Any fashion-conscious eye who has had a chance to see sharply fashion-savvy Iranian women in all their haute couture galore around the world (especially in Tehran), knows that Iranians are by far of the most fashionable sect on the planet. (In fact Iranians single-handedly made summer 2009, an inspiring and fiercely-emotional-yet-green one.)

Now we’re delighted to introduce you to the first Iranian fashion designer, Shirin Askari, on the show of shows in fashion: Project Runway.

In the words of Project Runway’s gorgeous German host, Heidi Klum: “In fashion, one day you’re in, and the next day… you’re out.” And we believe that as long as the fresh-faced designer continues to “make it work” a la’ Tim Gunn’s request, Shirin is sure to be in for a long time to come.

The petite Askari won the second challenge: “We Expect Fashion” (and immunity for tomorrow night’s episode), which revolved around the designers creating a maternity dress for Hollywood actress Rebecca Romijn, on episode 2 of Project Runway Season 6 which is currently airing on the Lifetime network. (Click here to watch the full episode online.)

“What you’ve created is versatile. Very nicely done with very nice details,” the feared and loved judge on the show and Marie Claire’s Fashion Director, Nina Garcia, told Shirin. “Beautiful.”

“The lining is really pretty, [and] elegant.” Opined Rebecca Romijn of the designer’s burgundy creation. “Anyone of us would wear it, pregnant or not.” While Heidi Klum called Shirin’s first attempt at a maternity dress, “the most wearable”, of the contestants’ pieces.

As if all the praise from the three judges wasn’t enough, bridal couture maven and guest-judge  Monique Lhuillier, who’s known for her posh and delicate bridal gowns, described Shirin’s work as not having any bad angles, and encouraged her to get into the maternity-wear business.

We have to admit: we too agree with the judges. Shirin Askari’s multifunctional creativity, attention to detail, and thought-out innovative style is sure to secure her a well-deserved place in the fashion world, fast. And we couldn’t be any happier for the young Iranian designer.

Enjoy Persianesque’s exclusive interview with the self-described “best designer on the show”, below!


Where were you born?
I was born in Tulsa, OK. I moved to Dallas when I was 2 years old.

What’s the first piece of clothing you made?
It was a little white dress with tiny little blue hearts. I’ve been looking for it and I can’t find it. But it was such a tiny dress, and that could be the reason why I can’t find it.

Were you the youngest on the show? You sure are the tiniest. What was it like? Were you teased or nurtured?
Yeah, I think so. I was 23 when the show was taped, and was the youngest on the show… but you know, everybody was on their own. I don’t think being younger is an advantage or disadvantage. I think it’s more about your skills and your ability to create.

Who were your design icons growing up?
I never really had any. It wasn’t something that I was so into. I just loved making clothing for myself and didn’t really have a design icon. I did what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until after high school, when I was in college, that I learned about all the designers. But if I had to say one name, it would be Christian Dior – vintage Dior.

What’s your favorite fabric to work with?
Honestly, I don’t really have a favorite fabric. I like experimenting with fabrics – and fabric manipulation.  I’m not huge on print. I like working with wool. And I love fabrics that have a really nice drape to it because there’s more room with that type of fabric to play with, create with, and make something with.

You seem to lean toward the layered-chic, multifunctional outfits w/ capes, and berets (hatbands as you call them) circa 1920’s – how would you describe your design aesthetic in one sentence or more?
Versatile, chic, and classic. I’m not a crazy out-there designer. I’m artistic in a wearable sense. I love interesting details that are more… wearable.

How would you describe your personal style?
Pretty much depends on my mood. There are days when I want to be out there and dress funky, but my funky isn’t a pink tutu: most of my dresses are black and elegant.

Do you wear your own designs?
Definitely – most of the stuff in my closet is stuff I made.

What time of day do you feel most creative?
At night, because in school we were always pulling all-nighters.

What is your design process?  Sketch, buy fabric, sew?
I kind of have an idea of what I’m going to make, then I make it. I was never into sketching very much. I think I work backward in a sense: I think of something and make it. Interestingly enough, when I got to school, I didn’t know we had to sketch whereas everyone didn’t know we had to actually sew. I’ll be the first one to tell you that I’m not a good sketcher. I just know what I want in my mind.

What made you try out for Project Runway?
It was last summer, and I broke my leg right before graduation and senior fashion show. My teacher suggested that I send in my work to Project Runway, and since I was stuck at home… I thought I might as well. I didn’t think I would get the call-back, so it was mind-blowing when I did. I didn’t think it was going to happen. During auditions, when I would talk to the other designers, most of them had tried out 3-4 times, so I really didn’t think I would get in.

Where were you, and what were you doing when you got the call that you’d been chosen to be on the show?
I was out with my friend. We found out that I was going to get a call that day, and my friend took me out to lunch because she said she couldn’t have me “pulling out my hair all day” in anticipation. Of course I was staring at my phone the whole time, and when we finally got the call I was in a parking lot.

What’s something you can share with our readers about your time on PR – maybe a funny story, some scoop?
I like to dance a lot and there’s this one day I started moon-walking for my friends on the show – that was pretty fun.

How stressful is the time in the work-room?
Oh my gosh – it’s so stressful! When you’re watching the show you don’t realize there are cameras everywhere. And being in the work-room trying to meet deadlines when there’s a camera 2 inches away from your hand as you’re sewing, doesn’t help.

What’s been the best advice Tim Gunn has passed off to you besides “make it work”?
“Work with what you have, and try to make the best out of everything.” I actually had a crush on him before I went on the show. He just looks so impeccable all the time. It was great to have Tim Gunn around.

If you had to create a look for Heidi Klum for the red carpet, what color/fabric would you use?
I’d probably put her in something black since Heidi wears a lot of black on the red-carpet. Also, maybe something red, or, you know, just something bold. Bright and bold. And if she didn’t want those colors, then maybe cobalt. But Heidi is just so beautiful that she could pull any color off. You could put her in something lime green and she would still look amazing.

Was there a challenge that you enjoyed the most?
The first one, because designing a dress for the Oscars is my dream.

If you could design an outfit for anyone in time who would you choose?
Audrey Hepburn or Katherine Hepburn, one of the classics. That would be cool. Unfortunately I don’t have the option anymore.

Would you ever consider doing a men’s line?
Definitely. I’ve done pieces in school and eventually would love to do that. Menswear is more about details, stitching, and collars so, yes, I would love to but, to be honest I would probably venture into children’s clothing before doing a men’s line.

If you could sell your designs at any of the major stores tomorrow, who would be your top 3?
I like the big department stores as they’re more accessible. Neiman Marcus would be great. (They’re Dallas-based, which is a plus.) I would also love to sell my line at Nordstrom’s and Barneys.

What’s your favorite silhouette to make?
It’s pretty much based on my mood at the time. I like simple, chic, pencil straight-line dresses because I feel like they’re flattering on anyone. I also like pinched waists and puffy skirts.

Did you have time to make any friends on the show? Who was your bff on the show?
I got close to the girls in my room, Gordana , Qristyl, and Carol. They were my roommates, and you see and talk to them more. So definitely, I’d say I was closer to my roommates than the rest.

This season seems to be full of really talented designers. Who would you say is your competition on the show?
Honestly, everybody from the cast would agree that everyone on the show is talented, everybody. We even talked about it off-camera, that the designers on this season may just be the most talented group to date. We were always saying how the other is “so talented” and were eyeing each other’s work all the time.

Who is your favorite regular Project Runway judge? Did you connect with anyone in particular?
I’d have to say: Nina Garcia. Watching the show you think she’s kind of mean, but in real life she’s a very sweet person. I took her opinion(s) to heart because she really makes good comments. She’s an editor and she’s seen a lot of designs so, her opinion means more to me than others’ (who may not have had the experience and eye that she does).

What advice do you have for aspiring Persian designers?
I was always doing above and beyond myself. Not that I was an overachiever, but I believe in not giving up. I would say to not get discouraged and go above and beyond. In this economy it’s hard to make a living as a designer, so I think you should maintain what you like to do, and do it well.

Has life changed for you since taping the show?
Definitely! A lot of people want to be my friend now. I think it’s great though, I love it. The show really teaches you a lot being around such amazing designers. You learn a lot and it’s a great experience. Being on Project Runway makes you grow as a designer.

Have you ever been to Iran?
No. I really want to though, when things have calmed down a bit. Maybe next year sometime.

Can you speak/read/write Farsi?
I speak Farsi, but I can’t read or write it. My mom always spoke to me in Farsi growing up so that’s how I learned. I’d come home from school and want to tell her about my day, and I’d talk to her in English and she would say, “No I can’t understand you. You’ll learn in English school.” So, she basically forced me to learn Farsi. And I’m absolutely thankful for it.

Are you inspired by your Persian background in your design-work at all?
Yes, definitely. My senior collection for school was inspired by Persian art and architecture. I love architecture in general, and I had these pictures of Iranian architecture that I was able to draw inspiration from.

What does being Iranian-American mean to you?
It’s really important and special. Growing up in the US, it’s nice to be able to say I have this amazing culture. And I really do hope to go there and see Iran for myself. I feel that it’s a very special thing to have a culture you’re proud of. I feel blessed to have such a strong traditional background.

Can you cook Persian food?
I’m learning to cook – the other day my mom was teaching me how to make ghormeh sabzi. And when I make the food, my mom just redoes the dish, even though it’s perfectly fine. I love Persian food, so I hope to continue learning and getting better at it.

How do your parents feel about you not becoming a doctor?
So funny that you say, I wanted to be pediatrician all my life, but by the end of high school I decided I wanted to be a fashion designer. I was making my own clothing anyway, so it was a natural progression of sorts. My mom is actually very supportive. She’s very artistic herself: she’s the one who taught me how to sew.  And you know, once she saw me in competitions, and how I was winning them, she started to realize that this was the right path for me. Now, she’s my number one fan.

What’s your career goal?
I would like to have my line in boutiques. I don’t feel like I have to be the next Ralph Lauren or Valentino. If I can make a comfortable living in fashion design and do what I love to do, I’d be happy. I love to travel. It’s one of my passions. I want to travel and see the world, and if I can make a living and do that, I’d be perfectly happy. I just want to do what I love to do.

What’s your favorite Persian dish?
Kabob. Morning, day, and night. I’m sure everyone says this, but my grandmother makes the best kabob.

Are your designs sold anywhere else besides
Right now that’s the only place in addition to the Project Runway Store.

What’s next?
Next for me is to just continuing to do what I’m doing: working on my line, creating, and designing. Progress in my designs.


*Original Photos: LifetimeTv

About Author

Sanaz Khalaj-Santos

Sanaz is Founder and Editor in Chief of Persianesque Magazine.