Conquering the NY fashion world

[Image]An elated Angelo Lambrou takes a bow
after the successful launch of the
Villionaire fashion label, which he has
created with design partner Richie Rich.

[Image]Rows of glamorous wedding dresses hang
in Lambrou’s East Village studio.
(Images: Philippa Garson)

Angelo Lambrou
+1 212 460 9870

Philippa Garson

Zimbabwe-born fashion designer Angelo Lambrou gave his international career a boost with the successful launch of his new Villionaire label at this year’s New York Fashion Week.

Lambrou, who has been based in New York for the past 11 years, partnered with celebrity designer-come-clubber Richie Rich to create the label, which kicked off the week-long yearly festival of schmoozing, strutting, gawking and air kissing.

Lambrou, who specialises in bridal and evening wear, has lent his sophisticated design skills to Rich’s more casual, fun aesthetic to create the new stylish Villionaire label, because “even clubbing girls have to grow up.”

Lambrou is chatting to me from the little baroque-style salon in the East Village that has been his base ever since he moved here. He’s slightly built and wears a hat, which gives him an impish look.

Flanked by his exquisite cream and burgundy bridal and evening gowns that seem to float off the floor, he speaks to me animatedly from an antiquated gold velvet chair.

Southern African heritage

Although Lambrou is not out-and-out South African, he can lay claim to a largely Southern African heritage.

The son of Cypriot parents, he was born in then-Rhodesia, grew up in South Africa, Botswana and Cyprus and now considers South Africa his second home. He returns every year and fantasises about owning a flat in Cape Town’s posh Clifton suburb.

Signs of his favourite continent are scattered about: decorative ostrich eggs, porcupine quills and lizard lights crafted from wrought iron.

Lambrou specialises in haute couture bridal wear that is both elegant and highly original. “My customer is usually a more mature woman who knows herself very well. She is often someone who appreciates or works in the arts,” he says, adding that he wants every woman he dresses to love her gown and feel like a princess.

But Lambrou explains that he was moved to create something different from the rows and rows of bridal dresses out there, which all started to look the same after a while.

Although he felt the pressure to find a niche for himself in New York, he is keen to avoid being pigeonholed. He welcomes the opportunity that the collaboration with Rich has given him to design more fun, ready-to-wear clothing for women.

Every few years, Lambrou says, he finds himself in a rut, which generally leads to a breakthrough – such as the Villionaire initiative.

“I’m not a religious person but I am spiritual. I have this sense that when you really believe something and put your mind to it, something out there conspires to help you.”

A burgeoning career

Several years ago a similar breakthrough led to the move to New York. After studying fashion under Archie Leggat in Johannesburg and then at the prestigious Central Saint Martins in London, Lambrou moved to the small town of Selebi Phikwe in Botswana where his father was working as an engineer.

Having spent many years at boarding school in Johannesburg and Cyprus, and then pursuing fashion in Johannesburg and London, Lambrou wanted to reconnect with his parents. There was little for him to do in the tiny town with dirt roads and no traffic lights, except refine his sewing and design skills and work in the garden.

But soon Lambrou set up his own business and began to inject life into Botswana’s embryonic fashion industry.

“I managed to train a lot of women to become seamstresses. It was a lonely experience for me but I immersed myself in my work,” he says. “I wanted to perfect my techniques, because I knew that I wanted to come to a place like New York to realise my dream on an international level.”

Lambrou says it didn’t take long to make a name for himself as a fashion designer in Botswana and soon he was designing clothes for the country’s First Lady, then Barbara Mogae. But this did not translate into instant success in the exclusive clothing stores in Johannesburg’s malls, where his attempts to sell his designs met with little success.

International breakthrough

His big break came when he got to know Mpule Kwelagobe, a Miss Botswana contestant, and designed her pageant dress. Accompanied by Lambrou, she then went on to win the Miss Universe title in Trinidad in 1999, wearing his creation.

Lambrou was asked to design the dresses for all the contestants at the following year’s Miss Universe pageant, which, coincidentally, took place in his other home, Cyprus.

When he went to visit Kwelagobe, who was living in New York for a year during her reign as Miss Universe, Lambrou was blown away by the energy of the city. “The first week I was here I knew this was the place I had to be.”

He has been in New York ever since – but it’s been a “roller coaster ride”, as he puts it. When he started up in his little East Village salon, without much in the way of resources, the only way to market his designs was through the shop window. At that time the heroin junkies and other desperados who populated the neighbourhood were not a potential clientele base. But Kwelagobe’s beautiful pageant dress, which he draped in the window, soon attracted the right kind of attention.

“Someone asked me one day, ‘Is that a wedding dress?’ and I said, ‘It could be’.”

And that’s how the wedding business began. Although the East Village has, like so many other parts of the city, become more upmarket, and his shop window is now just as likely to attract entrepreneurs as it is artists and other bohemian types, breaking into a highly competitive, cut-throat industry has not been easy, particularly in this time of recession, where luxury items – like designer wedding dresses – are the first to be scratched off a bride-to-be’s must-have list. His dresses don’t come cheap either, ranging in price from US$2 000 (R14 000) to $6 000 (R41 000).

But the post-Fashion Week Lambrou is upbeat about the future and excited about the good feedback that’s rolled in after the show. “Its offbeat entertainment focus appears to be setting a new trend, and it’s been a really great way to get my name out there.”

Already, he says, the calls are starting to come in.