It’s the hunt for something I love, whether it’s art or clothes. I’m a big fan of discovering things.” Leila Maleki, art collector and ﬂedgling fashion designer, is perched on a sofa at her family’s London home, an enviable Georgian townhouse in Mayfair of classical proportions. Inside over ﬁve storeys is an internationally renowned and eclectic collection of Western and Middle Eastern contemporary art alongside Old Master paintings, antiques and, a particular strength, Post-War 20th century works by Arte Povera artists. Its walls are a neutral canvas for the art, nothing should distract from that. There is no interior designer’s hand here; this is a home formed organically through the Maleki’s 30 years of committed collecting. Anthony Gormley sculptures line the basement swimming pool, an Anish Kapoor sculpture sits in the sitting room window facing an Anselm Kiefer painting. So artistically engaged and informed are its inhabitants that it’s hard to imagine its contents could be dictated by any outsider.
Considering such surroundings, Leila is remarkably down to earth. Clad in Chanel espadrilles and a simple white dress, she greets me with a beaming smile, face bare of make-up. After kissing her 14-month-old son goodbye, she invites the photographer to roam the house while we talk, mind moving quickly from art to motherhood to the trials of ﬁnding dresses for a string of weddings in the social media age, a dilemma many women will understand.
Born in Iran, art is in Leila’s blood. Her grandfather, Dr Hassan Farshad, was a high court judge but after the revolution became an artist and opened a gallery in Tehran where, as a young girl, Leila attended weekly art lessons. He remains her “great artistic inspiration.”
The landing area features an array of antique objects and an 18th-century French antique sculpture
At 19 she moved to London to study law before working for her aunt and uncle’s art consultancy Candlestar, the force behind Prix Pictet and the Photo London fair, from 2005 until the birth of her son last year. Fittingly, it was at Christie’s that she met her husband, the collector Kamiar Maleki, in 2008: “I walked into Christie’s and he came up to me. The rest is history.”
Kamiar is “an art addict” but it’s a shared passion, one that has shaped their marriage and their homes. Together they travel the world’s galleries, fairs, graduate shows and studios, seeking out young and emerging artists. This work dominates their nearby apartment, where they recently moved after three years in the family home. Some they have long supported are now very much ‘emerged’; Oscar Murillo, Eddie Peake, Kour Pour and Christian Rosa, to name a few.
“When Kamiar sees something he wants, it’s hard to persuade him otherwise as our personal collection has really been built with his passion, knowledge and research,” says Leila. However, she trusts her instinct too and, after a decade’s involvement in the art world, she has become “more and more active since we got married.”
The living room with a gold sculpture on the wall by Lynda Benglis, a painting by Rashid Johnson and a stone sculpture by Anish Kapoor
When asked for her favourite artists, she points around her in the sitting room to a gold sculpture by Lynda Benglis, and paintings by Chris Oﬁli, Sterling Ruby and, the “family favourite”, Gerhard Richter. A personal favourite is the Iranian sculptor Sahand Hesamiyan, whose work Leila came across several years ago and is now represented by The Third Line in Dubai. She’s quietly proud of her recent appointment as a nominator for the Sovereign Art Foundation’s Middle East and North Africa Art Prize. Her tastes are international but observing, and when possible, promoting the careers of artists from her native Iran is something she talks about with particular seriousness.
Supporting the arts is a family pursuit and, belying its formidable facade, the Mayfair house exudes a sense of typically Iranian hospitality. During London’s high seasons, it comes alive with parties, launches, curator tours and fundraising events, including those for the ICA Young Patrons and Tate Young Patrons with which Leila and Kamiar are particularly involved. She says,
Of course, the art world is thick with the well-dressed. Leila particular admires the style of Michaela de Pury, a nearby neighbour who is married to auctioneer and collector Simon de Pury, and Lady Alison Myners, chair of the council of the ICA. Certain styles stick in the mind and she describes seeing a beautiful dress on a total stranger as “exactly the same as when an art collector discovers a new artist.”
The TV Room featuring a door on the left by Ugo Rondinone and a white painting on the right by Bertrand Lavier
It is these people, combined with her own need for stylish dresses for both weddings and art events, that inspired her new fashion line, ZELLEI. Plus, of course, that love of hunting out the new and unusual, be it art or fashion. On a recent trip to Thailand, armed with addresses from her Thai friends, she spent eight hours visiting small designers. “I love wearing dresses by young and not very known international designers and to be asked by people where it’s from is complimentary.”
The spur to turn the hobby into a business came last year. “While I was still breast feeding, I was looking for a special dress for my brother-in-law’s wedding. I was determined to ﬁnd that dream gown without over paying for a dress that I would only wear once and without having to worry that someone else might be wearing the same dress.” She and her mother-in-law, Fatima Maleki, went to Istanbul, a city she loves, for 10 days, and visited 30-40 boutiques and designers. One was Zelia Kacar, who made the long embellished purple dress Leila ended up wearing.
After speaking with friends she decided there was a gap in the market for dresses between cheap, mass produced ones costing a couple of hundred pounds and those over £5000 (Approximately Dhs24,644). Last December, returning home after a wedding, Kamiar convinced her to pursue the idea so she contacted Zelia, and in January ﬂew to Istanbul, the ﬁrst of six visits so far in planning their ﬁrst ZELLEI collection.
Leila reading in an area by the indoor pool
It’s a collaborative process, “We co-design every piece”, so while Leila creates mood boards of her inspirations and describes those dresses that have stuck in her mind, Zelia starts drawing.
The dresses will be made at Zelia’s atelier in Istanbul and priced between £500 to around £2000 (Approximately Dhs9,661), plugging that price gap, intended for women from 20 to 60 years plus. “I’m very close to my mother-in-law, who is one of the most elegant women I know. So I want some of the dresses to appeal to her peers.”
Several lines within the brand cater to differing regional and personal tastes: the classic ball gowns of ‘Park Avenue Princess’, some “more sensual and lacy gowns”, and ‘Minimal’ designs that are “all about cut with less embellishment.”
A bridal range has already launched in Istanbul, but Leila and Zelia plan to soft launch ZELLEI in the Mayfair house with an event this autumn, revealing it to friends and family. Many are in the fashion industry, their opinion invaluable. After that, they will hold events in Dubai, perhaps Qatar and LA. For now, she keeps it close to home. “This house is always supporting something; an artist or a museum” says Leila, looking around her, “It seems ﬁtting that this time, it is supporting my own brand.”
Words: Anna Brady. Photography: Ben Sage.
This article first appeared in the autumn 2016 issue of Harper's Bazaar Interiors