Fashion Designer Elle B. Mambetov is Calling Out the UK’s Police
Modest fashion designer Elle B. Mambetov is speaking out on her experience being imprisoned on a wrongful conviction with the launch of a new book, and rising above it with the launch of her modest fashion clothing line, Elle B. Zhou.
Interview by Francesca Ricciardi
When African-American fashion designer Elle B. Mambetov first moved to the UK, she had no idea her career would end up taking an unexpected twofold turn – skyrocketing to success initially as a stylist at London Fashion Week, her success would suddenly come to a halt after being framed in a scam that had her spend two years in a maximum security prison.
A close friend of hers stole her identity to commit fraud and she reported him to the police. However, little did she know, despite the amount of proof pointing at him having committed fraud several times in the past, she would end up wrongfully detained in a maximum security prison for 24 months. Elle’s harrowing experience is closely related to several other testimonies of racial bias among police forces in the UK, which have led the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) to announce it will lead an official inquiry to “look for any pattern of discrimination in use of force and stop and search”.
Today, after converting to Islam, Elle B. Mambetov is known as the designer behind high-fashion modest clothing line Elle B Zhou. Her brand is not only celebrated for its silk-based printed glamour and elegance, but for its fundraising efforts in partnership with Vogue CFDA Common Thread and Doctors Without Borders to raise money for Covid-19. Online Editor, Francesca Ricciardi, spoke with her to learn more about her strong comeback story and how being subjected to injustice hasn’t deterred her from success.
Francesca Ricciardi: How did your journey into fashion design begin?
Elle B. Mambetov: From a very young age I was very interested in fashion and, when I was 26 years old, I moved to China so that I could learn about international business and manufacturing. At that time, in the US everything was made in China, so [I thought] why not move there? My fashion journey really began when I was doing London Fashion Week as a designer.
Editor’s note: Elle was the designer behind Sophia Beckford, a women’s handbag collection.
FR: You wrote the book American Captive about your harrowing experience of being wrongfully imprisoned in the UK for two years after being framed for fraud. In the description to your book, you say you were subjected to “racism, classism, and discrimination of the worst kind”. Could you elaborate a bit on this?
EBM: You know, what’s really interesting is that I was raised in a predominantly white neighbourhood. My mother was an English professor, so we were raised to speak a certain way, to act a certain way, we were raised in the Church. I’ve always worked very hard in my career and, when I got arrested, all of a sudden my resumé was completely erased. Like, forget about the fact that I had been an abiding citizen, forget about the fact that I have a great resumé, I have a great career. All of a sudden I am this black, dangerous, lying, manipulative person, and the hardest thing for me was that all of a sudden all of the stereotypes that I’d worked so hard to break were so easily put on me, and one of the things that happened was the police said, “Oh, you know what, she has criminal convictions already in the US involving violence, and she’s violent and she’s dangerous.” So from the very beginning it was all these racist stereotypes put on me, and they were like, “She looks dangerous – tick”.
“When I came out, I was a very hard person, I was very angry. I thought, ‘You know what, I lived so many years trying to do the right thing and I ended up next to people who don’t care at all, so I’m just going to also not care at all'”
FR: Does telling the story still affect you emotionally on a deep level or did you find ways to cope with the hurt that’s attached to the experience?
EBM: It’s an experience that I didn’t think I would survive. I contemplated suicide many times and just couldn’t figure out how to do it. I’m a lot better now. Now I’m able to talk about the experience, but before I suffered severe PTSD when I got out, because I was there for two years and because I was held around people I would never have met before. I had never been around serial killers, I had never been around people who, you know, when the police came to get them, they were cooking body parts! So, it was a completely horrific experience. I’m getting better with the trauma, but I still have a lot of work to do, I still feel uncomfortable around a lot of people sometimes, I have severe trust issues. It’s something that you don’t forget quickly.
FR: Fast-forwarding a few years now, after you came back home, what happened and how did you get to the creation of your new brand, Elle B. Zhou?
EBM: When I came out, I was a very hard person, I was very angry. I thought, “You know what, I lived so many years trying to do the right thing and I ended up next to people who don’t care at all, so I’m just going to also not care at all” – that was kind of my thought. [And then] I actually met a guy – my now husband. When I met him, I just remember thinking he was so incredible because I wasn’t even myself and he still loved me [nonetheless]. He’s been a huge support for me, ’cause he kind of nursed me back to mental health, allowing me to have this kind of happiness. It was really him who was like, “Start sketching, start getting back into your fashion, start being creative.”
FR: It’s so cool that you decided to use a 3D black model with vitiligo to promote your brand – that’s such an innovative idea! But, talking more specifically about the clothes in your line, what materials did you use to make them and why?
EBM: I used a lot of silk. My goal was to use a lot of lightweight textiles that are gonna move freely, not really heavy or weigh you down. So I used cotton, I used silk, I do have a really great pair of leather trousers that I couldn’t resist creating, but my idea in moving into modest fashion was to create fashion that I would actually wear. So that’s why I still have cute crop tops. The reason for that is, and I think a lot of Muslim women can probably identify with this, a lot of the times if you have a short-sleeved shirt and you wanna put a shirt under it, the shirt is a full layer underneath, going from here all the way to the bottom. Well, we get hot, like that’s an extra layer, so what if it was just a crop that started here and then you don’t have that extra layer that you have to worry about? Silk is very breathable and flowy still at the same time, that’s why I wanted to use this type of textile.
FR: Is there any particular way you wish women feel like while wearing your clothes?
EBM: Because I wasn’t raised in Islam and I wasn’t raised a Muslim a lot of things out there in terms of Muslim fashion I didn’t feel comfortable wearing because it just didn’t feel like me, so my hope is for all women, [as], you know, I didn’t create a Muslim collection, it’s just a modest collection, [may] feel beautiful and that they feel cool and not overheated!
FR: With your clothing line, you’re raising money for Covid-19 and Doctors Without Borders. How did you manage not to lose faith in human beings and still engage in charity and good actions despite what happened to you?
EBM: I don’t think I have a direct answer to how I wanted to do something good still after such a terrible situation. Sometimes I just think I have amnesia and I just revert back to my natural self, but it has been a journey, and I’m still on the journey, but, when Covid-19 came, I really felt for how it affected the world because it didn’t discriminate, it didn’t matter if you were white, black, Muslim, Christian, rich, poor. It just took lives and businesses and shook up so many things around the world, so, if I had the opportunity to do something, that’s what I wanted to do.
FR: What’s next in the book? Do you have any new projects in mind?
EBM: Our latest thing now, I’m getting ready to opening a new store in the Beverly Center in Beverly Hills – I’m super excited about it, so that’s what we’re scrambling to do now.