One of Mirela Nurçe's designs (image courtesy of Mirela Nurçe)
Albanian fashion designer Mirela Nurçe took part in the British Council’s Creative Enterprise Training scheme, which is delivered by UK trainers and introduced her to new connections in the fashion industry. She now sells almost entirely to Europe and the US, and recently opened a boutique at the Limelight Marketplace in New York.
In 1992, a girl from the small Albanian town of Lushnje decided to arrange the first runway fashion show in Tirana, the then troubled capital of a country where dozens of families were abandoning their homes for a new life across the Adriatic Sea.
Since then, Mirela has created dozens of fashion collections and dressed Albania’s First Lady, the Speaker of Albania’s Parliament, the Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho, and Italian actress Isabella Rossellini. Her day begins in her studio among sketches, needles and thread.
How has the British Council helped you develop your business?
Recently I took part in the British Council’s Creative Enterprise Training here in Albania. It was a great experience. The British Council gave me inspiration, and being part of this scheme was very important for my career. I met a lecturer, a former designer, from whom I learned a lot, and introduced him to my work. It was one of those meetings that empower you and give you confidence and stamina to work more. I do not know how to describe it, but the way we communicated made me think that my desires can come true in a much easier way.
Every enterprise has a beginning. What’s your story?
I come from a creative family. My mother is a very good seamstress, and other relatives were involved in painting and sculpture. I’m from the small town of Lushnje, and until 1990, it was very difficult to wear a dress, skirt or shirt that did not fit the rules of that time. However, I always tried to dress differently. I recall with nostalgia the time when my grandmother taught me how to sew, do needlework and knit. I will tell you a secret: I used to hate sewing. But time showed that I ended up enjoying something that I hated at first, and I became a stylist, with a needle and thread in my hands all day.
Do you remember your first creation?
My first runway show took place in May 1992. Those were difficult days. Everyone, even my family, was against it. They told me not to be the first designer to arrange a fashion show, but I felt I had to be the first, as I wanted to be recognised throughout Albania. And that became a reality. The show was held at the Palace of Congresses in Tirana. I showed dresses, suits, coats and topcoats on the catwalk. My models were university and ballet school students who broke the taboo by being part of the show, which was seen to be a foreign invention.
How was the atmosphere during your first show?
It was neither warm nor friendly. There were prejudices, and I was criticised by many people who did not understand the art of being dressed beautifully. However, I did not want to waste any more time. The first runway show was shortly followed by two others.
You are talking about a period in Albania when it was difficult to get raw material for clothing. How did you manage to produce what you designed?
We always found a solution. There was a lot of creativity but very little professionalism. No-one believed that you would be able to create a full clothing line 23 years ago, an authentic collection with color and material.
What happened to your dream of being a famous fashion designer in 1997, during the unrest in Albania?
Everything began to fade. The economy collapsed. But I countinued to spend my small earnings to create new clothes. It was the most difficult period of my life, the period when the business I had been nurturing despite many challenges was destroyed. My salons in Lushnje, Berat, Fier and Vlora were robbed. At that time I also lost my main supporter, my much-loved brother. I went back to Tirana, with very little income. We decided to rent a house, we slept in the annexe and I sewed at home. Everything had to start again from scratch. Fate was never my ally.
You say that fate was not your ally, but it had thought of you. In October ’97, you were invited to a fashion show in Copenhagen. It was an opportunity to present your work abroad.
I still continue to think that I am not fortunate, that everything is only the fruit of hard work. That show was the first step to bringing my designs to Europe and the United States. It was an achievement for me, but my biggest dream was New York. Later, a friend of mine got in touch with an Albanian photographer, Fadil Berisha. He liked my designs a lot, and within ten days he offered to send part of my collection to the US. I sent him the clothes, and we started to work together. Now my creations are next to famous European brands on Sixth Avenue in New York. Fadil and I are still beginners, but our ambitions are huge.
Is London your next ambition after New York?
Yes, why not? Right now I have many plans, but good work is done slowly. I am confident that one day I will become a part of one of the most important markets of the fashion industry, which is London. Time will tell. I’m only sure of one thing – I will be working harder than I ever did!
Creative Enterprise training workshops led by experienced UK business mentors and creative entrepreneurs will take place this autumn in Nigeria, Russia, Brazil and Macedonia. The first workshops start in Russia on 16 September 2013. Find out more and apply.
We’re also looking for UK-based entrepreneurs to apply for the h Club 100, an annual search for the most innovative people in the creative and media industries. Find out more and apply by 6 October 2013.