Swimsuit designer Tala Raassi has steadily been winning attention for her Dar Be Dar line and the dramatic story of how she turned to fashion after being punished by Iranian authorities for wearing a short skirt in a friend’s home. But these days, she’s focused on a new project: designing the swimsuit for the Miss Universe pageant, airing on August 23. The Washingtonian caught up with Raassi as she finished a fabric-shopping trip—she talks about Washington style and how to kickstart the area’s fledgling fashion industry.
Can we talk a bit about your trajectory? It’s got to be incredibly exciting to have signed the Miss Universe contract, but tell me how you got to that point. What does it take to launch an international fashion career—and in particular, what does it take to do it from the Washington area?
If I could write a book on what not to do, I probably would. I’ve done it all, to make it to the point where I am today. New York is right around the corner, and I get most of my fabric in New York. And I started in New York—I started in my own house. Bring the fabrics back, cut them, make the actual samples, and bring them to New York, and make the retail samples here in New York. It hasn’t been easy in DC. It’s hard because there’s no access to a good fabric store, there’s no access to a place where you can make patterns or retail samples.
You recently spoke to the Greater Washington Fashion Chamber of Commerce. Have you found that other designers face the same challenges?
Everyone was saying they don’t have access to resources here in DC. They make their jewelry in Peru; there’s a designer who makes her patterns in LA. There never has been a big market to bring such a thing to DC. There should be a starting point. Also, we have Marymount [University] right around the corner, it’s a very well-known fashion school—there’s a lot of fashion design. But they all end up moving to New York or LA to pursue their career. There is a really big opportunity to bring a little tiny garment district or factory inside DC.
Obviously, your experience has given you some unique insights into the connection between fashion and politics. Washington has a reputation as a boring fashion town, a place where a social secretary can get slammed for even daring to wear a Comme des Garçons dress. Why do you think that is? Are the city’s prominent social ranks full of folks who are uncomfortable with their bodies? Uncomfortable with the status implications of showing an interest in designers?
The first thing that comes to my mind is it’s such a political scene in DC. Everyone tries to get into suits. [But] having the most amazing diversity and people coming from around the world, I think there is a lot of amazing fashion sense in DC. . . . It hasn’t been a place where someone comes to DC as a DC socialite or a DC politician [and tries to set fashion trends]. They haven’t been taking the risks. You can be very stylish and chic at the same time.
Is that reputation turning around? Can Michelle Obama actually provide enough incentive for women in particular to start dressing more creatively?
She’s in a spotlight. . . . To me, fashion is something you create yourself. You can buy fashion, but you can’t buy style.
Tell me about the suits for the Miss Universe pageant.
They liked a couple of styles I already created. I wanted to stand out; I want it to be pretty, to be very girly. All the bathing suits have to be the same cut, same fabric. They get two different styles. It’s going to be a triangle top and a strappy bottom. I haven’t decided on the colors yet, but I’m trying to figure the orders on the fabrics.
And will you be at the pageant?
Oh, yes. I’m part of the pageant. I’m going to give some speeches backstage. [All the contestants will participate in a fashion show.] I’ve never heard of someone having a fashion show with 80 models. They’re going to showcase my 2011 collection. I’m going to have to come up with a way to show a collection with 35 pieces.
Have you thought about what you’ll do next? Are there things you want to work toward with the Fashion Chamber of Commerce?
It’s been such an overwhelming, fast-paced contract. . . . The only thing that is in my mind is making sure these bathing suits have the perfect shape.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.