September 14, 2011
Iranian American Simin has a passion for fashion
The bells at the door tinkle, and the fashion designer Simin jumps up from a velvet bench and politely excuses herself.
“My next fitting is here,” she says, promising to return to her life story a little later.
Outside her 4,000-square-foot Robertson Boulevard studio, a leggy brunette steps out of a Lincoln Town Car. Lisa Vanderpump, the British-born actress and restaurateur, better-known as one of the six “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” has arrived for the final fitting of a gown she will wear to her daughter’s wedding this weekend. True to her nickname, “Pinky,” the gown is a long, satiny, light-pink strapless, with hand-beaded Swarovski crystals adorning her décolletage. A second dress — with a tight-fitting bodice in navy-blue lace and a skirt that flares at the calf — Vanderpump plans to wear to “The Real Housewives” Season 2 premiere. (Nevermind that on this day in late August, the show’s future was precarious, in the aftermath of a castmate’s husband’s suicide.) When it comes to Beverly Hills fashion, one can never be too prepared.
“We need to pull it tighter here,” Simin, the 57-year-old haute couture designer, says, tugging at the custom-made creation tautly tailored to Vanderpump’s curves. “Less fabric here, and less fabric here,” Simin instructs her assistants. “Have you lost some weight?” she asks Vanderpump.
As Simin and two other seamstresses gather fabric at the folds and poke it with pins, the chatter erupts into Farsi.
“They’re artisans,” Vanderpump says, admiring herself in the mirror. “This is why I come here — because they’re perfectionists. It’s very difficult to find somebody that’s going to put this much care into it.” And, she adds, in her elegant British, “It’s a very comforting fact that if I wear one of Simin’s dresses; I know not anybody else will be wearing it. If you go into Roberto Cavalli or Dolce & Gabbana or something like that, you’ve got a very good chance of someone else wearing the same thing.”
In “Housewives” speak, that means: utter disaster.
For Simin, an Iranian-born dressmaker, haute couture provides exclusive assurance: “It’s one of a kind,” she says breezily. The French term meaning “high sewing” or “high dressmaking” was introduced in Paris in the mid-19th century and today is guarded by a strict set of standards that admits only the most exclusive fashion houses in the world, including Chanel, Christian Dior and Jean Paul Gaultier. Having studied in Paris under legendary couturiers Pierre Balmain and Pierre Cardin, Simin does her best to apply the principles of high fashion to her self-created storefront in Beverly Hills.
“Everybody has a different figure,” she says. “Some are bustier, some have thinner tops than bottoms — so we just tailor it. To do a couture is fantastic; it’s done for you, made for you. It’s a person’s character.”
Simin’s reputation for detail, extravagance and expert, feminine tailoring have won her a high-profile following. She counts Paris Hilton, Paula Abdul and Ivanka Trump among her celebrity clients, and her dresses have become a fixture on the red carpet. At the Sept. 18 Emmy awards, Cloris Leachman, “Glee’s” Amber Riley and “CSI: Miami’s” Eva La Rue all will prance past paparazzi in hand-sewn Simin gowns. The young actress Abigail Breslin helped popularize Simin, when, as a best supporting actress nominee, she wore a pink dress dappled with a flower to the 2006 Oscars. Shohreh Aghdashloo, the Iranian-born actress and longtime friend of Simin, also wore the designer when she was nominated for “House of Sand and Fog” in 2003.
But Simin cemented her reputation as a daring member of the design elite when she became the creator of “the world’s most expensive wedding gown,” a $19 million diamond-studded dress produced in collaboration with Beverly Hills jewelers the Kazanjian Brothers. Last month, she received a glut of attention when Madame Tussauds Hollywood asked her to design a selection of wedding gowns for the unveiling of its Kim Kardashian wax figure. The public was invited to vote for its favorite.
Simin insists she isn’t in it for the glam. “I get approached to do everything,” she admits, citing fashion shows, fundraisers and red carpet events. “But when I see a bat mitzvah girl in school, and they come to me and say, ‘I told all my friends: Simin is doing my dress!’— My god, that is like the highest accomplishment.”
Simin was nearly bat mitzvah age herself when she began her foray into fashion. Born Simin Taghdiri in Tehran, her family moved to Manchester, England, when she was 14. While her father, a major Middle East distributor for the Japanese-manufactured YKK zippers, pursued a business opportunity, Simin became the youngest to enroll at Hollings College in Manchester to study art and design. There, she discovered she could draw, figuring, “I could become a painter or I could become a designer — I chose to become a designer.” She graduated by age 16, just before her family returned to Tehran. Before they left, Hollings awarded Simin a Paris internship with designer Pierre Balmain, who was then “the god of women’s fashion,” she said.
By the time she turned 17, Simin had won national acclaim in Tehran. The Empress Farah Pahlavi, queen of Iran, became a fan after Simin repurposed an Iranian Termeh, a popular handwoven silk, often used as a tablecloth, into an evening gown, which the queen then wore. “The press went crazy,” Simin recalled. “I was in the newspapers and magazines constantly.”
At 18, she launched her first fashion show, and more than 800 attendees, including members of the royal family, came to see her collection of hand-sewn dresses. “Don’t forget,” she said, adding some context, “I was a Persian girl from a luxury family, and women didn’t work much at that time.” The recognition was intoxicating. “I was loving living in Iran,” she said. “Things were like a dream. Everything was perfect — until the revolution started.”
After three family members were executed, Simin’s family fled. “It’s not like you had to decide,” she recalled. “You had to run for your lives.”
In 1980, Simin settled in Los Angeles with no intention of restarting her career. But after more than a decade of being a stay-at-home mom with a husband and three children and designing dresses on the side, she opened her first shop in Brentwood Gardens. Two years later, she expanded to San Vicente Boulevard, and a decade later, moved to her current studio on Robertson.
During breaks from sketching or sewing, Simin has also donated full-scale fashion shows for charity events, including on behalf of Hadassah, Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and the Magbit Foundation. Her support of Israel and other Jewish causes has won her a devoted following within the Iranian-Jewish community of Los Angeles, which, she said, accounts for more than half her clientele.
But some would be surprised to learn that this granddaughter of a well-known Iranian rabbi converted to the Bahá’í faith 30 years ago, insisting, “I’ve become a better Jew.” Simin still maintains a kosher home, celebrates Jewish holidays and visits Israel frequently. The conversion, she explains, was an affirmation of her personal philosophy: “It’s not like I’ve become a different person or have less love for my background,” she said. “The Bahá’í faith is about equality, and this is what I believe, that we are all one.”
In case anyone is fooled by the façade of her elaborate window displays, she says, “I don’t call myself a star. It’s not me who’s doing all this — it’s God. God gives it to us, and God takes it away.”