People in fashion: Some enchanted evening dresses: a success story

They were two old school friends with a vision. Success came so swiftly, they are still reeling. Imogen Fox meets design duo Gharani Strok
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"All the time we look at each other and we start giggling, and we're like, 'Can you believe it?'" Nargess Gharani shakes her head and looks at her best friend and business partner, Vanja Strok, who smiles back in happy disbelief. Both 27, they haven't been fashion designers for very long.

Between them, they recount their recent trip to New York. "We saw the editor of Elle. She loved it and said, 'I really see your stuff in Barneys.' We also saw Harper's Bazaar. And they were all so nice. They all said, 'You've got to see Barneys.' So they phoned up. Barneys placed an order. They were all so friendly," says Gharani in inflected English/Iranian tones.

Together, they look like giggling sixth-formers who've just got an A- plus for their textiles project. Considering Gharani and Strok met at secondary school, where they used to dream of being designers together, this image isn't far from the truth. They both attended Epsom Art College where they studied cutting and fashion design. Strok went on to Kingston University, while Gharani stayed on at Epsom, but the two kept in touch. "We live down the road from each other, we socialise in the evenings and we've got the same group of friends."

In 1995, they set up Gharani Strok, working in one room above Gharani's family's dry-cleaning business. They hauled their first collection of evening dresses around to countless shops and magazines, but with scant success. "We were on the phone constantly. It's difficult if people haven't heard of you, they don't have the time," explains Gharani. She remembers how the owner of one prestigious London boutique ejected the pair onto the street, "We had all the clothes with us, the shop was dead, so we went in. She said, 'I find you rude and pushy and I'm not interested.'"

Luckily for Gharani Strok, not all the capital's fashion mandarins were as damning. An evening-wear buyer at Harvey Nichols advised them that it was the fabric and the production that needed changing. Accordingly, Gharani and Strok found the factory and the fabrics that would do their designs justice. Now, they spend pounds 33.50 a metre as opposed to around the pounds 10 mark, which some designers stick at. Strok is clearly a fabric obsessive, she has been known to pick out 200 swatches from a fabric fair when only six fabrics will be used in one collection. "Our designs are so simple anyway so the fabric is very important," she stresses.

Strok is right. The fabrics they use are remarkable. Printed jerseys are contrasted with dyed lace and embroidered organza is layered over mohair, alpaca wool or cashmere. They show me the third collection - Spring/Summer '97. There's lots of lace and stretch and layering and mixing. It sold well. Pellicano and Koh Samui asked for the range - which included skirts and their now signature vest - to be restocked three times. Chris Pellicano, owner of Pellicano, explains why she bought Gharani Strok's clothes for her boutique: "They're very simple shapes with enough design, but they're not overdesigned - pieces that you want to wear but you can never find."

I suggest that the reason this collection, with its mix of fabrics, may have sold so well could have something to do with favourable timing - considering the fashion press's current fascination with eclectic emporiums such as Voyage. But Gharani screws her face up. "People compare us to them [Voyage]," she says, fingering a cashmere and lace drape, "but I don't want to be compared to them because they're known and we're not known, so people think you copied them. It's so frustrating, that's why I made a face - but I love them."

Gharani and Strok will soon be leaving the frustrations of anonymity behind. They have now sold to half a dozen shops in Britain as well as to Barneys in New York and shops in Japan and Argentina, and they recently delivered to 16 shops in Brazil. Everything, the production, packing and PR, is done personally by the girls. "In an ideal world we'd have a production manager," says Gharani, "and a PR." Thanks to a "New Generation Designers" award, they recently secured a stall at the London Fashion Week (25 September to 1 October), they'll have the luxury of an experienced PR agency to see them through the week. If Gharani Strok does well on their stand they may be given the opportunity of a show.

Such success requires growth, and Gharani and Strok both feel that the time has come for them to move the business from Weybridge in Surrey to London. I get the impression that their excitement is twinged with nervousness at this prospect, perhaps with good reason - 40 per cent of all businesses go bust in their first four years. Thus, in the capricious world of fashion, fledgling designers are particularly vulnerable.

Their approach to design is certainly realistic. Gharani always aims to design clothes that she would want to, and can, wear. It's the same for Strok. "When we make a toile, I'm like, 'Well someone with big hips wouldn't wear that,'" says Gharani. "And if it's too short, I say, 'I could never wear that,'" adds Strok. They insist that neither is naturally in charge and that their egos never, ever get in the way.

Such symbiosis makes me wonder what would happen if the two were ever to disagree. They giggle. "Our business advisor said to us, 'Are you sure? How long have you been friends?'" More giggles. "We get on better than we do with our boyfriends," Gharani reassures me.

Gharani Strok is available at Koh Samui, Pellicano, Mimi and Matches in London, and Nicholas Edlington in Windsor. Enquiries: 01932 830500.

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