Carving the fabric

An interview with Garen Demirdjian

Ghida Ladkani

Let’s start at the very early beginnings of your career… When did your interest in fashion begin? What brought on the decision for you to be a fashion designer?

It started a very long time ago, as when I was a child the only thing that I requested of my parents was the tools to draw; a piece of paper and pens. It was my way of expressing myself. I would design, drawing models and dresses. It may have been from a love of drawing rather than a love of design, perhaps. My interest in painting grew and I studied Fine Arts, but after exhibiting my work many times, I grew tired with it and wanted to delve into something different. That’s when my interest in fashion began, and there was a business aspect to it, although I’m not a business man by any means! (laughs)

My father is an architect, and my brother is an artist as well as being an architect. Both my parents supported me, especially my father. He actually surprised me by sending me to Paris. He informed me that I had been accepted to ESMOD and that I was going in 1998. I studied there for two years instead of the usual three because I had a background in the arts, and it all started from there.

What were some of the challenges you faced there other than the distance from your parents?

At the beginning of my stay in Paris, I was incredibly happy. But my attachment to my parents made it harder with time, I had been a lot of a homebody, and I then suddenly found myself in Paris, 20 or 21 years old, totally alone and doing things by myself.

I always say that I grew up in Paris, I became Garen in Paris.

So, you’ve lived in Beirut, in Paris, in Greece. How do you think each city adds to your work or changes it?

I realized, later on in life, that I had a multicultural brain. I grew up in Greece and in Lebanon, and spoke French, Armenian, and Arabic. In Greece I even went to a French-Greek school. So it was pretty natural for me, and I realized later on that it’s helping me a lot when I create and design.

The chaos in Beirut, the war, it was dramatic, and I think I’m very influenced by that period. Beirut brought me this darkness – I am considered a dark designer. And the Goth part came from Paris and Greece as well, because Greece in the 80’s was very much into hard rock and that sort of stuff, my friends used to be into that — tight jeans, big boots, leather jackets and long hair — heavy metal looks basically. And I grew up with that.

Paris took me to a whole other level, it was like a puzzle’s pieces being put together, unconsciously, I took a few things from Lebanon, from Greece, and from my Armenian background.

So you graduated from Paris… how did your career begin afterwards?

Yes, I graduated in 2000, and then it was really difficult to find a job. My ex-wife and I applied for a job at L’Eclaireur, and although I wasn’t accepted, she became a manager there. I had a lot of free time then and I used to design skirts and tops at home, and she would wear my designs to work. But they didn’t like the fact that she was wearing clothes that they didn’t carry in the store, and asked her to stop wearing them but she refused. After that the manager of the store asked me to present designs to him, and one thing led to another and I ended up doing fifty pieces for the shop, that I think they sold in only a week. He introduced me to other multi-brand shops as well, and some of them WERE Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, and Barney’s in New York. Then I met my agent and I began to work on my collections.

Was it easy to have a brand that would work for all these places?

Each place definitely has its own aesthetic and style, but in the end what I was doing was successful because there weren’t many up and coming designers at the time. There were big names, but what I was doing was different, and I was lucky to be doing it at the right time. So it was easy for me to be introduced to the market; It was a fast transition that happened in the span of 6 months. I used to be working alone and then suddenly my dresses would be selling in the big shops all over the world. I used to see my work next to Prada and Fendi and all those big labels.

I was unconscious, I wasn’t ready, it was like a dream. They wanted a collection very fast, and the owner was a tough person and I was pushed to do all this work without having the time to understand what was happening.

How would you define your style?

It’s avant-garde, it’s gothic, it’s romantic, and it’s futuristic at the same time. It has a touch of the modern, and I was compared, when I was showing in London, to Belgian designers because they thought I was part of the boom of designers from there.

What challenges do you face today as a designer?

I think my only challenge is the customer, because when I create something I fall in love with it, and I naively believe that everyone would understand and like to wear it as it is. But the challenging part has been the fact that customers like to alter, be it a sleeve or the colour, and it changes and morphs, which is a bit hard for me to accept.

This is because I don’t just get fabric and use it as is, I work on it, change it, create something new with shapes and volumes, something that’s very soft but also extremely hard.

If you could dress anyone in the world, who would it be? Who is the woman you design for?

Cate Blanchett ! I mean I design for a woman who knows what she wants. She’s strong, avant-garde, elegant, sexy but not vulgar, romantic, dramatic. She’s independent and likes to travel. It’s the attitude not the clothes that make her who she is.

How did the idea start to open the showroom in “Design district” in Beirut?

After I came back to Lebanon, my work began to change a bit. I worked as an artistic director for a designer here, and I’m still doing that. It helped me grow up in that field.

But I also decided to do it for myself. This would give me the independence I am seeking, the chance to do what I love. I mean I can go wild with all the ideas in my head, I could work all day or not have to work if I don’t have that creative rush that drives me on that particular day. I can travel, I can get ideas from everywhere. I cannot sit still and draw, I need to be in the moment and follow it, I need to have the freedom to be an artist.

What about the future of Gardem?

The future of Gardem is going to be Garen Demerdjian. We’re transitioning to Garen Demerdjian for many reasons, we’re delving into couture, and we’re launching our new collection in April. It will be our first step into the market to introduce ourselves and the new space. The next line is still very tough, very me, and my inspiration is still very gothic and dark, it has a history, but I’m trying to use light colours. It’s going to have the idea of a very romantic and light line with tough gothic accessories.