Sheer Expression

Rising young designer turns heads with her delicate evening-wear creations

by John MacMillan

Yvette Elfawal with one of her creations

Her evening dresses—with bodices defined by coiled ropes and flowing skirts made of feathers—are at once graceful, surprising and so attention getting that barely three years out of Smith, designer Yvette Elfawal ’10 was invited to put her collection on the runway at New York’s famed fashion week last February.

“It was a whirlwind,” she says of showing her fall/winter collection alongside designers Zac Posen and Donna Karan. “I spent so much time preparing for it, and then it was over in, like, three minutes, but they were the best three minutes.”

In September, she was invited back to New York, this time with a showroom to display her spring/summer collection. The response was immediate. Buyers, bloggers and editors called Elfawal a “designer to watch” and deemed her designs “whimsical,” “sophisticated” and “avant-garde.” By October she was on her way to Ukraine to show her collection at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Days.

She attributes her rapid rise in part to luck, but also to having made a strong impression at premier fashion events in her hometown of Miami. Though Elfawal is new to the industry, she has always had a passion for art and design. As a child, she loved to design purses and shorts and accessories, but her parents, who had emigrated from Egypt in search of better opportunities, encouraged her to take a more traditional career route. “There are quite a few architects on both sides of my family,” Elfawal says, “so that’s what I went with.”

At Smith, she studied with James Middlebrook, an assistant professor in the art department who directs the college’s architectural studios. “When I first took his class, I just wanted to design something,” Elfawal recalls. “But he taught me to take a step back and really pay attention to the concept.”

A short stint as a junior architect followed, but after a year Elfawal made the leap to fashion. Her architectural skills stuck with her, only now she uses the human body as her landscape. Unlike many designers, Elfawal doesn’t sketch. She goes straight to the mannequin and begins sculpting. “It’s like model making in architecture,” she says.

What sets her garments apart is her intricate use of nontraditional materials, such as feathers, wire and rope, juxtaposed on sheer fabric. “With rope, for example, I take the material, braid it and create an entirely new material,” she says. Her fabric of choice is silk, and she gravitates toward colors like peach, ivory, light pink and coral. “They’re such fresh and beautiful colors to me,” she says. “I try not to pay attention to trends, and these colors can flow through the seasons pretty easily.”

The results are highly structured yet delicate-looking clothes that pop on the runway. For her fall collection, specifically, Elfawal drew inspiration from her mother, who recently was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I couldn’t understand how a body could betray itself,” Elfawal says. On some garments, only one breast is covered; others feature roping and trimming that convey, as Elfawal says, “the idea of a body being consumed.”

Eventually, this self-taught fashion designer says she might pursue a graduate degree in design. Until then, she’s enjoying her early success and focusing on her vision. “I’m happiest when I’m deep into a concept and get into a zone,” she says. “That’s when I feel like I’m in a different world. It’s great.”

John MacMillan is editorial director, alumnae communications, at the Office of College Relations