with Sabry Marouf, it was more of a client’s brief. I work solely on haute couture, custom-made per order dresses, so the client came to me and told me she was going to have her wedding in Aswan. She is a very theatrical lady, so it only made sense to make a Pharaonic dress. It would suit the whole theme of the wedding. She’s a very proud Egyptian girl and she wanted something related to her heritage, especially as she lived abroad for a long time, so we wanted to make something relevant to all those people coming to see Aswan.
It definitely has changed. I see my development as a woman in my designs. I see more femininity rather than just being shocking. The shocking element is there, because I have a very out-of-the-norm personality, but I can see how my femininity is developing and how it’s more sensual and reflects me going into my early thirties, which normally happens to a woman. I’m letting go a little bit of huge dresses. A lot of clients still come and want huge dresses, but I’m trying to direct them toward ‘less is more.’
Do you think that embracing femininity comes with age, when a woman gets to be more comfortable with herself?
Definitely. I discovered over time that a woman’s strength lies in her being a woman and not in trying to become something she is not, which is a man. If you want to become stronger and calmer, then know who you are, and if you are a woman then be a woman. This is where you’re going to achieve your full potential rather than trying to fight in the other direction. Especially living in Egypt, where the segregation between a woman and a man still exists.
What were the challenges in launching the Maison Yeya brand, and what was it like going from designing gowns for specific clients to running your own business?
It’s a huge challenge that I haven’t really overcome yet. Everyone wants to be one of a kind. Nobody wants to wear a dress that has been designed for somebody else. It’s very challenging on many levels. First, when it comes to the clients, the element of being unique, especially on high-end products and prices. Secondly, systemized production is one of the main challenges in Egypt in anything and everything. If you’re making a prototype and you want 10 things to look exactly like the same prototype, this is not in our culture. I’m really struggling and learning a lot, and it will see the light at the end of the day.
What goes into the making of a haute couture gown, and how is the process different from designing off-the-rack dresses? In what ways do the personalities of your clients come across in the final product?
The customization starts with the fabric, because I think the fabric makes half of the dress. I take that much time because sometimes I want to allow myself time to design the fabric solely for that dress. If I’m doing pret-a-porter it will be size 36, 38, 40, but with a woman’s body it takes more time adjusting things and making it fit like a glove. It takes a lot of going back and forth, especially if the client has a challenging body. Sometimes they have excellent figures and it doesn’t take time.
I always have to make sure the dress is the best dress that she’s ever worn in her life, so she has to look like a different figure. It takes a lot of architecture in terms of how to make her body look different from a couture point of view and an artistic point of view. Plus with the custom-making, you’ve got the mother getting involved, which also makes it a lengthier process.
Each woman is my inspiration. No one knows what they want. Even if she knows what she wants and comes to me with a picture of a dress, she walks away with something that’s totally different because in 99% of cases women don’t really know what suits them.
And even if they do, there’s a lot of things you bring to their attention that make them change their mind. If she has a wedding in Gouna, for example, and she always dreamt of a full ball gown — it doesn’t work that way, you’re going to look ridiculous. Or if her wedding is in July and she’s doing a dress in a material that will make her sweat. There are a lot of technical things I bring to her attention that make her change her mind and there’s a lot of artistic calls that I would rather be left to me. Thank God I’m at a point in my career when women actually trust me. Now, after having an established reputation in the market and people seeing my designs, they come for advice.
The woman at that level just works as an inspiration. She sits with me and I ask her questions starting from what’s her star sign to how she imagines her wedding and what she wants people to say when she enters the ballroom. It helps a little bit when she loosens up and I can really touch her spirit, because only then can I really make something that she puts on and people say, “Oh my God, this dress is just made for her.”
There’s a lot of psychology that’s in the process. I need to know things like if she’s romantic, if she’s vain. Even if they’re ugly things — she won’t necessarily inspire me by being the most beautiful. Even if I know she is vain, I’ll make her the dress that suits her vanity. I believe that every person has a percentage of all the characteristics of the world. So she tells me something, and I bring that from my own self and put it in the dress.
Of course. If she doesn’t trust me, the dress is a catastrophe. The client would still like it, but compared to what I do, it wouldn’t be a dress I’d be ecstatic or proud of. And usually when that happens, it’s because the bride was too stressed and didn’t trust much and didn’t give in much.
Wedding planners, florists, caterers and photographers who specialize in weddings have surged in popularity in recent years and it’s become a big industry. Do you think it’s made the event more costly and lavish, or just easier to personalize?
It’s becoming ridiculous, to be honest. It’s also an international trend and not only in Egypt. Now there is somebody that does only this for you. You’ll now find people who do custom-made bride and groom gifts. You used to go to a hairdresser and do your hair and nails, and now you have to find a hairdresser for the hair, and a nail salon. People are getting more and more specialized to provide you with a better service. Yet of course it has made weddings extremely costly, and it’s making it such a complicated event that I think it’s making the bride just go hysterical. The whole thing is [putting] so much pressure on the bride. She has to coordinate and plan so many things, while it should have been such a nice and happy party. You have to do the chocolate at that place, and the flowers have to be done there. No, this is way too much for me.
You once said that wedding dresses are getting shorter and lighter to accommodate the destination and beach weddings that are growing in popularity. You’ve also said that Middle Eastern women love decadence. Do you think that’s contradictory, or can a wedding dress be both practical and extravagant at the same time?
It doesn’t contradict because even the short dress is still very decadent; it still has a lot of handmade details. Even if it’s a beach wedding, you’ll still find at that beach wedding a LE 200,000 bar. It’s just the form of decadence has changed. It’s like wearing a bikini that’s studded. It’s still decadent, but it’s miniature.
What do you think an Egyptian wedding will look like a decade from now? And is it fulfilling for you as a designer to focus on wedding gowns, or do you see yourself expanding into other fields in the future?
Do you still think people are going to get married in 10 years, with the way marriages are going and the divorces? (Laughs)
It’s ironic that I have a very skeptical eye toward marriage. However, I chose the wedding dress because the amount of happiness, emotion and purpose I deal with in making a wedding dress for a bride is incomparable for me. I didn’t enjoy doing dresses for women who wanted to wear it to impress their friends, or impress a potential boyfriend or keep a social status. The inspiration was very corrupt for me. But working with a bride. … This is her mother’s dream and her dream that she’s been dreaming all her life.
Whether or not I believe: I don’t believe. I’ve been divorced twice and I have a very twisted and tormented view toward marriage. But putting that aside, the idea that I’m fulfilling somebody’s dream just gives me so much purpose and takes me to a level where I don’t see fashion as very superficial even though I work in fashion. I’m totally against the commercialization of fashion and how it gets into people’s heads that what you wear is all that you are about. I don’t like fashion when it comes to that. But what I do with weddings really has purpose and meaning, and I’ve found myself in that. et