On any crowded bus or subway train, you’re bound to spot a few women with style. They look sophisticated, well put together, and classy. Every so often, though, you’ll spot another breed of woman. The one whose style is eclectic, innovative, and seemingly effortless. The one who looks like she could make a paper bag and a shower cap look chic. The one who redefines the whole concept of style. Sometimes you look at her and want to hide the huge coffee stain on your sweater, but mostly you just think, Damn, where did she get that incredible skirt?
If you live in the Washington D.C. metro area, that woman might be University of Maryland senior Mehreen Mansur. Mansur (‘Menx’ to family and friends) is a self-described ‘jack-of-all-trades’ who, at the age of 20, has started her own clothing line, ReenRunway, and jewelry line, Bijoux (the French word for jewelry). She started to brand herself early in her college career by running a successful blog on xanga.com that featured her fashion, art, and a sneak peak into her glamourous life. This following of viewers gave her a platform to launch her first venture.
As a child, Mansur saw only loveliness all around her, so it’s no wonder that style and beauty come naturally to her. ‘My mother has always created a beautiful world around me,’ she explains.
Even as a young child, Mansur did not take any of the aesthetics in her life for granted. Her playmates in Bangladesh were often the servants and household help, and she learned to sew, cook, and make simple crafts from them.
Because of these experiences, Mansur hopes she can do more than just designing clothing and jewelry. ‘I have a desire to feed the poor based on an experience I had at age five,’ she explains. ‘It was a normal day in Dhaka and I was going to school. There was a lady with a torn sari holding a child my age to her chest. She asked me for ‘just one slice of bread’. The specificity of this request got to me. I wasted the bread on my tray every morning and it perplexed me that she wanted a slice of bread. I had not realized until that moment that there are people who lack the fundamental necessity of food.’
Though her company just launched in May, Mansur diverts a slice of her proceeds to a food fund. ‘This goal is what fuels me.’
Her unique sense of style, she says, was fostered throughout her childhood. ‘I was always artistic. I loved painting, drawing, making things. But there was a rule in my houseâ€“ I was not allowed to own scissors because I would ‘edit’ my clothes or hair. I was never happy with the way clothes came because they looked like something anyone could have. I always wanted to put my own spin on things. [My design skills] come naturally. My mother used to design children’s clothes, and I learned to sew at the age of five from our housekeepers in Bangladesh. When I was bored I would knit, sewâ€¦ create. ‘
Mansur describes herself as ‘eccentric,’ ‘a dreamer’ and ‘in her own world most of the time.’ She is studying a double major in English and Art, and enjoys writing immensely. Still, she says that her love of art and especially wearable design ‘ultimately wins out â€“ even when I try to be practical– art wins!’
Desi parents often have certain expectations of what careers their second-generation offspring will turn to. In response to how her parents feel about her artistic path, she says ‘I guess choosing art and being questioned about that choice is a part of being brown,’ she laughs. ‘ If you’re not a doctor, engineer, or IT professional, you won’t be able to afford your bread , is the logic.’ My parents are supportive but at the same time, try to goad me with the practicality stick. â€¦ and though a bit of that never hurt, I firmly believe that not everybody is made from the same mold.’
Mansur’s personal style showcases her strong sense of individuality. ‘I never follow fashion trends or simply what’s â€˜in.’ True style, to me, is as simple as having one’s own.’ she asserts.
Still, Mansur admits that when she started designing for the public, she wasn’t completely confident in her own instincts. ‘I evolved really fast from when I came out at the very beginning,’ she explains. ‘I primarily looked at things that already existed because I was too scared to land on the market with something too wacky. I thought you have to gel in by first creating products that already exist. That’s not the right idea. The only way [to stand out] is if a designer is unique. Now my designs are strictly what I think of as a piece of art as opposed to mere decorationâ€“ and my future collection will be even more playful and ‘me’. I don’t think that the artist should listen to critics,’ she advises. ‘Create what you feel this world needs.’
Other expectations come from her fans. ‘Because I’m South Asian, some people assume that my designs are solely for South Asians; but my mentors and friends have always been people of different races. I travel a lot and have grown with people from every part of the world. Every so often, I’ll get an email asking me to design salwaar kameezes, saris, or headscarves.. The truth is, I never thought about producing solely for one race. I regularly read a lot on art theory and believe that at its core, art should be universal and timeless.
Another of Mansur’s passions is international women’s rights issues. Having had such a cosmopolitan upbringing, she couldn’t help but notice some of the inequities facing women around the world from a very young age. She believes that ‘oppression comes out of jealousy â€“ women run the household and are so talented.’ This is an idea shared by 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus, whose micro financing project lends primarily to women in poor rural areas of Bangladesh. â€œWomen are the majority in this world but we’re still considered a minority because our intellect and voices are too often oppressed.â€
Mansur doesn’t see this as a problem limited to other countries. She has interned at Sakhi, a New York-based organization that assists victims of domestic violence in local South Asian communities. The problems affecting women are cyclical, she believes . ‘Much of our culture holds the mentality that the best you could do is bag a rich guy and get married. We’re expected to be married as soon as possible and plop out fair kids. It might work for many, but not for me â€“ not right now at least,. I’m just starting to do things on my own.’
When asked what advice to give to other women, she says, ‘Support each other’s talents. Be an individual. We each have a unique fingerprint; even identical twins. I think that is fascinating. Certainly we were all cut to be different.’
Young Menx clearly has a lot on her mind, but when asked where she sees her own future as a designer, she quips, ‘I don’t want to jinx it!’ When asked about her vision for Bijoux and ReenRunway. ‘I’m not the type who thinks so far in advance. I got bored one day and I’m doing this right now to pass time and raise money for my charity componentâ€”which is my ultimate goal. I take life as it comes â€“ but odd luck follows me and I love it.’Â â€” Vandana Makker
To check out Mansur’s designs, artwork, photography, writing, and more, visit www.reenrunway.com.
Vandana Makker has just purchased her first piece from Reen Runway!