‘One size fits all’ is the maxim of Brussels-based label Ester Manas, which comprises the eponymous designer and her co-founder Balthazar Delepierre (the couple are partners in both life and work, and share equal responsibility for each collection’s design). Where this phrase might have once suggested restriction – a singular size no matter your body shape – Manas and Delepierre use it in a more expansive manner, creating a clothing label that spans 34-50 in European sizing, or S-3XL, often in a single adjustable garment. ‘I wanted to do something for myself, because I am plus-size,’ says Manas. ‘When we started, back in 2016, it was not so cool to be big. It was an issue. We thought we needed to address that.’
Ester Manas: clothes for women of all sizes
To do so, the designers – who met at Brussels’ La Cambre art school – approach each item of clothing like a technical puzzle. Since first showing a size-inclusive collection as part of Manas’ graduate show, they have employed various design tricks to ensure each garment can be adapted to the endless variations of the human body (straps might adjust under the clothing; fabrics chosen for their particular stretch; ruffles utilised for their ability to expand or contract). ‘With my tutor, it was a bit of a fight, because it was new. It was the first time a big girl had walked on the runway in the graduate show,’ says Manas. ‘And when something is new, it’s not always easy for people to digest.’
Adds Delepierre, ‘It was exciting for us to ask the question “why?”. We were told that, as designers, you need to answer a question, create a solution to a problem. So we thought, how can we serve these women and still be super creative and have fun?’ The graduate collection received a standing ovation.
In 2018, Manas took part in Hyères’ annual International Festival of Fashion, Photography and Accessories with a collection titled ‘Big Again’ (it would go on to win the Galeries Lafayette prize, and was later stocked in the Parisian department store). Manas says that she got the idea for adaptable garments when looking at an extendable Ikea table; the resulting pieces came about from straw-polling women she knew on each garment’s fit and design.
‘We have girls of different body shapes trying things on, and if a piece – even if it’s something we really like – doesn’t work on everyone, we have to say goodbye to it,’ says Delepierre. ‘So there’s no choice but to listen to the women we work with. Do you like it? Do you feel comfortable in it?’ Adds Manas, ‘Do you feel beautiful?’
Manas and Delepierre have since honed a signature that features a vivid use of colour (the pair say these choices are happenstance as their clothing is almost entirely made from deadstock lycra and swimwear) and the adaptable construction of lingerie as a basis for their practice. Asymmetric silhouettes, exposed skin, and a liberal use of ruffles, gathers and ruching have also become hallmarks. ‘It’s about glamour. It’s for someone fierce, strong, sexy. A woman who really wants to be seen,’ says Manas. ‘I’m very generous – I cook a lot, I talk a lot, I laugh a lot. So when I design, I am like that, too.’
In many ways, Manas and Delepierre have built the label in opposition to their prior experiences (in the mid-2010s, before beginning the label, the pair undertook roles at various Parisian houses). ‘There is just so much from that time I can’t explain. We always say that one day we will write a book about it,’ says Manas. ‘About [the lack of] inclusivity, sustainability, respect for human beings.’ Adds Delepierre, ‘I think it was the last breath of a certain time in fashion, but it gave us the fuel to build Ester Manas today.’
This February, the duo showed their A/W 2022 collection in Paris; it riffed on sensually minded silhouettes – underwear-style straps emerged from the waistbands of skirts, knitted bra tops wrapped around the chest, sinuous dresses exposed decolletage, waists, thighs. As ever, the casting demonstrated the ease to which these designs fitted a plurality of bodies. ‘In September last year, it was impossible to find plus-size models [for the show]. In just six months, that changed,’ says Delepierre. ‘Now, in Paris, there are a lot of models ready to work.’
Later this year, Manas and Delepierre will show a new collection as guest designers at AZ Factory,
‘It’s super emotional – we didn’t know him, but we feel really connected in the way we design,’ says Manas. ‘He thought a lot about women, and the issue of the body. But he also had a sense of humour, which we have too. The subject matter [we talk about] is not always so easy, so we need to laugh about that, about us, about the fashion world.’
That said, the AZ Factory appointment is a sign of arrival for the designers. ‘For a long time, it took a lot of energy, like we were fighting to exist. Now there’s a shift and it makes sense what we’ve been doing,’ says Delepierre. ‘We’ve gone the long way, but it’s also been the fun way,’ says Manas. ‘You can feel the change.’ §