Soufli: Reviving an industry on the Greek silk road

SOUFLI – Silk had never been high on the list of fabrics Electra-Yvonni was used to working with. For the Larissa-born fashion student with a penchant for the Aztec civilization and a tattoo to prove it, it was more about latex, for instance, and less about the finer fabrics with a higher price.

Things changed when the 24-year-old recently joined a group of 18 aspiring and young fashion professionals from public and private fashion schools on a working weekend trip to the silk-producing town of Greece, Soufli. All of them finalists in a competition defined as part of a broader effort to revive the local industry, the students became acquainted with Soufli silk through workshops, presentations and visits to local silk mills.

“The idea is to promote the silk of Soufli. We have the industry; we’re waiting for the orders,” said silk producer Giorgos Tsiakiris, president of Chryssalida, the association behind the competition which culminates in June next year.

Until a few years ago, orders had rarely been an issue in the northeastern Greek town. Situated 70 kilometers east of Alexandropouli (the capital of the Evros region), Soufli had become part of the silk road during the Byzantine era, with the fabric turning into the town’s main source of income up until the 1980s. The architecture still mirrors the local silk economy through the town’s signature “koukoulospita” – high-ceiling houses whose upper floors once housed silk worms and their cocoons. About 200 individuals are employed in the local industry nowadays, ranging from sericulture to selling silk products at stores as well as artisans working on embroideries at home. Three local families – Tsiakiris, Mouchtaridis and Sardanidis – run the last remaining silk factories.

On the outskirts of Soufli, the Tsiakiris production unit boasts four generations of silk mill tradition and a specialty in mousseline, georgette and crepe of China. In its heyday, some 15 years ago, the factory produced about 160,000 running meters per annum, of which 80 percent was exported to Turkey. The numbers are considerably lower these days following the liberalization of imports that resulted in a major influx of cheaper Chinese silk at the end of the 1990s coupled with the overall demise of the Greek textile industry, which led several companies to leave the country in search of cheaper production pastures. As production decreased, so did the public’s appetite for Soufli’s handmade embroideries. In 2004, Tsiakiris invested in a digital printer and began putting more emphasis on silk scarves and pashminas.

“The arrival of new technology cannot balance out the losses incurred from embroideries and handiwork,” he said. “While trying to restore the damage the crisis hit and things became even worse, with our retail stores closing down starting in 2010 and even more losses in terms of production.”

The family business is once again hoping to make good use of technology and is looking into the acquisition of a new, improved digital printer, a 150,000-euro investment Tsiakiris hopes to finance through the National Strategic Reference Framework (NSRF). The family is also behind the town’s Art of Silk Museum, which opened its doors in 2008 thanks to the European Union’s Leader regional funding program. Housed in a koukoulospito, the museum showcases a collection of silk-producing machinery and 200-years-old embroideries, among others.

According to Meletis Karabinis, general director of the Hellenic Fashion Industry Association (SEPEE), the silk professionals of Soufli should aim for the establishment of an inter-professional network.

“They ought to work on setting up an industry which would act as an alternative agricultural production, from sericulture to a marketed product, from the primary to the secondary sector,” said Karabinis, who is credited with encouraging and directing Chryssalida members in their efforts to re-energize the local silk sector. “The area has both the know-how and the tradition.”

The town’s silk-producing infrastructure could improve considerably through the utilization of a factory specializing in fiber spinning. Developed by a local authority company in 1995, the project was completed by 2003 but was never put to use due to a series of technical inefficiencies.

A business trip to Tokyo in 1976 inspired the late Athanassios Mouchtaridis to replace his cotton and wool production with silk. Starting in 1996, the company brought all of its products under the Silk Line brand. The firm is now managed by his son, Constantinos, The factory has a capacity of producing 50 to 52 meters of fabric daily, “provided there’s demand from the market,” as Mouchtaridis pointed out. The company specializes in fabrics such as the Amalia motif and the “metaxokoukoulariko,” a combination of processed and unprocessed silks.

How fashionable is silk these days?

“Certain companies like [Spain’s] Zara have succeeded in placing silk in daily wear by using fabrics from low-cost production countries,” said Tsiakiris, who currently collaborates with Greek brands and designers, including Zeus+Dione and Orsalia Parthenis.

Silk remains a key player in the world of fashion accessories, with silk scarves and ties, for instance, rarely going out of fashion. Mouchtaridis is eyeing the Italian and French markets, without discarding Turkey, Russia and the United States.

“Our quality is up to the level and our prices are considerably lower. What we need is good marketing,” he said.

Meanwhile, the competition’s finalists could contribute something of their own toward making the Made in Greece silk production more competitive and attractive to local and international audiences. Following more seminars in Athens and Thessaloniki, as well as working closely with established designer Daphne Valente, the students will submit their final sketches to a jury which will award three prizes. Besides symbolic cash prizes, the organizers hope the awards will assist the winners in their job-hunting efforts.

Following a degree in political science, competition finalist Sophia enrolled at an Athens fashion school earlier this year.

“The trip to Soufli was an opportunity to gain experience in how to design something which can actually be produced,” said the 30-year-old fashion hopeful, who enjoys mixing traditional fabrics in ready-to-wear looks.

“I got enthusiastic about a sector which appears to be going through hard times, but at the same time I came to realize that opportunities are arising during the crisis.”

[Kathimerini English Edition]

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