Tala Raassi is living proof that sheer drive and determination pays off. The 33-year-old Iranian swimwear designer has overcome quite a few hurdles to become the woman she is today. Like being locked in jail for five days and sentenced to 40 lashes when she was just 16-years-old. Her crime? Wearing a mini skirt to a co-ed private party that was raided by government militants.
There’s little doubt the night changed her life, but not necessarily in the way she expected. Because not only has it inspired her to follow her dreams, it’s made her determined to empower other women to do the same.
She made the move Stateside, and despite not speaking any English, managed to forge a career in fashion, launch her own swimwear brand and has just written her first book, Fashion is Freedom. It’s little wonder therefore, that in 2012, Tala was named as one of Newsweek’s Most Fearless Women in the World alongside the likes of Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey. Not bad for a girl who grew up believing a career in fashion was completely off limits.
Yahoo Style chatted to the inspirational swimwear designer about style, success and not sweating the small stuff.
Growing up I wanted to be a lawyer. My father’s lawyer was a woman and seeing a woman with that commanding power really provoked me. There was something very influential about it and I envied her, I wanted to have her superpowers. But when I day-dreamed about my career in the justice system, I would find myself day-dreaming more about the fashionable suits and outfits I would wear, instead of the courtroom.
I never realized a career in fashion was a possibility. Growing up in Iran women were covered in public, and at that time there were no name brand boutiques, schools only prepared us for more traditional careers and my family really wanted me to pursue a law degree, become a doctor or something with that prominence. So even though I was always fascinated by fashion I never really knew becoming a fashion designer was an option for me.
Iranian women in general are very stylish and put together. I used to observe women at private hair salons and house parties in Iran. They were always so glamorous behind closed doors and put so much effort in to looking good despite all the restrictions imposed by the government. I would spend hours looking through Western fashion magazines and drool about the amazing styles and wondered why women weren’t able to wear them out in public, right where they belonged.
Fashion design has always been in me. When I was about eight years old, I cut my mother’s fur coat and made a coat for my Barbie. Of course as you can imagine she wasn’t very happy. But she came around later and helped me fix the coat. My mother could sew anything. She even made her own engagement dress and was always making some cool stuff around the house. So I watched and admired her work and my love for creation blossomed from there. I later cut my father’s leather chair to make a leather skirt for my Barbie which again put me in trouble with my parents. But I just wanted to make things out of any material I would find interesting.
My style back then was a little bit of everything. I would watch TV shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and Baywatch, on illegal satellite TV of course, and wanted to follow the trends those kids were following. Except that I had to obey to the rules of the Islamic Republic. So it was a mix of western fashion with my own created styles.
It was hard to express my love of fashion. As much as we wore whatever we wanted it was hard to showcase my individuality in public places, like coffee shops, restaurants and the hardest being school. When I got old enough to want to look good for boys and society as a whole, I found myself clashing a lot with the values of others. I wanted to dress the way I wanted, but always had to follow laws, rules and restrictions and that was a suffocating feeling for me.
After the 1979 Revolution (when the Shah of Iran was overthrown) many restrictions were enforced on the Iranian people. Coed parties were banned, alcohol became illegal and women had to cover themselves in public. Practically overnight, Iran became a drastically more conservative culture. Most Iranians I know, like everyone else in the world, love to dance, listen to music and socialize.
People started building elaborate bars and dance floors in their homes to keep their parties private. The normal protocol is for the girls to arrive with their hijabs on as though they are going in public, and then take off their covers and underneath they wear their most fashionable party attire. But if people were caught by Iranian officials breaking these laws, they could be subject to jail, lashing, fines, etc,
One moment can be life-changing. In 1998 when I was turning 16 years old, a friend of mine threw a party at her house. Her ex-boyfriend told government officials about the party to the government officials thinking that they would peacefully shut it down. There was no alcohol or drugs. Just a bunch of teenagers doing what most teenagers do anywhere around the world. It wasn’t long before the government officials stormed in to the house and arrested about 30 of us teenagers. Boys and girls were separated and we were taken on two buses to the Vozoras Prison, where we spent five nights in jail.
The whole experience has made me more humble. Going through something like that as a 16-year-old changes you. I had never been around people like that before or in a situation that was so surreal. It was very eye opening to see how fortunate I had been, to be raised the way I was with so much love and safety. Experiencing that has allowed me to try to do better everyday. Because I know and realize now how lucky I am to be where I am today. I don’t take any opportunity for granted and try not to dwell on small, petty things.
I want to turn my experience into a positive. To bring awareness to the cruel acts of humanity that happen to women all around the world. No girl or woman should ever be punished for what they wear or how they choose to live their lives. But sadly it happens everyday. And not only in Iran, but all around the world.
Incredibly vast, easy to navigate, motivating. That’s how I found living in America. People often ask if I’m happy I left Iran? My answer has always been no. I love Iran, it’s people and the extraordinary culture. I never allowed my bad experiences there to change my views of Iran. Many media outlets say things like “Tala fled Iran.” It was never like that. So I was very sad when I first moved to the States. And it was very hard for me personally because I didn’t speak English. There are a lot of things that I miss about living in Iran. Like being around so much family, the food and the traditions. But I have also grown to love living in America. When I settled here, an American dream also started forming in my head. The opportunities and possibilities seem endless and if you are willing to work hard you truly can become whoever you want to be.
The fashion scene was a huge culture shock. My first thought when I arrived to Virginia at Dulles International Airport, was “fashion disaster.” You may be thinking, what does a girl that grew up in a conservative country like Iran know about fashion? But I grew up watching Iranian women put so much effort into looking amazing even with all the restrictions that they were given. So when I got to the US and saw people in baggy jeans, loose T-shirts and flip-flops I was quite disappointed.
Find your niche. I used to own a boutique and often shopped for the store from Brazilian showrooms. In the winter of 2006, I went to Sao Paulo for Fashion Week, and one of the exhibitions that blew my mind the most was a swimwear runway show. I watched the perfectly toned, tanned, and spectacular Brazilian models strut down a miraculously elegant runway. It was absolutely inspiring and dreamy. The magnificent fabrics, vibrant colors, unique styles and cuts, and the confidence of the women showcasing them were dazzling to me. That experience encouraged and influenced me to start a swimwear line. At that time I truly believed that the US market was missing trendy swimwear.
Be proud of your achievements. The ultimate career high for me was being called “One of the most fearless women in the world” by Newsweek magazine alongside Oprah Winfrey, Hilary Clinton, Angelina Jolie and many other influential women.
Fashion symbolizes freedom. Freedom of choice to wear what you desire without the fear of judgment, punishment and/or imprisonment. Because of fashion a woman can express herself outwardly. Fashion empowers women to be who they want to be, not who society expects them to be.
My decision to design swimwear has nothing to do with my faith. Faith is an internal journey, and no one can know the depth of anyone else’s trust in God based on what they do or do not wear. I am a proud Muslim girl and I love my culture, traditions and country Iran. And my swimwear has absolutely nothing to do with religion or politics. I am a simple girl following my big dreams.
The judgment of others doesn’t define you, it defines them. They say haters are going to hate, but sometimes that can be hard to ignore, especially when you want to do something for a greater good. They key is to know who you are, believe in what you do, and realise that the negative things people project to you are nonsense. No matter how kind and remarkable you are, there will always be someone who is not going to like you. Don’t allow their pessimism to leave a negative mark on you, learn how to be better for yourself.
Don’t allow your failures to define your future. Some of the most successful people in the world have failed at first, and some have failed many times. Never forget why you got started to begin with!
My mother is my career muse. She inspires and encourages me to continue even at times when things seem impossible. They say that the best kind of people in your life are the ones that you can sit next to, not say a word to, and walk away feeling like that was the best conversation you ever had.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I have had so many hurdles in my journey and I can easily say that I have done anything that you shouldn’t do when starting a business. But you can’t give up. If something doesn’t work, try another way. When you try to achieve anything in your life, it can create a mess. The best thing to do is to clean up your mess. Once you start picking up the shattered pieces, you will discover all the magical reasons that got you there.
Find your own way to success. There was a time in my life that I believed you are only successful if you are on the cover of Forbes or are making millions of dollars. However I have realized that success is a battle between you and yourself alone. You have to concentrate on beating your own goals and invest in yourself when others won’t. From where I started I am a billionaire today. That doesn’t necessarily mean I have billions of dollars, it just means that I found a way to be a better version of myself every day.