Sandra Mansour’s job is turning dream worlds into dresses. She pulls clouds down to earth via billowing tulle; she sews dawn dew from gardens into glass-beaded gowns. It’s a gift, as they say, but it comes with a cost—like, literally—because the hand-crafted pieces by the Swiss-born, Beirut-based designer are roughly (and rightly) the cost of a monthly mortgage payment.
Enter H&M, the mass market arbiter of high-low everything, who asked Mansour—their first ever Arab designer—for a nine-piece collection to bring her frothy textures and floaty shapes to millions of shoppers. Called Fleurs du Soleil (all together, middle school French students: “Flowers of the Sun!”), the range debuts on August 27. It was meant to launch on August 6, but something else happened instead: Beirut’s devastating explosion, which left the city and its residents scrambling for safety—and left Mansour’s Beirut home completely destroyed.
“I was in Geneva at the time,” she explains. “I was born and raised here, but my family were in Beirut when it happened. They are okay, thank G-d, but it’s hard to reach people. I want to go home and see my family, my friends, the people I work with, but I can’t get on a plane until my COVID test comes back. It’s obviously been a nightmare.” One that’s left Mansour living in two worlds, both physically—Geneva and Beirut—and creatively. “I make clothes so that women can wear art,” she says. “To me, beauty equals hope… but at the same time, that hope means something different now than it did when we started working on this H&M collection in November, and even something different now than it did when we were just [in a pandemic]. And I keep asking myself, what will this bring to the people I love now?”
For starters, it brings a $100,000 donation from H&M to the Lebanese Red Cross. “Donations really do help,” Mansour says. “A lot of our hospitals are missing a lot of basic needs right now. My friends are telling me that it’s hard to find shots for tetanus, and the medical community [in Beirut] needs all the resources we can give them. So please donate if you can—especially to non-governmental NGOS who are helping to rebuild.”
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Mansour’s own atelier and apartment will also need rebuilding, but she did have one stroke of luck: “I am a bit OCD,” she laughs, in a way that indicates maybe it’s more than just ‘a bit.’ “I wrap everything—even just regular fabric—in plastic, because Beirut is a city close to the deserts where there’s a lot of dust. To be honest, I’m a maniac when it comes to that. I insist that we wrap everything—archives, works in progress, everything—in paper, and then put it in plastic. So the explosion happens and there’s shattered glass everywhere, debris everywhere, but voila: because I am a maniac, we did not lose most of our work or our archive. I am so grateful. And now, maybe I will not tease myself for being so organized!”
By Mansour’s account, H&M was also “so organized,” which helped the collection come together much quicker than she anticipated. “I sketched, I chose fabric, and then voila, they made a beautiful collaboration. I really loved working with them, but I’ve always been a bit of a fan. Even in school, I remember when they did their first collaboration [with Karl Lagerfeld]. I thought, ‘Oh wow! We’re getting a little glimpse of what it’s like to purchase this brand that we can’t normally have. This is so special.’ And I wanted to make sure we kept with that feeling.”
The other feeling, of course, is hope: “We need this now because this is how we escape. It’s a way of getting through all that’s happening. We need little things to make us happy and whole—a bit of poetry, a bit of art, a bit of color in our lives—there is no hope!… So Fleurs du Soleil references the sun and the flowers, because it’s a bit of heaven and a bit of the ground. It’s beautiful dresses and also a hoodie. It’s chunky earrings and it’s these very bohemian rings. Any girl should be able to have fun in it, no matter what her style. And we also have a t-shirt, which I’m basically wearing every day, I swear. I wash it, then I put it right back on. I’m not removing it. This collaboration, this idea that fashion has a future, is what’s keeping me going.”
It is also, in a very elemental way, what’s keeping some of her fans going. “You know, we launched the collection in Beirut early, to celebrate H&M’s first partnership with a Lebanese brand. So a lot of my friends and girls in Beirut lined up early in the morning to buy the clothes. I have been getting a lot of messages on Instagram,” she says. “They are saying, ‘My house is destroyed. I would have died. I am saved because instead, I was getting the collection.”
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