I studied design at Parsons and after an apprenticeship in couture dressmaking under my belt, my focus was entirely on women’s ready-to-wear. I spent most of my formative years in New York, a city that cultivates a fast-paced lifestyle and encourages a work hard-play hard mentality. I’d always see women on the go, juggling work, children and social life so that quickly began to inform what I wanted to create design-wise. Not long afterwards I spent two semesters at the Parsons in Paris but the ‘more is more’ design philosophy in Paris and London at the time just didn’t match my aesthetic.
My first roles were at DKNY, Calvin Klein and Nicole Farhi, labels known for their clean, sporty separates. Mainstream fashion at the time in the 90s was marked by the shift of focus, where designers like Calvin Klein and Donna Karan were all about making easy clothes for the modern working woman. While I loved Klein’s minimalist design philosophy, it’s during my time at Donna Karan that I learnt how to drape jerseys and knits to enhance and flatter the female form – a very useful skill for designing women’s sportswear. Working directly under these designers was a great honour and experience, which only reinforced my belief that fashion should make women look their best without being restrictive or making them feel uncomfortable.
I’ve always had a great passion for tennis and fashion. Growing up, I always pursued both – my father worked in the sports industry and my mother, in fashion. Combining these two worlds into one seemed very natural and the obvious thing to do and that is how to Monreal came to life in 2012. From a style conscious perspective, I was never fond of the clothes I played in so I was convinced that I create something that was functional but also sexy and flattering too. When I launched Monreal I really felt like there was a gap in the market for luxury and aesthetically beautiful performance wear. The American influence is becoming increasingly stronger and the lines between active ear and day wear are blurring. Active wear leggings are worn with jumpers and high heels throughout the day and for so many other occasions. The new active wear is comfortable and sexy and a much higher degree in quality, fashion and style than ever before. We’re all busy so constantly changing clothes doesn’t work. The goal is to feel comfortable and well-dressed at the same time.
There is definitely a movement in the health and fitness sector – people are more aware of what they eat and how active they are. In terms of activewear, I think there is still a lot to be done in terms of fashionable performance wear and I hope that Monreal can fill this need in the future. Sport is an important area in most people’s lives so there’s no reason why it should be treated differently to ready-to-wear or formal wear.
Multitasking is the word that sums up my days best. At this stage of the business, I am still knee-deep involved in every aspect, from putting together technical factory information, to ordering materials, presenting the collections, negotiating stockist terms and selecting the images to post on our social media platforms. An average day at the office consists mainly of staff meetings and emails. I design and style each and every piece in the collections, but this usually takes place outside of working hours – there simply isn’t enough time in the day.
I like to win. Individual sports are very black and white like that. There’s no hiding behind a team. Tennis is as much a sport as it is a game. It requires more than physical endurance, power or technical skill to beat an equal opponent. It’s tactics and metal strength that often make the difference. I love tennis but sport more generally is the way I achieve some kind of balance, physically and mentally. It makes me feel alive and gives me energy. With the limited downtime I currently have, every spare moment goes to catching up with friend over dinner of the occasional night at the movies.
The biggest initial challenge in setting up Monreal was manufacturing. It took me 8 months to find the right factory that was not only capable to producing performance garments to a high standard, but also finding one that believed in what I was creating and was willing to give us a try. When I finally had the first samples for my first capsule collection, I was lucky enough to get the Vogue team excited about the fashion meets sports concept, but the next big challenge was to convince fashion and sportswear buyers that there was actually a market for it.
In those early days I partnered up with a former sales assistant from Comme des Garçons. It took me a while and bundle of cash to convince him to take me on a tour to present my collection to his contacts at the big department stores like Selfridges, Le Bon Marché and Barney’s. It was a ‘running against closed doors’ kind of experience and while most of them ignored our introduction emails that first season, most of them have become stockists of Monreal since. I knew that the ‘crossover’ product I had created was made for luxury department stores and fashion magazine so I knew it was a case of continuing to work hard and waiting for things to happen.
Designing for a niche sector definitely pushes you more as you have to come up with new and fresh ideas on a constant basis. A lot of creativity and thinking goes into our products so it’s always very flatting of course to have personalities like Victoria Beckham supporting us. We’re just glad to see that fashionable women like her really love our collections. If I could tell aspiring designers anything, it’s to never give up. Be passionate about what you do, do the requisite research and fight for your designs and it’ll all become a reality.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Photography by David Nyanzi with art direction by Naomi Mdudu.