When we walk into Yasmine Yeya's Cairo atelier, one of her unfinished creations - a wedding dress in the making - clings to a mannequin in the middle of the room; the ethereal piece features a tight bodice infused with regular bursts of intricate beading that give way to a river of chiffon, falling with elegant nonchalance onto the floor, creating ripples of fabric. Even in its semi-complete state, the dress is stunning and is the physical embodiment of why the designer has ascended to her status as the indisputable queen of bridal couture in Egypt - and arguably across the region.
But interestingly enough, her career path was almost accidental in its trajectory. "I never imagined being a designer," Yeya says, settling her petite frame behind an imposing desk in her spacious studio that oozes understated decadence. In a printed peplum top, skinny jeans and grey pumps, her appearance is the epitome of a pulled-together designer, looking very much in her element, despite what her original intentions may have been. "Ever since I was little, I made dresses but it was a hobby not an aspiration." But now, her schedule is so packed that brides-to-be have to vie for a coveted spot on her crammed calendar, having to book six months in advance to get penciled in. If they're lucky.
After a childhood of learning to make dresses from her mother and French grandmother, it was only after she created her first gown for herself, that she started to take it seriously. "That was when it hit," she says. Friends took notice of her sartorial talent and started commissioning her, and eventually it snowballed into a career. "It was a natural progression," Yeya explains, "It worked out. It's destiny I guess." In 2008, the designer who was already gaining notoriety in Cairo's high society circles, got selected as one of the contestants on MBC's Mission: Fashion, a move that not only allowed her to work with Elie Saab - something which for most is a reality that sits comfortably between owning a pet unicorn and marrying Ryan Gosling - but also suddenly tossed her into an already-intensifying spotlight. "Look, I can't say it's behind my success, but it definitely accelerated it – if I didn’t go on the show it would've taken triple the time to become who I am today," Yeya says matter-of-factly.
And today, she exclusively specialises in wedding dresses, opting out of the gown world and ditching typical dresses for white wearable wonderlands. "I'm not somebody that can just do any job and I find it very superficial to just do dresses. I found more meaning in wedding dresses," Yeya says of her choice. Unsatisfied with the sphere of slinky gowns she made a deliberate decision to shift focus. "When I used to work on normal dresses, I looked at the woman and I saw vanity, I saw sex. With wedding dresses, I didn’t see that; I saw beauty," she says simply. And despite the additional dimension of stress that comes when working with the most notoriously difficult women in existence, brides, Yeya says, "I’m willing to deal with that stress, vis a vis the happiness that I see when she puts on the dress."
When I used to work on normal dresses, I looked at the woman and I saw vanity, I saw sex. With wedding dresses, I didn’t see that; I saw beauty.
But when it comes to dealing with manic brides, Yeya is no push over. "In terms of bridezillas...they can’t really pull that off with me!" she says with a laugh. The strong-headed sartorial darling has not only earned herself a reputation for being the be all and end all of bridal bliss, but also for being no-nonsense when it comes to her job. "I want her to be happy, but I am firm," she says with conviction. "I can be the sweetest and incredibly patient and tolerant because I know women; we’re very hesitant and we want everything at once. Plus, you’re dealing with this woman on the most important day of her life, so I understand the bridezilla aspect of it. At the end of the day, I want to make sure that she leaves with the perfect dress but I have to balance being tolerant, and not allowing abuse. I’m not too harsh but I don’t put up with bad attitudes."
Indeed, Yeya is well spoken; her words are chosen not rambled and there's an intrinsic poise to her. And she's is not oblivious to the reputation she's garnered outside of her sartorial skills. By her own admission "some people will say ‘Yasmine is so aloof'" but it's more straightforward than cold; more opinionated than arrogant. She doesn’t sugarcoat anything; she's honest and unapologetic, and it's refreshing that she's not playing it up for the proverbial cameras. The fact of the matter is she’s damn good at what she does. And at the end of the day, she relies on the fact that her clients trust her. "They're coming [to the designer] and trusting that person, and it really matters to me to make the bride happy," Yeya says.
At the end of the day, I want to make sure that the bride leaves with the perfect dress but I have to balance being tolerant, and not allowing abuse. I’m not too harsh but I don’t put up with bad attitudes.
And there’s a whole creative process behind ensure a final outcome stamped with her signature perfection. "It all starts with what the bride gives me as inspiration," Yeya explains, "With every design I make, it takes a part of my emotions that corresponds to that woman, but they're all me and they're all her." Yeya believes that within every woman are both sides of a single attribute; "the sex bomb and the shy girl, the wicked and the angelic," and she draws out the "part of her I can get out of me." Her unequivocal aim in the completed creation is that the dress is entirely reflective of the bride. "At the end of the day, it has to be your dress."
Even though each bride's dress is undeniably individual and unique, in a situation where that tired snowflake parallel is possibly applicable, they all have an underlying injection of Yeya's own design style, aesthetic, and influences, not only through the trademark fit, and something of an 'out there' factor but by drawing inspiration from her own heritage. Being half-French, half-Egyptian, her influences stem from both cultures. "I’m so inspired by the European style with a very Arabic sense of femininity and sensuality," she explains. But over the years, the woman who arguably, single-handedly made the short wedding dress a thing in Egypt (it was that hi-lo ruffled dress Yeya made for Nazly Abou Seif in 2013 that had the designer’s name on everyone's lips) has dialed down the overt sexuality in her designs. "When I started I was more out there, more mini skirts, micro skirts… As I got older, you can see the maturity that happened to me as a person through my work; the development and femininity in my designs. Yes, I still do short but maybe classier than it was before."
By her own definition, shock value has given way to chic, but a healthy dose of decadence is always prominent in her pieces. "I love decadence and I would love to design something for a queen or a princess – you know that big church wedding dress whose train is nine meters long," she says with a smile.
I didn’t have a wedding and I never wore a wedding dress
But whatever side of the spectrum her creations fall on, they don’t factor into Yeya's own life. Though she also created a wedding gown for her sister Mariam Yeya, a designer in her own right, a task she counts as one of the highlights of her career – "it was emotional and I worked my heart out" – her own nuptials were void of a dress altogether. "I didn’t have a wedding and I never wore a wedding dress," she says. The audible irony of the fact that the veritable first lady of bridal gowns in Egypt decided to forgo not just a dress but an entire wedding, is bordering on unbelievable. She shrugs. "I'm not working as a bridal designer because I want to wear all the dresses. I never dreamed of wearing a wedding dress, I don’t believe in big weddings." Instead she put on a black dress, went to court and signed the papers. "I'm that pragmatic," she says simply. "I’m also much more spiritual when it comes to this. The wedding, the dress – this is not the marriage."
And therein lies the enigma that is Yasmine Yeya; the woman who creates dreamy frothy creations is no wishy-washy dreamer herself. Looking forward, though she’s got her sights set on Paris and the glittering city that is Dubai, the mother of twin girls is pressing pause on expansion to focus on her family. But that doesn’t mean she’ll be sending fewer brides down the aisle in our own city, or that a Paris atelier isn’t eminent. “Behind the elegant facade of these wedding dresses is a crazy person, no one can tell me no. I’m very opinionated and I’ll do whatever I want.” We don’t doubt it.
Find out more about Maison Yeya here.
Photography by MO4 Network.
Photographed by Jonathan Zikry.