I had the chance to meet and interview Blanka Matragi in her bespoke atelier in Hamra street in Beirut. She is a Czech-Lebanese fashion designer who mingles diverse art forms into her Haute Couture and Ready-to-Wear collections. Her love of tailoring, her artistic concepts mixed to her innovative techniques make her unique: no wonder that her favorite motto is “take things out of the ordinary”!
You were born and raised in the Czech Republic. Then you married a Lebanese scientist and you moved with him to Beirut some 36 years ago. How does this double culture influence your work?
First of all, I was lucky to be educated in Czech Republic. I was able to graduate in two different fields. Since I was six years old I had the ability to look at things unusually. As kids we were dreaming about fairytale princesses, so I made a doll with cardboard and changed her dresses. When I was 15 years old I started modeling, sowing, and designing. My father was a teacher in crystal making: I did my artistic baccalaureate with him in engraving and designing crystal. This was the first opportunity.
Then I got accepted in the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design (AAAD) in Prague: that’s how my career as a fashion designer began. During my last year in the AAAD, I met my husband, who was finishing his PhD. We fell in love. He was a director in civil engineering in Saudi Arabia. At first we were writing letters to each other, then we settled together in Lebanon. From the first breath, I loved Lebanon! I loved the mood, people’s smiles, the acceptance, the sea. Plus I am tall and thin with red hair and they loved it (laughs)! In communism, you could not express yourself exceptionally. I always knew that I should go somewhere else, beyond the borders of Eastern Europe. I was lucky that Lebanon is such a cosmopolitan country.
In a course of a year, we opened the atelier in a prestigious location and many people heard about me through the media. I felt supported. Wives of ministers were among the guests… I started to work for the high society. The Lebanese women are demanding, sure of themselves and very proud like no other women in the world: it was a good experience for me.
In the Czech Republic I was educated about art and how to look at art, how to take the right things from history, art, nature, and my surroundings. But in Lebanon I was taught about the lifestyle of being Lebanese. If I had gone directly from the Czech Republic, without my Lebanese experience, to a client’s palace in the Persian Gulf, I could never have succeeded.
At the beginning of 2016, you were a special guest of “Lebanese Diaspora Energy” in Beirut…
The Lebanese minister of foreign affairs, Mr. Gebran Bassil, asked me if I can present my collection Return of the Phoenix. He invited me to the diaspora meeting of Lebanese people who succeeded abroad, but I was the only one living here and I had never left the country. He chose me as the opposite example. I showed that I’m a real fighter, a Czech surviving and succeeding in Lebanon with my double culture.
You obtained three degrees in arts and design: crystal production and engraving, fashion design, and painting, so you have been constantly working in different artistic fields in addition to fashion. Tell me about your work with glass and sculptural pieces.
In 1999, my crystalline collection was exhibited in Beirut, this is when the Lebanese discovered that I also design crystal. Private collectors would also ask me to create sculptures for them for architecture