Elle B. Mambetov: Bum Rap
Fashion designer Elle B. Mambetov’s incredible story sounds like a movie. Sadly, it is all true. Betrayed by a friend, she ended up in prison, where she wrote a book, A6347DW: American Captive,depicting the systemic racism, sexism and corruption that she discovered as she worked to prove her innocence. It almost broke her — except, it didn’t. Now she’s back, sharing her incredible story on PBS’sAmerican Portrait, with a new womenswear fashion line of modest clothing, Elle B Zhou, and a bricks-and-mortar store opening this summer.
Growing up in Texas, Elle B. Mambetov loved playing with her doll and making her clothes to match her own. She never attended fashion school, but she studied business in college, then decided she wanted to understand the business of fashion, so she moved to China to learn about manufacturing and then to London. When she was only 26 years old, she was featured as a London Fashion Week designer. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw my designs come down the runway,” she says. “I had accomplished my goal in that moment.”
But then something happened. Mambetov was arrested after a “friend” racked up more than a million-dollar debt in her name. He confessed to the crime, but a few months later, the police knocked on her door. They took her directly to court from the police station, labelled her a “violent and dangerous criminal with previous convictions in the United States” (all untrue) and remanded her to HMP Bronze eld, a women’s prison, where she had to fight to even call her mother.
Now, it’s survival … if you can survive all these experiences and find a way to overcome them, that is my new definition of success
“In court, I was thinking,’ Whoa, that’s not me.’ I felt the weight and the heaviness of racial perception in an instant,” she says. “I had a bachelor of business [degree], I had a viable business and a fashion career, but all of a sudden, I was this violent criminal from another country.”
In 2018, two years later, Mambetov was released and moved to Los Angeles, where, in a happy moment, she got married, then converted to Islam. In fact, it was her husband who suggested she might like to start designing again.
Now, she’s proud of her luxury womenswear line, Elle B Zhou. The collection itself, with cropped tops, short-sleeved shirts and joggers, are filling a gap for people, and it is actually representative of her own journey into dressing modestly, Mambetov says. Recently, she hosted a runway show, featuring supermodel Shahad Salman, to create a virtual 3D runway show, with benefits going to support COVID-19 relief. And this July, she’s opening a retail store to showcase her designs in the Beverly Center in Beverly Hills, Calif. She’ll be in good company with neighbours that include Gucci and Prada.
And Mambetov considers herself successful. “Before it was more literal: ‘What press did I have? What stores are interested in carrying my brand?’” she says. “Now, it’s survival … if you can survive all these experiences and find a way to overcome them, that is my new definition of success.”
The personal memoir of Elle B. Mambetov – from designer, to wrongfully imprisoned, and back again.
Life is but a blur at times — incomprehensible. As a little girl, I dreamt of being a fashion designer, and I’ll never forget the first time I saw my designs come down the runway at London Fashion Week. In so many ways, for me, I had accomplished my goal in that very moment. Fashion is a hard enough industry to survive as it is, without harm being done to you by those closest to you.
Looking back, I suppose I lived in a bubble. I knew that bad things happened in the world, and that there were people who did some of those bad things. I guess I just never thought any of those people could do something bad to me. I was betrayed, preyed upon and manipulated by a man I called “my friend” — my very good friend at the time. Fashion is such a sociable industry. We are always meeting people at events, swapping contacts and making introductions that often turn into lifelong friendships. I used to be a social butterfly and felt it was easy to connect with people. I think it’s that part of my personality that has given way to the highs and lows in my life and career. My sense of adventure is sprinkled throughout the years of my life. I’ve been fortunate enough to have travelled to many countries, exploring Asia in Vietnam, South Korea and Cambodia. I’ve been to Russia and have had the pleasure of tasting true authentic pasta and pizza in Italy. My world travels have given me a more grounded overview of life. To see and experience how other people live, how other cultures develop and how the people of those cities and villages interact influence my current daily life in many ways. Something as simple as seeing how the villagers in Cambodia were packed into cages and driven to factories to make clothing impacted my decision to return to fashion in the luxury sector as a by-product of my choice to manufacture in Italy. One of the most expensive countries in the world to develop products because of the craftsmanship and skill, it is also a country where factories are practising safe production standards. I cannot create fashion that violates the basic human rights of people, even if in some countries those rights aren’t as clearly outlined or enforced as they are in the West.
I suppose I’d say the difficult times in my life taught me tenacity. It’s not a personality trait I would have had otherwise. Circumstances often force growth, force change, whether we like it or not. I’ve had investors zip in and out of my life like a yo-yo, lost major deals with retailers because I couldn’t afford the manufacturing to fulfill the order. There are so many hurdles that I don’t count, but only tally up the knowledge I learned from each experience. From each investor meeting that didn’t work, I learned about all the different types of investment a business can use to make their business successful. And now, having converted to Islam, if I were ever to take on an investor, I would know how to make sure the investment was Sharia-compliant. As a brand that was previously subject to the traditional 30-/60-/90-day payment terms from retailers, I was able to make the decision to do away with such payment terms in my business, giving brands an opportunity to grow and remain healthy during our collaboration, rather than keeping that money in my own company for personal growth. I believe, or, at least, I hope, that nothing is wasted. No circumstance or experience is wasted.
When I found out that my former friend was stealing from me, using my name and my fashion business to do fraud, my mind was shattered into a million pieces. It was unthinkable. I was hurt beyond reasoning, and it was only the beginning of this life-altering situation. They found him, arrested him and charged him with — and he confessed to — six counts of fraud. He confessed to defrauding me, lying to me and scamming me. I’ll never forget when the police called me to tell me that they’d found him. I just wanted to know why: “Why would he do what he did to me?” He was my friend.
Even still, the pain of the situation lingers. I get discouraged at times and feel tired of trying — tired of trying to rebuild and growing weary of pushing myself toward greatness, having started from zero all over again. Being a fashion designer has been one of the most rewarding yet challenging dreams of my life. e world of fashion is an invitation to step into the dreamy world of a designer as a creative. I only hope to continue to recover and be brave enough to dream, create and share my dreams with the world in designs for my brand, Elle B Zhou. If I truly believe that nothing is wasted, I’ll find a way to carry on.
Interview by Cassandra Giammarco