Written by: Monika Mudranincová & Klára Smolová
Photo by: David Holas
She’s energetic and spontaneous. She dresses princesses from the Persian Gulf and European celebrities. For over 20 years Blanka Matragi, originally from Moravia, has been the Czech ambassador to the world of haute couture.
What was your first impression when you landed in Lebanon 25 years ago?
I arrived from the darkness of communism where you couldn’t do anything, and I wondered how I would orient myself in the Orient. Everything was new and progressive for me. I soon learned that Lebanese women respond to everything original and trendy. I liked that, it was a challenge to get involved. As a designer for a family firm where I found my footing in a few months, I absorbed the languages and the atmosphere, and I learned how they do business there.
How were you perceived in that Arab country? Did you feel any prejudice against you as a European woman?
Absolutely not! Even though they saw me as exotic, it didn’t matter at all to them where I was from. Instead they saw me in terms of how I affected people and what I could do. Lebanon is a cosmopolitan country where women are highly educated and also occupy significant positions. I had followed my husband to a foreign country, so I automatically lost a part of myself, but at the same time I absorbed a new culture.
A war was breaking out there at that time, but you still decided to start a business. Why?
I do everything spontaneously, I trust my instincts. The owners of the firm I worked for “heckled” me to do my own thing. Then entirely by chance I met a minister’s daughter in a fabric shop and she asked me to design a wedding dress for her. She recommended me to her relatives and things just took off. I hired my first seamstress and then another, and another. In 1982 demand forced us to find a larger venue and found a professional salon on the main commercial avenue in Beirut.
But competition in the Persian Gulf is enormous. How did the “Blanka Haute Couture” brand become known so quickly?
When I was opening my salon all the TV stations supported me and emphasized the fact that this European designer dared go into business when a war was beginning. Paradoxically, it help that I came from a communist country. Clients got in touch with me by themselves. At the very beginning I didn’t use expensive fabrics, instead I worked with ordinary material like organza, which I was able to elevate to a point where people were floored. My first show wasn’t all spectacle and glitter, but rather emphasized spatial creations. No one will teach you to make a two-thousand-dollar gown with fabric that costs two dollars, you either have the knack or you don’t. What counts is the idea, a feeling for fabric, originality, creativity, and perfect hand work. I was probably very good at that.
Didn’t the fact that you were a self-taught entrepreneur make you feel like you had a handicap?
Not really, even though I blundered with the minister’s daughter. When she asked me for the wedding dress’s price I rattled off a number. She asked me if that was for the design or the whole dress. I was surprised, because I thought the price was for the material and the work. But then I was told that I set a terribly low price. I learned everything incrementally from my clients.
They say you’re very demanding of your employees. How would you rate them compared to Czechs?
I’m the most demanding of myself. All of my employees would tell you I’m the first to get to work and the last to leave. I work very hard, but I’m no dictator. When someone tells me something is impossible I show them it can be done. I’m a perfectionist. Sometimes a dress is ready for delivery but I’m not entirely satisfied with it. Then I can redo it overnight and in the morning my employees are amazed to see a different dress (laughs). On the other hand, I must admit that religious women are very meek and hard-working, because they value work. As for Czechs, I remember that, “when the cat’s away the mice will play.” Here people have a lot more respect for their employers.
Morality among businessmen in the Czech Republic still isn’t ingrained. How is business done in the Persian Gulf?
They are mostly family firms, the businesses being passed on from generation to generation. A handshake counts. They don’t write contracts, but even so no one ever owed me anything. And everything goes more smoothly. In 1987 I won a global competition for police uniform design in the United Arab emirates, and a month later the policemen were already wearing them. Conversely, in the Czech Republic my collection of jewelry that I designed for the Moser glassworks is still lying idle four years later.
You’ve designed lots of dresses, jewelry, and costumes for films during your career. What are you proudest of?
A job I got recently. It will be a wedding dress for a young lady related to a former leader of the UAE. It’s a very prestigious order, and many fine designers around the world wanted it. I’m curious and a little afraid, because you have to acquit yourself very well on such orders. But I’m looking forward to it, because the wedding will open the Emirates Palace, a new hotel that is the most prestigious in the Emirates.
You have Arab as well as European clients. Do their demands differ?
European women want a dress to be practical and multi-purpose, while in the Arab world the dress is for a single occasion. There are no financial limitations on dresses, they show them off once and that’s it. European women want dresses for different occasions that can be combined with jackets or accessories and worn to cocktail parties or gala soirées.
How would you rate Czech women’s taste?
Czech women are beautiful and have good taste, but it seems to me that they don’t have the chance to get interesting or amazing clothes. The Czech market is saturated by sporty and medium-elegant goods, but haute couture doesn’t exist there at all. That’s probably because after the war, we were cut off from social development beyond our borders. The younger generation hasn’t been taught.
Your husband was the director of a construction firm for a long time and today he manages your firm. But some men can’t live in the shadow of their more famous wives. Has it changed your relationship somehow?
No, I don’t tend to act like a star. I think I’m still the same girl from the Highlands, even though I deal with very highly placed clients.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I don’t think about it, because when I dream something up I want it right now.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
Just three? Spontaneous, eccentric, perfectionist. In Lebanon they call me “Hurricane”. My husband describes me like this: Blanka wants to hold three melons in one hand, whatever the price!
How would you like people to remember you?
As a spontaneous, natural woman.