Star gauze – Nensi Dojaka is redefining sexy dressing for the female gaze
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Had it not been for a prosaic legislative reason, Nensi Dojaka might never have started her namesake fashion brand. The Albanian designer, 29 – who has dressed stars from Zendaya to Sienna Miller in her signature barely there designs – did so to be able to live in London. “I had to get a work visa, which hardly any brands sponsor any more, or do something by myself, so it was out of need,” she says.
Since launching her label in 2019, Dojaka’s cleverly engineered, conceal-and-reveal dresses – a delicate bricolage of organza, georgette and jersey cut-outs that straddle the space between lingerie and ready-to-wear – have made her a fashion-industry darling, and spearheaded today’s revival of sexy dressing, a mantle she modestly dismisses. “I think a lot of brands are doing it at the moment, so I don’t want to take responsibility for bringing back sexy clothing,” she says. “Personally, I don’t see it as revealing. For me it’s normal, and although there is still that ‘male gaze’, I think people are more accepting of it, and of the female body.”
It’s a blisteringly cold day and Dojaka and her design team are diligently working on the upcoming AW23 collection in the brand’s studio overlooking Highbury Fields; the walls are pinned with reference images of faux-fur coats and tailoring. Dojaka is dressed in an oversized white button-down and a pair of red Hunter wellies, her face bare save for a slash of red lipstick; a gentle, self-effacing figure that could seem at odds with her bold, attention-grabbing designs. “I didn’t really have much choice because this was the only thing I knew how to do,” she says of her aesthetic. “Coming from a lingerie background, it was the only way I could translate that into clothes.”
Born in Tirana, Albania, where fashion “doesn’t really exist as an industry”, Dojaka always had an interest in clothes: she would often find herself sketching girls in dresses during her drawing classes, which her parents sent her to from the age of five. She moved to the UK to attend boarding school in Shrewsbury in her teens, followed by a foundation year at Central Saint Martins, where a tutor encouraged her to specialise in lingerie “because I was always doing very small-scale designs on the mannequins, and it felt very natural”, adds Dojaka. She went on to do a BA in lingerie at London College of Fashion, and an MA in womenswear at Central Saint Martins. “I learned a lot during those two years,” she says. “And then just working on the brand has been… a learning process.”
In 2020, Dojaka was brought into the fold of Fashion East, the talent incubator helmed by Lulu Kennedy that helped launch the careers of Jonathan Anderson and Kim Jones. Her debut runway show – which featured slinky deconstructed minidresses, mesh separates and strappy bras – was a highlight of London Fashion Week.
A year later she scooped both the British Fashion Council’s Foundation Award for emerging designers and the LVMH Prize, whose endowment enabled her to expand her team and offering, as well as relocate production from the UK to Italy. “The exposure from that was bigger than anything else we had done,” Dojaka says of the prize, which has previously gone to Simon Porte Jacquemus, Marine Serre and Grace Wales Bonner. “Suddenly a lot of people started hearing about the brand, which was then reflected in the sales.”
Dojaka’s designs – a combination of pared-back minimalism combined with a highly constructed and precise method of layering and draping fabric on the body – have struck a chord. Sales for her SS23 collection have risen by 127 per cent from last season, while globally her stockist numbers have increased from 59 to 90. “The return of lingerie influences and visible underwear set the stage for Nensi Dojaka’s ascension,” says Marta Indeka, foresight analyst at strategic foresight consultancy The Future Laboratory. “This was cemented by her background and expertise in lingerie design, which allows her to make these complex, layered and cut-out pieces well-engineered, actually wearable and commercially viable.”
“It’s obviously very sexy, but it’s also very delicate,” says Tiffany Hsu, Mytheresa’s fashion buying director, who wore Dojaka’s sheer minidresses on holiday before stocking them on-site. “It’s body-hugging but light. The placement of the cut-outs is very interesting too, so you never feel like you’re showing too much flesh.”
Singer Rita Ora attended the most recent BFC Fashion Awards wearing a sheer raspberry-red gown from Dojaka’s SS23 collection. “Her designs make everyone who wears them feel empowered, dynamic and flawless,” adds Ora, who bonded with the designer over their shared Albanian heritage. “Nensi is one of a kind, and I have so much respect for the woman she is.” For influencer and broadcaster Camille Charrière, “there’s a real poetry and beauty in Nensi’s work; she’s not just doing sexiness to be provocative”. Charrière, who wore one of Dojaka’s see-through emerald-green dresses to the 2021 Fashion Awards, adds: “The way it skims your body, it reveals without trying to shape you.”
Celebrity fans of Nensi Dojaka include Rita Ora…
and Adut Akech
Dojaka is now expanding her product offering to include more outerwear (“options that my mum can wear”), as well as new categories such as shoes and, eventually, bags. This month, the designer is launching a 24-piece bridal collection with Mytheresa, inspired by her custom-made red-carpet dresses. “I’m always on the lookout for what would appeal to the more unconventional, fashion bride, or someone looking for a second look for the party, so when we saw the gowns we thought, ‘These are amazing,’” says Hsu. The range includes a version of the sequinned corset that model Adut Akech wore to the Fashion Awards, as well as a white-and-pink take on the custom heart-shaped cut-out dress worn by Zendaya.
For all her early success, Dojaka is candid about the pressures and at times insatiable demands from the industry, particularly on young, independent designers. “It feels as though you need to be doing something all the time to remain relevant, and posting it on Instagram, which I don’t enjoy doing, but it’s part of the job,” she laments. “You constantly need to remind people that you’re there because the big houses do so much, and they don’t really leave much space for smaller brands.” The reality of juggling the role of creative director with running a business has also proved challenging. “It’s a lot,” she concedes. “There have been emotional ups and downs. It just takes so much of your time, and it compromises the creative side of things. I can’t remember the last time that I went to bed and wasn’t thinking about [the business].”
Dojaka is both optimistic and level-headed about the next stages for the brand, which is on track to become profitable this year. “If I wanted to be profitable last year it could have been done, but it would have compromised a lot of other things, like producing in Italy, for example. I see it almost as an investment for the future. In this way, the quality of the clothing is getting better every season, so you get to keep those customers. You need to think long-term and suffer a bit at the beginning,” she adds. “That’s what my dad taught me anyway – so I’m trusting him.”
Despite the long hours, seeing people’s reactions to her clothes has made the hard graft worthwhile. “I love it when the show is out, and you get the reward at the end, that unveiling of everything,” she says. “At the last show, I saw some people cry, which made me happy because I felt that it had meant something, no? It’s creating an emotion.” What could be a greater reward than that?