Sophia Kokosalaki: Perfect 10
For a decade, Sophia Kokosalaki has been one of fashion's brightest stars. Now she's reviving the designs that made her famous, she tells Carola Long
Monday 10 August 2009
Most of us have fantasised about editing the past, but when Athens-born, Central Saint Martin's College-trained designer Sophia Kokosalaki had just that chance, she opted for a tiny tweak rather than a radical rewriting of history.
To celebrate 10 years of her label she has reissued 10 archive designs which have been imperceptibly "improved". "I am happy with the way I designed the clothes at the time," says 36-year-old Kokosalaki as she shows me round her Dalston studio, "but I have combined the experimental attitude of youth with my experience now to improve the designs very slightly. Only I would notice the difference."
Since she graduated in 1998, that experience has included showing her first womenswear collection at London Fashion Week in 1999 (she now shows in Paris) designing costumes for the Athens Olympic games in 2004, and a brief post from 2006-7 as the Creative Director of Vionnet – one of her favourite fashion houses from the past. In June she was announced as the head designer at Diesel's Black Gold line.
One striking thing about Kokosalaki's archive pieces and her designs generally is that they haven't dated. This is something the designer – who with her heart-shaped face looks like an olive-skinned, honey blonde Drew Barrymore – acknowledges with enthusiasm, and without false modesty. "One of the reasons I reissued the pieces was that I noticed they haven't gone out of fashion," she smiles. "Perhaps that is the best indication that one might be a good designer, to make clothes that are timeless but not boring."
Certainly, the limited edition anniversary pieces, all of which are from autumn/winter (like her first collection) look remarkably fresh. Fashion nostalgists will find their memories stirred by the red jersey Warrior dress from 2001, with its swirled, ruched and draped shoulders, and graphic leather panelling on the breast, the 2002 Spider dress with its web-like lace top, and the 1999 Diary jacket adorned with embroidered fragments of diary extracts, lyrics and beat poetry. All Kokosalaki's signatures – draping, topographic texture, architectural structure, and gothic or rock'n'roll detailing – are there. The originality of Kokosalaki's embellishments means that every piece feels contemporary – a 2004 dress with a piped pattern was inspired by map contouring, and created by playing with electrical cord and fishing wire.
Architectural is a description often applied to designers whose creations explore volume, but in Kokosalaki's case, building design is a concrete influence as her sister and brother are architects. Her desk is piled with paving slab-sized, Post It-studded books on the subject such as Surfaces, a collection of photographic images of walls, brickwork and pillars. Not exactly bedtime reading but a mine of textural inspiration. Another book on the pile – The Archaeological Museum of Thessonaliki – points to the most oft-cited influence on Kokosalaki's work, namely her Greek heritage.
Kokosalaki says she is asked repeatedly how Greek imagery has inspired her, but unlike some designers who would have a stock line ready for such a familiar question, she seems unsure as to the answer, other than that it's clearly not as simple as having Greek goddess dresses as part of her DNA. She has described her main autumn/ winter collection as a return to the core of her style, and defines that as "being a Greek woman but an English designer". She says that her Greek background means that she "loves the classical silhouette" then she qualifies the thought because "then again maybe it's unrelated".
She explains that she started draping because it enabled her to look busy in the competitive atmosphere of Saint Martin's, and as she didn't have the head start of a foundation degree – she previously studied literature at Athens University – she could start doing it spontaneously.
Craftsmanship is another element to her work that has often led to her being pigeonholed. However, although she has modernised any folk elements and combined them with a range of cultural references, they were clearly formative influences. She explains: "As a Greek woman you respect and embrace tradition, not just of the family, but also arts and crafts. I remember being on holiday in Crete when I was young and sitting with very old women, and they would give me something to do with my hands to shut me up. Embroidery – to make me a good bride." She laughs. "Of course that hasn't happened, ha ha!" Instead she has a boyfriend with whom she likes to "jump in the car and go to the country at weekends". Another influence was "spending too much time in churches and museums, and religious elements, runes, that is sometimes why I do the darker things".
This dark, irreverent streak danced its way through her autumn/winter collection, on fitted little black dresses made from wrapped layers of sheer silk, or tough leather jackets and dresses embellished with corroded metal clasps; an expression of what she refers to as her "rocky side". The collection is unashamedly sexy. She explains that when she started designing she was "really against body-con and into the Belgians. But then I decided what kind of woman I wanted to be, and I thought 'everyone wants to be attractive; that's why they buy clothes'."
Of course a 10-year anniversary is not only a chance for the women who buy Kokosalaki's clothes to see – and snap up – her past designs, but also a chance for the designer herself to reflect on the past decade. How did she feel about her time at the then-newly-resurrected Vionnet, where she became creative director in 2006, only to leave in 2007? "Well I've never wanted to say too much because it looks a bit tacky, but there wasn't the structure or investment and I was seeing the clothes with the journalists – that says it all really. I am glad I did it though because I got to meet Betty Kirke, who wrote the book about Vionnet."
In terms of undiluted highlights, there was her first show in London, in 1999, which she, "did with £2,000 – £1,000 for the clothes and the rest for the production. I was so optimistic and clueless". Then there was the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics, where her remit was to dress the cast of 6,000, and Bjork's Ocean Dress: a vast swirling froth of ice-blue pleats and folds provided the centrepiece. She relished the creativity but also, she admits, "loved supervising all those people, and going to the office and working; sometimes being a designer can be lonely". Kokosalaki also enjoys the everyday bonhomie of the studio, "coming to work, having a few jokes with the seamstresses. I take the shows seriously, but lately as I have matured I can be a bit more casual". She smiles knowingly. "One of the most ridiculous scenes is to see a stressed designer. Even though I am Greek and I should like drama I hate it." After a decade of honing her aesthetic, Kokosalaki is saving the drama for her clothes.
Sophia Kokosalaki's archive pieces are available now, from £850, at Harrods, Dover Street Market, Matches and Matchesfashion.com
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