CULTURE

Greek designer plays global fashion game

LONDON – On a crisp Sunday evening, Sophia Kokosalaki is sipping a cup of tea. She has just relocated from the city’s Covent Garden area to Hackney and looks like she could use a break. «I decided that I’m going to lock myself in here for months,» she says, laughing. Why is it that it doesn’t sound like a joke? The hard work is obvious when it comes to this gifted Greek fashion designer who took London by storm five years ago. Since then, her collections have been praised by buyers and press alike – fans include «Sex and the City’» style-icon Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker). Does this make Kokosalaki a celebrity dressing fellow celebrities? «For some designers, it’s important to show up at events; their product is affected by their own celebrity status,» says Kokosalaki. «My focus is on making clothes offering a certain direction – not whether they will be worn by pop singers.» The designer is also focusing on the Athens 2004 Games. As a member of the creative team of Dimitris Papaioannou, she is designing the garments to be worn during the opening and closing ceremonies. «I enjoy being with the team. I work on my own but I’m in good company,» she says, adding that, «Aesthetically the clothes will be perfect, without elements of folklore – it will be a very moving experience.» When she’s not involved with the upcoming Olympics, the designer is busy working on her own collections. With the backing of a top Italian manufacturing unit, today Kokosalaki belongs to a prestigious club of designers who get to choose the right fabrics as well as maintain excellent quality in production. «I still work very hard, even harder than before, because the stakes are higher. At the beginning, people justify a lot, when a new designer comes up with 20 outfits, for instance,» says Kokosalaki. «I can’t compete with bigger brands, such as Louis Vuitton and Prada, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be dignified and be a strong company, small in size but still respectable.» Among the 60 outlets carrying the Sophia Kokosalaki label worldwide are London’s Harvey Nichols, Harrods, Liberty, Browns and Selfridges, Maria Luisa and Printemps in Paris, 10 Corso Como in Milan, Henri Bendel in New York, Neiman Marcus in Dallas and Junco in Japan. Meanwhile, the designer is concentrating her efforts on increasing her clientele. «My customer is not everybody – and that’s fine,» she says. «Whoever understands the clothes and wants to wear them is welcome to be my client. I can’t define that, because they are many different types of women. Generally, these are people who know how to put the clothes together and also have an interest in fashion. Sometimes this is a vague interest, but sometimes they are really interested – they work in fashion or in the arts. There are also people who are generally aware of fashion without following too closely but like the look. I guess this last category is getting wider.» Essentially what these clients are purchasing is Kokosalaki’s strong creative vision, though the designer’s signature style varies: For some it’s a draped dress, while others go for the leather jacket. «I like to confuse people and have something strong every year,» she says. «Two years ago, it was leather, then it was jersey and now I will change again – it’s a surprise and it’s going to be strong!» No matter what she comes up with next, chances are the international press will bill it as Greek-inspired. «I know garments very well, and I see them as garments, not because I want any reference to a particular point of history, such as the Greek traditional costume,» says Kokosalaki. «Now, if I see a dignified waistcoat, for instance, and I think that it feels right for the time, I will do it, in a translated way. The press likes to magnify that, so if it’s only one or two references, they will label it as a Greek collection. I don’t mind that at all.» Whatever the references, the fact remains that, along with her fellow designers, Kokosalaki has to come up with a series of exciting new ideas every season. This means reinterpreting her work and the way we live every six months. «Some people say that everything has been done before, that there’s nothing new. But it’s not about something 100 percent new; it’s the little change that is the most difficult and challenging. To take something that exists and to make it fresh, that’s very difficult,» she says. «Those who can do this are the top designers of our time.» Why did Kokosalaki take on this challenge? «The first time I realized how people were dressed, I was 10 or 11 years old. I noticed that all the little girls were better dressed than me – and, therefore, were treated better by ladies, gentlemen and little boys!» she says. «I didn’t care about the way I looked. I was the good student type. Then one day I realized that appearance was important. You might be the top student, the nicest human being ever, but it’s the other girls who get the attention. So I became interested in how you put yourself together. It was superficial, but it was important. It was not an intellectual need, but an emotional one.» The road to the top Born in Athens in 1972, Kokosalaki studied Greek and English literature at the University of Athens before embarking on a MA in Womenswear at London’s Central St Martins. She showed her first (off-calendar) collection in February 1999 and in June the same year was asked by Joseph to design a knitwear collection. In February 2000, she presented her first on-schedule show during London Fashion Week, while the following month she was contracted by Italian leather house Ruffo Research to design men’s and women’s collections for a year. In September 2000, the designer launched her own menswear collection. In April 2001, Kokosalaki was contracted by Top Shop retailer to design for TS Design label, while in September, she was the «Best New Designer» winner at the Elle Awards. In February 2002, she was the recipient of the Art Foundation Award for Fashion. In June 2002, she signed a licensing agreement for women’s shoe manufacturing. In November 2002, Kokosalaki was appointed designer of the costumes for the opening and closing ceremonies of Athens 2004. In May 2003, Kokosalaki was one of the designers featured in «Bodycraze,» an exhibition at London’s revamped Selfridges (alongside Hussein Chalayan, Alexander McQueen and Junya Watanabe, among others). In September 2003, Kokosalaki was the named Best New Generation Designer at the Lycra British Style Awards.