Designer Pentcheva flirts with femininity

Vesselina Pentcheva. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

Vesselina Pentcheva. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

Since 2000, Vesselina Pentcheva’s eponymous brand has been synonymous with romance, poetry and dresses à la Valentino with fine corollas, graceful bows and crafted corsets.

Pentcheva’s shop, a pretty boudoir wallpapered with dresses in diaphanous lace, silk and sheer tulle, nestles just beneath her atelier, on Parktown North’s 10th Avenue in Jo’burg. Luxurious fabrics hang everywhere, silent silhouettes suspended in a motionless dance.

Pentcheva was born on the banks of the Danube River in the little Bulgarian town of Russe. There, when she was 11 years old, she would spend hours watching the ballerinas’ grands jetés and arabesques on the stage of the town’s Opera House, gazing at the costumes and already knowing that she wanted to design clothes.

Her mother moved to South Africa, hoping to escape the misery of Bulgaria’s communist past.
When Pentcheva turned 18, she joined her. She could not speak a word of English but “recognised South Africa as a place of possibility, limitless opportunity and fantastic people”.

Three years later she enrolled at the Gordon Flack-Davison Academy of Design and graduated as top student in 1996. She remembers learning “classic craftsmanship and construction and invaluable lessons about discipline and self-belief from [Flack-Davison’s] assistant, the late Anna Peltz.”

Armed with her creativity and design skills, Pentcheva then learned the business side of fashion from one of the best — Marianne Fassler. Celebrated for her bold animal prints and electrifying tones, Fassler is also a hands-on businessperson who has been in the industry a long time. She offered Pentcheva a job and encouraged her to be brave with colours, patterns and shapes.

In 2000, Pentcheva established her own brand and signature style: sensuous evening gowns, cocktail and prom dresses with intricate corsetry, fine netting, petals of silk on the edge of a décolleté, embroidered flowers and black-and-white garments inspired by that icon of conflicted souls, Frida Kahlo.

Pentcheva’s collections are ­nostalgic images of femininity — reminiscent of a time when women dressed for every occasion, including dinner. Her clients are mostly looking for that special dress for an exceptional event, and Pentcheva has built up brand loyalty: the woman who once bought her matric dance dress from her will return for a wedding dress. And at up to R30 000 for a top-of-the-range gown, that’s an impressive achievement.

Firmly nostalgic
In 2009, Pentcheva participated in her first Fashion Week — Precious Moloi-Motsepe’s African Fashion International’s event — and in April this year she launched her bridal range at SA Fashion Week.

Pentcheva is not a trendsetter. Her collections do not foretell tomorrow’s streetwear; her style is firmly nostalgic, a crossover between la belle époque European silhouettes with accentuated waists and voluminous skirts, and the vibrancy and craftsmanship of contemporary South Africa. Her influences are eclectic and she can be inspired as much by the fairy-tale character Little Red Riding Hood as by the ­legendary designer Coco Chanel.

Her clothes are more than just pretty: they are moulded to the woman’s body, travelling along curves, embracing the arch of a back or the softness of a neckline in figure-flattering cuts.

On the major challenges of being a fashion designer in South Africa, Pentcheva cites the lack of skills in production and on the business side.

“In order to compete with imports, local designers have to drive down costs and this invariably results in a loss of quality,” she says.

“We cannot produce mass quantities at the competitive prices required to win local customers. At the bespoke end of the market, local designers are able to compete by keeping their margins very tight but must still overcome a customer’s lack of understanding or appreciation for the craftsmanship.”

Building personal relationships with the people who are going to wear your clothes comes with the couturier’s territory. Pentcheva sees six to 10 clients a day, spending at least an hour with each. She and her team — her assistant and right-hand woman, Naomi Wiid, and five seamstresses — learn about the clients’ histories and families, their experiences and wishes.

Despite her success, Pentcheva is not pushy. At Fashion Week, she tends to avoid the buyers’ lounge, where potential retail clients pick and choose from local collections, and she has no burning desire to be at the forefront of the fashion scene.

A bit like Nina Ricci, the Fifties French designer who was famous for her Parisian chic, the ladylike silhouettes of her clothes and her dislike of the spotlight, Pentcheva carries an air of mystery, a shy je ne sais quoi. Her flamboyant red hair belies her discreet character.

She doesn’t specifically seek lucrative licences and when asked why she doesn’t design ready-to-wear ranges in bigger quantities, she exclaims: “I feel like I cannot compete with the likes of Zara, there is too much competition. It’s not me. I like to work with beautiful fabrics, I don’t want to compromise.”

And so Pentcheva remains exclusive, designing with a couturier’s care, and telling stories with her clothes she hopes are an escape from reality into a world of beauty, romance and elegance. Her secret: “Stay true to yourself and live your art.”

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