Why being told 'no' didn't stop designer Lilian Afshar starting her own handbag label

The British-born Iranian's pieces have been spotted on the arms of Beyonce, Queen Rania and Bella Hadid

Lilian Afshar, founder and designer of L'Afshar bags. Courtesy L'Afshar
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“I wanted to create an initiative where our customers, as a collective, could come together and make a change,” says bag designer Lilian Afshar. She is speaking about her recently released Sierra bag, created to help raise money for medical organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres. 

The purple Sierra bag is being sold on www.lafshar.com for Dh3,674, with proceeds being donated to the charity's Covid-19 Crisis Fund.

I was hit back with a lot of 'no' or 'that is not possible', but I kept going until we got it right

When coming up with the campaign, which is registered with the UAE's Islamic Affairs & Charitable Activities Department, the designer decided the best approach was to ask her customers which charity they wanted to support. "So I reached out to everyone on our Instagram asking them to recommend all the great organisations we can work with. That is what this initiative also symbolises: unity and solidarity," she explains.

Since launching her brand in 2013 in Dubai, Afshar has made a name for herself with her hard-framed evening bags, often intricately patterned or pieced and, although small in size, loaded with attitude and sass. Made in repeating, geometric patterns, or in luxe materials with large-scale acrylic chains, her pieces are regularly carried by the likes of Beyonce, Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Celine Dion and also Queen Rania of Jordan.

Courtesy L'Afshar

Afshar has an eye for tidy, structural shapes that she calls "a mix of architecture and art", often using difficult or unusual materials. She has famously created bags such as the Bianca, made from diamonds of bevel-edged mirror, or the Eugene in white marble, and the Eva in clear acrylic that looks like crushed ice.

“The obstacle I faced was in the beginning, trying to find ways to use materials that had never been used in handbags. I was hit back with a lot of 'no' or 'that is not possible', but I kept going until we got it right,” she says. It is a process of exploration without end, she adds.

"We spend a lot of time in research and development. One of my favourite things to do is to sit with my production team and bounce back ideas and come up with new techniques."

Beyonce carrying the Ida bag, by L'Afshar. Courtesy L'Afshar

One of the latest techniques involves lucite, a type of acrylic that had its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, when it was largely used for making jewellery. By choosing to return to it, Afshar continues to acknowledge the distinctive glamour of the Art Deco era that infuses her collections.

Brought bang up to date, these themes now play out as tiny box bags with lucite chain handles, or with lucite cast into transparent handled bags, either left clear as ice, or dyed into candy-coloured tones, making each one a precious, gleaming gem.

“I always loved mixing two polar opposites and observing the outcome,” she says.

A British-born Iranian, Afshar has lived in several countries, including the UK, Canada and Spain, but now calls Dubai home, where all her bags are hand made. She draws on skills learnt studying at Esmod, the Dubai branch of France’s Ecole Superieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode.

“I studied fashion design, but always had a bit more interest in accessories and design objects, and I found it fascinating to think of a design or idea and see it translate into a real piece,” she says.

“Interest is what motivates me to create," she says of her design ethos. 

"The passion for creating came first, it just so happened that I turned it into an actual brand and business. I’m interested in all aspects of design outside of the realm of fashion. For me, fashion is an industry I’ve always wanted to be part of and I knew I would start in, but as a creative.”

Now stocked in 17 countries  such as the UAE, China, London and Canada  the stockist list for her bags reads like an industry who's who. This includes Selfridges, Moda Operandi, ShopBop, Holt Renfrew, among others.