NEWS

Benaki presents Greek designer duo’s pioneering 1960s dresses

A highly original fashion show took place in the basement of a neoclassical building on Voulis Street, near Athens’s Syntagma Square, back in 1961, when artists Pepi Svoronou and Dimosthenis Kokkinidis presented a collection of hand-painted dresses in the atelier. The garments had been pinned to the wall like works of art. The sensation caused by the handsome dresses was tremendous. Besides being bought by well-known elegant Athenians, including publisher Eleni Vlachou, they were also picked up by Princess Sofia, the future queen of Spain. The dresses subsequently appeared on magazine covers and soon enough started circulating abroad. Such was their success beyond Greek borders that five years later, the New York Times published a story dedicated to «designer Pepi» and her «handmade fashion canvas dresses.» It is quite possible that along with a series of posters created by graphic artists Michael Katzourakis and Freddy Karabot on behalf of the Greek National Tourism Organization, the hand-painted dresses became the greatest and only international success stories for Greek design until now. Nearly half a century on, the Benaki Museum’s Pireos St annex is organizing a small retrospective exhibition dedicated to the couple who have stayed together for 50 years – both in life and art. Besides showcasing the cult dresses, which were a joint effort, the exhibition further includes paintings by both artists, works featuring a very different visual arts vocabulary. The idea for this joint presentation belongs to Kokkinidis, who wished to pay tribute to his wife, who has yet to recover from a stroke she suffered in 2004. «The dresses were a pioneering effort without us realizing,» said Kokkinidis in an interview with Kathimerini. «Modernism was unknown to Greece back then. There were those who fought to capture it through new solutions in painting. We had been fortunate enough to have earned a scholarship to study in Florence in 1959, something which became an eye-opening experience. We got to meet major designers who at the time were at the beginning of their careers, talents such as Ettore Sottsass. In our early days we had collaborated with the Hellenic Organization of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises and Handicraft (EOMMEX). Later on, however, we decided to come up with something of our own and that’s how the dresses came about. «Each dress was unique and signed. Later on Pepi filled up a suitcase with samples and took them to the United States. She developed a distribution network and for years we collaborated with top stores. In the space of 20 years we designed some 3,000 dresses and a number of ties,» noted Kokkinidis. According to the artist, design turned into a missed opportunity for Greece, not only on a financial level, but on an aesthetic and social level as well: «I remember getting together with a group of artists, people like Michalis Katzourakis, Yiannis Hainis and myself. We visited [the late statesman] Georgios Papandreou and talked but nothing came of it. It’s important to remember that the overall absence of aesthetics, from public spaces to our homes, has to do with the absence of design in our daily lives. I don’t mean expensive objects, but the popularization and spreading of good taste.» While the couple was enjoying huge success with the dresses, their paintings remained largely unsold. Both political activists in the 1960s, Svoronou and Kokkinidis dealt with this fact stoically. At the Benaki, the show presents their creative path through a selection of pieces stemming from the most important chapters of their works. «The tribute aims to show how two different languages coexisted on the visual arts front and how they came together in a common project, which was the dresses. In this way you also reach conclusions regarding the couple’s life together. I was a big fan of my wife’s paintings. And I still feel sad when I think about the fact that she stopped exhibiting her works before I did. She did that in order to raise our child and dedicate herself to the dresses, which is how we made our living,» noted Kokkinidis. Given the kind of recognition the couple enjoyed abroad with the dresses, how come the duo decided against showcasing their works of art outside Greece? «I accept full responsibility for this,» said Kokkinidis. «Right from the beginning I was aware of how the art market operated, through the art merchants, the art critics and the artists, how they were all playing funny games with each other. I didn’t want to be part of that.» How does Kokkinidis view the tough situation Greece is going through these days? «We are experiencing decadence and the loss of intellectual values. People of my generation were educated, that’s over now. When I listen to people analyzing the current crisis, the first thing I realize is that they don’t speak proper Greek,» he noted. «At this age I’m not angry, I’m bitter. What hurts me the most is the destruction of public spaces which began with [the late] Constantine Karamanlis and has continued consistently until now. The same happened with the destruction of nature. The same thing happened to the kind of social solidarity that existed in the past. Although more and more people are currently getting fired and getting poorer, there is no sense of support.» Benaki Museum, 138 Pireos & Andronikou, tel 210.345.3111. The show runs to February 6 and is curated by Eleni Athanasiou. For more information, visit www.benaki.gr.