Dressed for success – As Hillary Clinton makes her bid for president, Glass meets Jamileh Kamran, the designer behind some of her defining fashion moments
Few people have heard of Little Rock, Arkansas, even fewer could say where it is, but it is in this small, friendly Southern city, in a largely rural and untouched state of America, that we meet design talent Jamileh Kamran, known best as a creator of some of Hillary Clinton’s most iconic looks. But to site Kamran just as the woman who dressed Hillary though would be unfair. She is a formidable couturier with a precise eye and an infectious enthusiasm for beautifully made clothes.
Walking through Kamran’s boutique is like walking though a designer atelier in Paris. Colossal handmade ball gowns sit alongside daring cocktail dresses and perfectly cut tweed jackets – all made by Jamileh herself. Books of the great couture photographers like Victor Skrebneski sit on the tables and Kamran’s elegant hand-drawn sketches hang on the wall. This is indeed an oasis of couture, despite being thousands of miles from the nearest catwalk.
How did you get into fashion?
When I was a little girl we lived in the northern part of Iran and my aunt was the great tailor of the town. She was very famous in the area, if you wanted something fantastic you went to Miss Kamran. So I would beg my mum to take me to her house. She had a big huge room full of beautiful Persian rugs and people would come and wait their turn to provide the fabric for her and tell them what they wanted, and she would cut it right there then turn to the dressmaker and say, go ahead and sew it like this.
It was very simple, but elaborate. And that was my dream, to one day be like my aunt. So I started learning by grabbing her leftover fabrics and making my own creations. As time went by we moved to Tehran and still I was trying to find any fabric to do a pleat or to do something. I always loved to keep my hands busy.
So finally my dad asked me when I was 11, if I would like to go to design school, but I had to promise him that it would not interrupt my education. That summer I took a design course, and that was it, it just blew my mind. After that I had to teach myself – mostly because we couldn’t afford the design course – but gradually I started really building up my own experience, finding my own education.
Then I got my high-school diploma, got married and decided to move to the US. It wasn’t until I came to the US that I thought, “I have a good talent here that I can use to create some funding, some budget for my family.” Especially as the economy at the time was bad and people were suffering.
And how was it that you met Hillary?
So I started making clothes, and it just happened that I met Mrs Clinton as her daughter and my daughter were both students of the Rockefeller gifted math program. It was a highly competitive program with testing all over the state, then probably only five or six would qualify. One of them was my daughter, one was Chelsea.
So that’s how I met her. I told her that what I did, I couldn’t speak a whole lot of English, but she asked me to send her some sketches. Then I went to the Governor’s Mansion (Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas at the time) and saw her there, and I started one dress and then another and then another and then our friendship started right there. Throughout her time as first lady of Arkansas I designed for her.
Then of course I was so happy that Bill was running for the White House, I did a lot of dresses and outfits for her during that time and then I had the privilege of making her dress for Bill’s inauguration.
What impact did dressing Hillary have on your fledgling business?
Well, once I started dressing Hillary I had many prominent women coming to me for outfits. Even a Hollywood producer whose daughter got married here commissioned me to make all the bridal dresses.
Your gowns are incredibly high end, how did you learn all of these couture techniques?
I learned it by myself! For example if I wanted to do a jacket, I opened my husband’s, I literally ripped apart his jackets and several of his pants and his jackets and went inside to see what they did. I always wanted to do professional outfits, but I didn’t want it to be masculine, I wanted it to be feminine.
Most of his good suits were ripped apart by me (she laughs), but I learned it. I would practice and practice until I made something perfect. And in the process I really tried to develop my own style.
You’ve also done a considerable amount of work for the AIDS foundation – especially at a time when AIDS was surrounded by stigma, and especially in a very conservative Southern community.
Yes, well I wanted to do something because people needed it, they needed help. I tried to think of a way I could help so I created a fabric design for scarves and ties and rallied local support around the issue.
I brought a lot of politicians to the table – I literally went knocking on every door, they didn’t want to even talk about it at that time, because it was beneath them, or they worried it would be not good for their career but we got people talking about it and brought the media in. It was a big deal at that time. My fabric was then sold for the benefit of Arkansas patients.
And now you share your knowledge at the fashion school you created.
Yes, and I’m so glad I did. For years and years, I was the one and only designer in town, but now every year I’m sending fantastic new designers out and you would not believe how gratifying it is to me, that all this learning that I have done – in the hardest possible way – doesn’t go to the grave with me. Others are learning and will hopefully pass on the art to others and so on.
And you’re now sending students to New York fashion week I believe?
Yes, we all went this season, we had fun. We had two students showcasing their line. Now they are all pumped up, they are excited, and hopefully next year we have four or five there, and it so it goes on. Arkansas never had any designers showing at NYFW so I’m especially proud of that. If I have achieved one thing it’s that I helped people fulfill their dreams.
by Nicola Kavanagh
Photographs: Aaron Trinidade
Jamileh Kamran, 3625 Kavanaugh Blvd. Little Rock, Arkansas 72205 US
Toll Free: 1-877-623-3711
Fax Number: (501)663-2553