Youth is wasted on the young. Or at least that was the case for me when it came to bodycon dressing. But thanks to a new generation of young designers who grew up on the internet, it’s not too late to embrace the devil-may-care boldness of youth. And no one is harnessing that spirit more confidently, or making us feel more seen, than Albanian-born London-based designer Nensi Dojaka.
As we order breakfast at Claridge’s, Nensi pulls out a few exquisite swatches of her now signature see-through tulle. We are planning a dress, you see. Not just any dress: she is making me a bespoke ‘naked’ gown to wear to the Fashion Awards (where she’d go on to win the BFC Foundation award). Her nomination means the stakes are high and our excitement is palpable. No one has ever asked me to be a muse before and I have taken the role very much to heart. She listens to all my ideas and then gently tells me to trust her: she’s got this.
Having forged a friendship on Instagram DM, this is the first time we have met in the flesh, the pandemic having got in the way. Then there’s the fact that, in just three years, Nensi has become one of the most sought-after designers on the planet, meaning she quite literally doesn’t have the time to make friends. ‘It’s hardcore,’ she says as our eggs arrive. ‘I feel really grown up. Having a brand is such a huge responsibility.’
Bella Hadid propelled Nensi to stardom overnight by wearing a micro-panelled top to the 2020 VMAs. Hot on her heels came other Gen Z darlings, including Emrata, Zendaya and Hailey Bieber. ‘But it’s not all about celebrities these days,’ she notes. ‘I started selling out after girls like you wore the brand and tagged it on Instagram.’ Such is the power of social media.
Nensi’s unexpected, clingy pieces drape like a second skin, revealing just enough but never too much. She is spearheading the 2021 revival of sexy dressing. And it’s not just about how her dresses look, but how they make you feel. Speaking as a fan of the brand (I bought a LBD from her first collection), very few dresses have ever made me feel this good. It looks so delicate before you slide it on – but it’s one of those dresses that wants you to take it out for a good time, the kind that gives you the same ego boost as a glass of champagne.
The Nensi Dojaka look is making waves offline, too. Her black asymmetric minidress is arguably the dress of 2021 (it was among Lyst’s 10 hottest women’s products in early 2021 and went on to attract, on average, over 7,000 searches per month for the rest of the year). In September, she took home the prestigious LVMH Prize, meaning she is officially backed by one of the largest fashion groups in the world, who’ll offer her mentoring and €300,000.
‘I never imagined I could possibly win,’ she tells me earnestly, her eyes still wide with shock. ‘I don’t think it has sunk in yet. It’s all happened so fast.’ All she can remember from the day is the fact that she somehow managed to sneak her father in. How does he feel about his daughter becoming the poster child for sexy dressing? ‘He is just so proud.’ He’s not the only one. The prime minister of Albania WhatsApp’d her when he heard she had won the coveted award. ‘Albania is a small place, there are less than three million of us, so everyone is rooting for you to do their country proud.’
Growing up in Tirana, the Albanian capital, Nensi was an imaginative, creative child. She moved to London for school aged 16, going on to study at both Central Saint Martins and London College of Fashion, where she specialised in the meticulous art of lingerie technology. In 2019, her CSM MA collection caught the eye of Lulu Kennedy, who took her into her Fashion East family, where she made her first outing in 2020. This September, when she made her solo catwalk debut, it was one of the moments of London Fashion Week.
Back to this naked dress I am to wear. You might be surprised to hear that, during my formative years, the closest I ever came to showing off my figure was in a boxy white tee paired with denim. At work, I was nicknamed Tiny Tits (a moniker unkindly bestowed on me pre #MeToo by my older male colleagues at a hedge fund).
It left me feeling like I wasn’t allowed to flaunt my femininity, which was reserved exclusively for women who had the equipment: the boobs, the bum, the hips, the waist. I often wonder whether I went into fashion because in that bubble a boyish figure was glorified. Actively dressing unsexy (we called it ‘man repelling’) was the way to earn your street cred. Fast forward to 2021 and assent of the body positive movement has brought in a new chapter for people of all shapes and sizes.
Right now, high fashion is embracing hot-to-trot sexuality in a way that we haven’t seen since the saucy ’90s – a direct reaction, no doubt, to all those hours spent in a fleecy onesie during le confinement. ‘I think sexy dressing is something that has always been relevant because women want to feel confident and “sensual” but it has perhaps been missing a bit in the fashion scene in the past decade and that’s why now it feels fresh and new and empowering,’ says Nensi. Who would she love to see in one of her dresses? Kristen Stewart, she muses, because she is the new people’s princess – and the queen, Ashley Graham, of course.
Although her designs might exude an own-the-room boldness, as we finish our food I realise just how modest and unpretentious she is. Her aura is one of very quiet confidence, the kind of energy one would want when entering a room. ‘We live in a time when women are increasingly finding their voices and this feeling of empowerment is hugely manifested through a sort of freedom to dress and to “show off”,’ she says. ‘There’s a bravery, a rebellion even, attached to it.’
SEE: All The Stars At This Year's Fashion Awards
Dua Lipa proved that the long black dress is just as effective as its flirty cousin in custom-made Maximilian.
Billie Piper's ice blue princess dress came with bite, courtesy of white stockings and lace-up platforms from Vivienne Westwood.
Alexa Chung paired her lemon-coloured frock (from Caroline Hu) with this year's ultimate party accessory: sheer gloves (oh, and a bag from Mulberry x Alexa Chung).
Kapow! Gabrielle Union stole the show in this zesty number with a serious squeeze of lime from Valentino Haute Couture.
Georgia May Jagger's tuxedo coat, sequinned skirt and sheer tights - all from Tommy Hilfiger - was the style equivalent of an ace.
The British Fashion Council's CEO proved that a little black dress never goes out of style (especially if it has long sleeves like this one from David Koma).
Munroe Bergdorf arrived wearing a fabulously gothic gown in black and emerald.
Tonight's host in what must be the first of many (many) fabulous looks (this one's from Richard Quinn).
Paloma Elsesser, a guest of FLANNELS, wore a floor-skimming yet slinky outfit from 16 Arlington.
Priyanka Chopra's catsuit and coat, another exuberant creation from Richard Quinn, was perfectly arranged on the red carpet by husband Nick Jonas. Bless.
Romeo Beckham and Mia Regan, Gen Z's ultimate power couple, arrived in head-to-toe black (Regan rented her dress from My Wardrobe HQ at Harrods).
A favourite when it comes to all-out glam, Kate Beckinsale and her hair bow did not disappoint.
One of our red carpet favourites has to be Indya Moore, who stunned in this ravishing dress.
Like Mona Tougaard and Adriana Lima, Winnie Harlow also opted for a gown that majored on the ab area, a one-of-a-kind creation from 2 Moncler 1952 Woman.
Bimini Bon Boulash looked iconic in layers of pastel pink and latex from H&M.
Kristen Scott Thomas looked typically magisterial in this black silk gown by AMI.
Addison Rae's pearl-embellished gown was by Richard Quinn, one of the nominees for the BFC Foundation Award.
Raye proved that purple is just as alluring as pink on the red carpet.
One of the night's most elegant ensembles came courtesy of Lily Allen, who chose a waistcoat and wide-legged trousers instead of a traditional (read: boring) gown.
Presenter Tom Daley wore a power polo neck for the Fashion Awards.
Maya Jama was the ultimate lady in red courtesy of Alexander McQueen.
Snazzy suits - like this blingy number on Tan France - replaced the traditional tuxedo on the red carpet.
KSI's pearl-embellished two-piece - made by Dolce & Gabbana - is fitting for a festive gathering, no?
Model Mona Tougaard did the classic reveal and conceal with this scarlet gown.
Designer Bianca Saunders - nominated for the BFC Foundation Award - confirmed the trend for ab-centric cut-outs (see Mona Tougaard) in this stunning gown.
Model Deba Hekmat wore a feathered frock from Georgios Trochopoulos.
Designer Charles Jeffrey put a typically sideways spin on the classic tuxedo, giving it what looked like a tulle bustle. We approve.
Much too sensible to just style out a suit, David Gandy arrived wearing a plush navy coat.
Justine Simons, Deputy Mayor for Culture and the Creative Industries, wore a balloon-sleeved gown in ruby red.
Abby Roberts ticked off three trends on the red carpet - corsets, miniskirts and leopard print.
Kosar Ali looked like a bed of roses in Richard Quinn, the perfect antidote to this freezing winter weather.
Jessica Wang matched the snow outside in this dreamy tulle dress.
The Dragon Tattoo actor looked typically badass in this twist on tailoring from AMI.
The influencer extraordinaire wore Dior (complete with bedazzled beret).
Musician Bella Poarch arrived wearing a pearly party dress by Richard Quinn.
Simone Rocha was the picture of elegance in one of her cocooning designs.
Griff was one of our favourites in this pearl-coloured ensemble - complete with platform pumps - by Simone Rocha.
The ultimate Nensi Dojaka girl wears a bespoke 'naked' dress by the designer, who scooped the BFC Foundation Award on the night.
Stella Maxwell was business on top and party on the bottom in Saint Laurent.
Evan Mock looked ready to slalom down the slopes in this skiwear-esque ensemble from Fendi.
Stephanie Phair, BFC Chair, got the sequins memo with this discoball blouse.
Adriana Lima sizzled in this sequinned two-piece.
Kaya Scodelario arrived wearing this silvery puffball and frosting from Cartier.
Micheal Ward proved that tailoring doesn't have to be monochrome.
Hannah Weiland wore a faux-fur coat (heaven!) from her own label, Shrimps.
Molly Goddard didn't wear tulle - her signature - but flaming red taffeta.
He didn't do a bare chest and feather boa, but still, Paul Mescal looks like he might be borrowing fashion moves from Harry Styles (he's wearing his favourite label, Gucci, after all).
Kristen McMenamy paired her mermaid waves with this coral-coloured gown and gloves combo.
Charli XCX, one of tonight's performers, wore classic-with-a-twist sequins.
Mae Muller channeled the '60s, arriving in a mirrored minidress and knee-high boots.
Actor Wallis Day did an Angelina Jolie, letting one leg be the star of the show.
If you can't wear a polka dot catsuit to the Fashion Awards, when can you? Steinfeld's is H&M.
Another pair of latex gloves, this time on Rochelle Humes, who also worked a thigh-high split like Charli XCX.
Kris Jenner arrived wearing a wrap from Tommy Hilfiger, the designer who she'll later be presenting with the Outstanding Achievement Award.
Shanina Shaik glowed in this glistening creation on the red carpet.
Cindy Bruna looked adorable (and weather-appropriate) in Richard Quinn.
Karen Elson proved that sometimes simple is the most striking.
For the biggest night in fashion, Erin O'Connor stuck to her guns in gorgeously proportioned tailoring.
Leomie Anderson played peekaboo with her lace dress.
Ella Balinska's silk skirt, also from Richard Quinn, is just the thing for dancing in.
Kehlani proved (definitively) that polka dots can be directional.
Neelam Gill's ruffled gown (another rented gown from Maticesvski from My Wardrobe HQ at Harrods) was almost as appealing as Parma Violets.
Jenna Coleman's draped and cinched gown was an instant classic.
Make way for Maye Musk, who looked positively regal in Tony Ward.
Alesha Dixon made a very convincing case for the blazer dress.
Lady Amelia Windsor looked ready for the ball in this gold frock.
The model brought some feathered fun to proceedings with this lace-up dress from Dundas.
Maria Sharapova chose a mindfully made dress from Iris Van Herpen. Made in collaboration with Evian, it was designed with fabric sourced from recycled bottles.
The model-actor continued her directional style odyssey in this high-fashion breastplate.
Elsa Hosk looked blooming lovely in a ball gown from Richard Quinn.
Gillian Anderson arrived on the arm of Gabriela Hearst, her date and designer of her dress from Chloé.
Halima Aden's gown put a spin on the classic tuxedo in this sleek number from Tommy Hilfiger.
Sabrina Elba's frock from David Koma, embellished with a crystal flower, was one of our favourites of the night.
Jourdan Dunn created a moment in this sculpted masterpiece.
Arriving on the arm of Kim Jones, Demi Moore added slick leather gloves to her spangled dress.
Going for gold, Ramla Ali wears Cartier jewels.
Alison Loehnis wore svelte sequins from LaQuan Smith.
Lianne La Havas wore a dreamy lace gown from Christopher Kane (avec big knickers!).