Ester Manas and Balthazar Delepierre make clothing for the bonafide, ever-changing, modern woman. The duo at the helm of size-inclusive fashion brand Ester Manas designs for women who are unabashed in their self-expression, who live freely and take up space. Thoughtful cutouts and lingerie-reminiscent ruching make up the pieces, revealing that Manas and Delepierre intuitively understand the female form and hold a three-dimensional conceptualization of womanhood. The Brussels-based label is a bit radical, too: Ester Manas doesn't abide by industry-standard sizing and, instead, only offers one-size-fits-all garments. Pieces made of stretchy materials — like the brand's signature gathered cotton dresses — fit anyone from 3XS to 3XL. Other, more technical garments are split into two categories: Size one, covering 3XS to L, and size two, which is for XL to 3XL.
Notoriously, blanket sizing has been ill-fitting at best and disastrous at worst. Manas and Delepierre, however, have seemingly cracked the code through arduous engineering. “It's really a lot of work but once we find a formula that works on many girls, we can develop lots of designs and apply it to several pieces,” Delepierre explains of the brand’s sizing technique, which he and Manas began devising when at La Cambre National School of Visual Arts in Brussels together.
“At the beginning, we were looking through an IKEA catalog and found inspiration in an extending table that you could make bigger by adding more pieces, which is a really friendly design because you can welcome people,” he tells TZR over Zoom. Delepierre grows excited now, realizing he’s stumbled upon an apt and delightfully earnest metaphor: “That’s what we need to do in fashion: We need to expand and invite more people into the industry.”
In Manas and Delepierre’s purview, body inclusivity is not a trend to be capitalized off of but a value to be staunchly upheld — and it’s one embedded in the foundation of the label. “At the end of her five years at La Cambre, Ester wanted to do her final collection about why a girl like Ester, who is not a skinny girl, can’t find a place in fashion today,” explains Delepierre. Pulling from the knowledge garnered from internships at Balenciaga, Acne Studios, and Paco Rabanne, the duo created the “Big Again” capsule, consisting of clothing made with adjustable belts, snaps, and straps to accommodate everyone from a U.S. size 2 to a size 18. The collection later won the 2019 Galeries Lafayette grant at the Hyères Festival, inspiring the two to officially launch their brand that same year.
Manas and Delepierre, who also placed in the 2020 LVMH Prize semi-finals for their inspired work, have thought at length about what a woman needs out of her wardrobe. Longevity, they’ve discovered, is a top priority. “The smart sizing concept helps you keep the pieces over time,” Delepierre points out. “Say you get pregnant, or your body changes — you don't have to throw the piece away, which is kind of the most sustainable way to [participate] in fashion,” he offers.
Delepierre reveals their holistic perspective on fashion is mainly derived from crowdsourcing with the women in their lives. “A lot of our ideas come, of course, from Ester because she’s a woman,” Delepierre says. “But our collections [are based] on discussions we have with our models and friends,” he recounts, equating these conversations to focus groups. “We [ask:] ‘What do you want? What do you like? Do you want to hide that part of your body, or do you want to show it?’” The two then take the information gathered in these fashion-meets-anthropological sessions and infuse it into their design process.
Often in these conversations, sexiness comes up. “At the end of the day, we want to sell clothing that’s cool and sexy,” he states, linking the brand’s intention to how unfortunately novel it is for plus-size people to be portrayed in a sensual context. The co-founder references brands that dress “curvy models in full-coverage designs — like oversized shirts and baggy pieces,” a design approach he finds lackluster and uninspired. “We have some oversized pieces, but it’s not what we want to put at the front of the collection because it’s a non-design thing to do. I mean, in that case, just wear your grandpa’s shirt,” he jests.
Delepierre grows serious now, saying when fashion labels include plus-size people in their runways only to shroud them in concealing garments, effectively hiding their bodies from sight, it’s not genuine inclusivity. “And from a customer point of view, it’s really obvious [when a brand isn’t actually inclusive] because you’ll see an amazing campaign on the streets, but then you go into the shops and they don’t sell your size,” he describes. Delepierre calls this “bodywashing,” a hollow effort for diversity akin to the sustainable equivalent known as greenwashing. “This is not what size-inclusivity is about. It’s about designing with [plus-size folks] in mind, embracing their bodies, listening to them, and understanding what they need.”
As the conversation comes to a close, the Brussels-based creative says he’s recently observed the industry changing for the better as a result of the pandemic reinvigorating the collective imagination. “We can actually see fashion shifting in a positive way, and it's exciting. I hope it’ll be like the new ‘60s,” he says with a laugh. Delepierre and Manas have injected this positivity into the label’s upcoming Fall/Winter 2022 collection, which debuts this Paris Fashion Week. “Ester and I are super confident about the next collection, the future of fashion, and the creative industry as a whole,” he shares. Delepierre remains vague about the details, but considering the brand’s previous work, the new drop will undoubtedly be an innovative, celebratory love letter dedicated to womankind.
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