Yiannis Tseklenis: Farewell to a tireless nonconformist

Yiannis Tseklenis: Farewell to a tireless nonconformist

He was a shining exception to a tough rule: the one that for some reason or another often stands in the path of a Made in Greece brand. The tireless, nonconformist and always creative Yiannis Tseklenis, the fabric and clothing designer who put Greece on the global fashion map in the 1960s and 70s, died in Athens on Wednesday, at the age of 82. He is survived by his partner Efi Mela and his son, filmmaker Constantinos Tseklenis.

Forward-thinking yet with a profound sense of the past and present, Tseklenis was a high-added value designer with clothing that was sold in 30 countries. His name was synonymous with Greek fashion for years, but his signature was also a part of Greeks’ day-to-day lives in a broader sense as well – in school uniforms and the interiors of buses, trains and airplanes. In all of its manifestations, his creative talent went hand-in-hand with his entrepreneurial spirit, his understanding of the market, of promotion and branding.

Tseklenis was born in Athens in 1937. His childhood and youth were full of wild adventures. A man of enormous willpower, he managed to push the restart button on his life after he lost one of his arms to melanoma in 1977.

A multifaceted force, he made his professional start in advertising before getting involved in textiles through a clothing collection he worked on with his friend Dimi Kritsas in 1965. The collection was picked up by Elizabeth Arden Couture in New York and Tseklenis was encouraged to start designing his own clothes. Those were heady times for the fashion industry, which was experiencing a new golden age that was expressed aesthetically by the likes of Italian designer Emilio Pucci. The Greek designer made a dynamic entry by developing around 50 collections where Greece was the star. He drew motifs from Byzantium, ancient pottery and Pelian woodcarvings, but also sketched insects and voodoo signs, as well as scenes from other world cultural legacies.

A tribute to Greek designers in Life Magazine in 1969 is credited to his efforts, which continued the following year when the Greek Fashion Festival hosted by the luxury Grande Bretagne and Asteras hotels brought acclaimed fashion writers to the Greek capital, as well as successful Greek designers of the diaspora, like Alexandria-born Jean Desses and Greek American James Galanos.

One of Tseklenis’ biggest disappointments lay in the failure of Greek fashion to really take off by combining its creative talent and productive forces.

“It is easier today to have a presence abroad mainly because of communication. But from the 1960s to the 1990s, the relationship between the Greek manufacturing industry and Greek design was a loveless one,” Tseklenis told me in an interview for Kathimerini’s K magazine in 2017. “In the 70s and 80s, Greece was the world's 12th top exporter of ready-to-wear clothing, but only in mass produced items. The country was selling its labor force at next to nothing. I would tell them: Create a brand with your signature. And if you can’t, at least add a ‘Made in Greece’ tag.”

Tseklenis’ production unit was headquartered in Markopoulo, east of Athens, and employed 500 people in its heyday. But the machines went silent in 1977 when news of his cancer spread through the market and the banks pulled their funding. He took over the historic Peiraiki-Patraiki textile firm for a brief spell in the 1980s and later re-emerged revitalized in the business of hotel and residential interior design.

“I had the privilege to enjoy the era when fashion made its gentle way to the sidewalk. One of my greatest challenges and rewards was a trip to Australia, which required three stops at the time, so I managed to see my clothing in Bangkok and Hong Kong, as well as Australia,” he had said in the interview. “I always made clothes for many, at a wide range of prices. I did not make static clothes that made you wonder how you’d sit in it. I made ‘easy’ clothes that you could throw into a suitcase and then put on for a cocktail party without even having to steam them. They also made people ask questions and were interesting.”

His restless spirit and interest in lively discussion led him in recent years to social media, where he was always ready to voice his opinion on the much-needed debate about aesthetics. He also took great joy in the success of his younger colleagues, like that of Sophia Kokosalaki, with whom he had worked on a team project in 2017. Last October, he stood through the funeral service of the Greek fashion designer who, like him, had managed to transcend Greece’s borders so successfully. Shortly before Christmas Tseklenis announced – with obvious delight – a collaboration with a new Greek brand where one of his vintage designs inspired a pair of sunglasses, while his scarves, decorated with motifs from his most famous themed collection, were being produced in the northern region of Soufli, the cradle of Greece's silk industry.

In the meantime, Tseklenis had donated the entirety of his collection to the Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation (PLI). Tseklenis and its founder, set and costume designer and fashion historian Ioanna Papantoniou, were childhood friends and had also grown even closer in recent years as a result of their professional activities. According to the foundation, an exhibition that Tseklenis had recently been working on will be held at the Benaki Museum, in cooperation with the PLI and the Fougaro art space in Nafplio in the Peloponnese.

“We have lost a great personality, a deeply educated and uniquely erudite man. He had opinions about everything and a strong sense of politics,” Papantoniou told Kathimerini. “His personality and his education were his greatest gifts. He is one of those Greeks who should have lived for 200 years.”

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