Tala Raassi will always remember her 16th birthday. Her friends decided to organize a birthday party for her in Tehran, where she then lived, and 30 friends, male and female, got together to celebrate. When Tala arrived at the party, she changed out of her mandatory headscarf and coat, and slipped on a black T-shirt and miniskirt.
Suddenly, the religious police burst in. In Iran, mingling with the opposite sex, wearing miniskirts, and listening to unsanctioned music is banned. Along with many of her friends, Tala was driven to a prison. There, she was kept for five days, and subjected to 40 lashes as punishment.
Today, Tala is a successful U.S.-based swimwear designer. Having told her story to Marie Clarie in 2010, she has now published an autobiography titled “Fashion is Freedom.”
Kayhan London caught up with her for a conversation about her life and career, and her enduring feelings for Iran.
KL: Tala, when did you launch your own label? And why did you choose swimwear, an unusual and fairly challenging fashion segment?
TR: The line was launched in June of 2009 under the name “Dar Be Dar: Swimwear Line.” Today, the company name has changed to Tala Raassi.
TR: I once owned a boutique in Washington, D.C. While on a buying trip to Sao Paulo, Brazil, I fell in love with Brazilian swimwear. The styles were unique, the cuts were different, the colors were vibrant. and the beauty of the women who wore them inspired me to create a swimwear line that I felt was missing on the American market.
KL: What were some of the pleasures and frustrations of growing up in Iran?
TR: I love Iran, and it will forever be my favorite country in the world. Iran taught me tradition, culture and the true meaning of love and respect. I learned so much from the Iranian people, and they have allowed me to become the woman that I am today. Iran is one of the most magnificent countries in the world, with outstanding natural beauty.
My frustrations came a little later in life when I entered my teenage years and wanted more freedom. I discovered a love for fashion and set out to showcase my individuality through my wardrobe. I constantly found myself clashing with the values and laws of others – mainly government officials, who wanted to limit any freedoms we had, especially as women. I would watch TV shows like Beverly Hills 90210. I wanted to follow the trends that those kids were following — except that I lived in an Islamic Republic.
Not being able to wear what I wanted and not having the freedom to experiment more felt very suffocating to me. Eventually, it got me in trouble with the law.
One of the reasons that I wrote my book “Fashion is Freedom” was to show people outside of Iran what it was like to live there as a modern woman.
I have not been back to Iran in many years, but I miss it every single day. I hope to become more and more successful in the fashion industry to represent the talent of my country worldwide. My home will forever be Iran.
KL: How did your label come to be chosen as the official swimsuit sponsor for the Miss Universe pageant in 2010, a year after you launched it?
TR: I wrote an article for Marie Claire magazine expressing my “Fashion is Freedom” message. The story went viral. and I received an email from a Miss Universe contestant asking if she could wear one of my swimsuits to share my story at the pageant.
I had grown up watching the Miss Universe pageant on satellite TV in Iran, and I always thought that Iranian girls were just as beautiful and talented as all of the other contestants at the pageant. I hoped that they could be a part of it.
So when I received that email, I thought to myself that if I could sponsor the Miss Universe pageant, then I could represent the beauty of the women in my country by having contestants wear swimwear
designed by an Iranian designer. I got in touch with the Miss Universe organization and, shortly after, I became the official swimwear sponsor for 2010.
KL: Can you describe your swimwear line and the women who wear it? Any celebrities?
TR: Tala Raassi swimwear is for the modern girl who is adventurous and stylish. It can be worn at the beach and poolside; in some cases, it can even be used as ready to wear. The designs are contemporary and unique, yet tailored to fit the body perfectly. Our philosophy is for a woman to look chic while being completely comfortable in her swimsuit.
The clientele is very diverse. Women of all ages and backgrounds wear the swimsuits. I generally design trendy swimwear, but also offer swimsuits with more coverage, and one-pieces that would work for a range of body types and age groups.
Actress Kristen Stewart and “Glee” stars Jenna Ushkowitz and Becca Tobin wear my swimwear. So do many models, Miss Universe contestants and social media influencers.
KL: Your earlier attempts at starting a fashion line were unsuccessful. Why?
TR: The fashion industry is very expensive, the competition is intense, and it is often hard to break through. Tala Raassi swimwear is my third company.
I started with a T-shirt line when I was 21 years old. I struggled to find a manufacturer that would create my designs in small quantities with high-quality products. I travelled all around the world in pursuit of a production facility. I eventually ran out of money and used up all the investment funding.
After that, I got great jobs in the industry to gain more experience. Then I took another leap of faith and opened a high-end boutique. Unfortunately, the U.S. economy crashed that year, so our clientele stopped growing. Even though those businesses didn’t work, I gained so much knowledge and experience from them.
There are many challenges that entrepreneurs face, trying to start something from scratch. But in the process, you learn many new things – things that you probably never knew you were capable of, until they became your only option.
I believe that my failures were due to lack of experience and bad judgment. combined with bad timing and wrong partnerships. But I would have never be the businesswomen that I am today without experiencing all of that.
KL: Some of your swimwear designs are quite risque! How have fellow Iranians (inside or outside the country)?
TR: I believe swimwear in general is a risqué choice of garment. I have many Iranian customers. And even more conservative than that, we take a lot of orders from countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
KL: Where do you see yourself in five or ten years’ time? Do you wish to move into other areas of fashion design?
TR: Next season we are doing activewear and resort wear in addition to swimwear.
In the next few years. I would like to expand the line more internationally. I would love to become a well respected international designer — and hopefully also be a married woman with children.
Tala Raassi on the importance of fashion
More swimwear can be seen on her website: www.talaraassi.com