On Marathonos 31 Str. in Keramikos is located one of the oldest ateliers in Athens, with a story that takes us 90 years back.
For the last six years, fashion designer Maria Diamandi has given life to the historic atelier where she creates unique clothes, designed and sewn for the person they are intended for. She also provides fashion design, pattern, sewing, accessory design and other fashion-related courses.
Thanks to Maria Diamandi, the historical atelier continues its activities, which are now expanding abroad. Through her online courses to Greeks around the world her team grew and gained an international character!
We met Maria Diamandi and asked her all about her story, her work and her future plans:
Your atelier has a beautiful old story. Will you share it with us?
I will gladly share the whole story with you. They say that behind every great man you can find a great woman. However, in our case things were a little bit different. The story of my grandmother is more or less known, today though I will reveal to you a piece of her story unknown until today. Around 1930 my grandfather was working at the Acropolis museum as chief guardian of antiquities. As such one of his main duties was to receive and guide V.I.P.s around the museum. You realize then that he was fortunate enough to meet many important personalities including famous artists and couturiers. Having later developed friendly relationships with some of them and keeping in mind my grandmother’s particular fashion-orientated abilities and studies their discussions naturally led to the idea of establishing the first atelier.
My grandfather’s classical studies and occupation, along with his deep love and respect for Keramikos, this site of immense archaeological interest, were the reasons behind his decision to obtain a neoclassical building in this area, which was destined to host later the activities of the atelier. From then on the story unfolds. My grandmother took charge with her hard work and authentic talent. My grandfathers connections could certainly secure the arrival of ”models” – that was the name used from patterns then – directly from Paris but at the same time my grandmother was so skillful that she soon managed to include in her clientele many famous Greek women, to create and run one of the more well established fashion schools in Athens, and be at the same time one of the few who possessed the knowledge, fabricated and taught about the art of a handmade hat.
I was born many years later when the atelier was already run by her daughter, my aunt and its activities were limited to simply create handmade orders for clients. As for my grandmother, she had retired in order to bring me up and she proved to be my best teacher as I proved to be her last – and probably her best – pupil.
When did you decide to follow your grandmother’s footsteps and work in the fashion industry and how did you make the decision to revive her atelier?
The last many years the original atelier had ceased its operation. What I eventually did was to recreate it, offering our legacy a fresh start up but injecting in it a huge doze of myself.
Right after school I studied fashion design and theater costume design in Greece without associating in my mind my studies with our family business. I worked for a series of years as a fashion design lecturer in private fashion schools until 2011 when I decided to create my own atelier. Worth noting that our family tradition was not received by me as a burden or inheritance. The last many years the original atelier had ceased its operation. What I eventually did was to recreate it, offering our legacy a fresh start up but injecting in it a huge doze of myself. Nevertheless, I did not need to alter much, my grandmother proved to be well ahead of her era, in sense that her true vision was so forward oriented that aloud our views to meet today. Unconsciously, we both give birth to the same concept and just because we both bore the exact same name the ”Maria Diamandi” atelier was reborn, so similar to the original one yet so new that sometimes I really wonder whether it was me who sought after it or it found me.
What usually inspires you to design a new piece of clothing or a new piece of art?
We are used to attribute to fashion a rather ephemeral meaning – unfortunately – confusing fashion per te with what we should normally mean when we refer to its trends. So, I have been trying for many years to make obvious that while what I do is in essence pure fashion, it cannot be contained by fashion’s wider acceptance as ephemeral. In order therefore to create clothes which will translate to another language – that of the image – the personality of my client, I many times had to listen to the story of a woman. The story serves every time and always as my inspiration. In parallel thought to my capacity as a designer I also enjoy training, inspiring and educating new designers, something that actually brought me close to an equally large number of women and their stories. It is these stories, and sentiments that spring there from, that I soon wished to study and then describe using my own means of expression, the clothes. Each and every one of these creations that I have named sculptured creations is a piece of art that studies and comments on one sentiment at a time, including sentiments like fear, rage, lust, anticipation, desire, lack etc., common sentiments among all women. It is however all women in their totality that inspire me and not any single one in particular.
How different is the process of designing a garment for a client, from designing a piece for an exhibition?
the suit we wear depicts the role we want to play
Life is a dream, a fairytale. A show in which if we’re lucky we are the protagonists, and the suit we wear depicts the role we want to play. Each and every person I contact in order to construct a garment especially for him, is the protagonist in his own performance. I must truly see him, feel who he wants to be, and then present this to him as an image and finally provide it as a cloth. This is the process. On the contrary, when I am in the process of constructing a piece of art the protagonist is the message, the idea that is supposed to be communicated through it. They are two completely different routes, which though eventually converge at the construction stage.
Six months ago you presented an exhibition called FASHION REWIND, inspired by the fashion of the 40s, 50s and 60s. How was this journey in time for you and your students?
In our exhibition “Fashion Rewind”, in great contrast to our first one, we referred to the costume as a form of art in fashion and in the movies of past decades, studying the work of great designers such as Balmain, Cassini, Dior, Givenchy, Balenciaga, Claire McCardell, Mainbocher, Greta Pattry etc., making it explicit that the techniques we employed were precisely the techniques used to create the original clothes. For many months all I was doing was to study. I studied fashion books from previous decades, as well as the work of well-known fashion photographers who worked with great designers in the 1950s and 60s. I studied old figurines from our family collection – and believe me, it’s a big collection-, watched many well-known movies that established fashion trends themselves, and got lost in countless images on the web. For a long time, I had been living these eras through the research I was doing.
My group consists of about fifteen people, the amateurs’ department that is. People with whom I’ve been together for two hours every week for a long time. Professionals come, train and leave. At the end of the two years they are usually ready to open their own wings. The amateurs, however, those who love to manufacture clothes for the satisfaction of creation alone, are in fact the ones with whom I work in such projects, through which their training is also accomplished.
In my crew though we have a principle: we don’t use seamstresses. Everything that we show in similar presentations is made exclusively by me and my trainees
In my crew though we have a principle: we don’t use seamstresses. Everything that we show in similar presentations is made exclusively by me and my trainees, since these people are trained as designers, as pattern makers, and, necessarily, in the art of sewing. We thus decided to reconstruct fourteen (14) works that had starred in legendary films or have made history in the fashion business of the 50s and 60s. Great costumes designed by sacred fashion figures, such as those I mentioned earlier, and worn by female legends like Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy, Dovima etc., were 100% hand-made, having as a main goal not only to resemble the original ones, but to imitate the way people used to sew at the time. As a result, this process lasted for three years. That’s why I dedicated this exhibition to two seamstresses who spent many days and nights, hundreds of threads hand-sewing, who dressed buttons and hand-made buttonholes, the two most cherished seamstresses of my life: my grandmother and my aunt.
You have also started a project called #lifeisadream, a set of photographs in which you used your own clothes, you took care of the image of the model and you also shot. Could you share your experience with us?
This photo-project was the first attempt to communicate my view that clothes’ purpose should certainly be to be worn, but when they were to be exhibited, they should be exhibited for a reason, a purpose, in order to serve an idea. It was an experiment to use the garment not as a purpose but as a means of transmitting a message, exactly as the painter would use the colors and the poet the words. It was the first step to disconnect my work from the ephemeral, from the fashion designer’s label – the way others view fashion. It’s certainly not a coincidence that at the time I was repeatedly receiving messages from people I didn’t know, mostly photographers, who asking me why my photos were like that, why they don’t look like fashion photos that is. I was replying then with a phrase by Julia Margaret Cameron, as I had already started studying photography: “but don’t you realize that I know exactly what I’m doing? I intend them to look like this”! The funniest thing of all was that they didn’t even recognize the phrase!
I’ve been studying photography for the last three years and I’m not separating this from my art. I believe an artist should produce an integral piece of work, and, in my case, I will hold to have achieved this only when I reach the point of photographing or directing my own works.
How were you inspired to “dress up” houses?
the clothes we wear are a way to narrate our own story
I have in many ways been informed that my grandmother, every time she was finishing and delivering a dress, she was complimented with the following phrase: “But Mrs. Diamandi.., this is not to be worn, this is artwork”! At some point I myself began to feel that way about my work: that I attach so much importance to what I do that I might prefer to see it as art inaccessible rather than art applied. At the same time I always thought that the clothes we wear are a way to narrate our own story. They bridge the impression of others for us with our own visual narrative. Just imagine how many additional information we should have to provide if some day we were left without clothes.
Thus, if we accept that clothes are the means we use to convey a message – as the painter does with the colors and the poet with his words -, and combine this with a man who believes he manufactures clothes so well that he would rather protect them from being worn, then a new kind of art is born.
There was a time when I started to offer my dresses to be exposed to private houses, hotels and personal collections, firmly believing that the value of a painting or sculpture, the messages it can convey and emotions it can trigger, can be paralleled by those of my work. That’s the reason why I thought it was natural to see it placed where a work of art should be placed. So, initially, dresses which “dressed” houses as pieces of art emerged, followed by their evolution, the “sculptured dresses”.
What are ”sculpture dresses” and what is the purpose behind this project?
The most recent and most advanced form of my work, ”Sculpture Dresses”, besides being art work, is also an integrated project in the framework of “concept art”, through which I study, and comment on, some basic emotions of the human nature. Anticipation, desire, lust, fear, anger, innocence, power, joy, discipline are just a few of the emotions that can be studied, described and recorded, exactly the way they are experienced by women. The reason for calling them sculptured is their distinctive ability to stand in space without requiring a model to be placed on for support.
I believe that every piece of my work serves as a means of communicating my view for everything that I sense taking place around me. But if you ask me how I profit by constructing them, I have already said in the past that as far as this project is concerned, I do not intend to have any kind of financial gain. After all, I haven’t decided to part with them yet. However, I would gladly offer such a dress to be accommodated in a relevant collection for some time, provided that an amount will always be allotted to a charitable institution, an institution that I don’t need to choose myself. This way, everyone who participates in this will offer not to me but to people in real need.
Do you find differences in the way people respond to the fashion trends today compared to the way they did during these decades?
If one considers the money spent in creating a fashion collection when on the planet half the population lacks elementary goods and utilities, then the only thing that comes to mind in replying to how people use fashion today, but also how fashion uses people, is through the words of the poet Patrizia Cavalli “Collections make me suffer”. I choose then to suggest a good handmade garment that can reach its destination without fanfare and wasted money, trying in essence to restage the relationship of my own clients at least, as well as my students, with fashion, and the ephemeral futility of it.
How do you choose your own clothing pieces and what’s your personal style?
Clothes are the way to narrate your personal story, as the painter tells it with colors and the poet with words. But we don’t have the same story to share every day. One of the biggest fashion icons today, Iris Apfel, 96 years old, in a film/documentary of the famous director Albert Maysles concerning her life and attitude towards fashion, answered in a similar question: “I don’t adorn myself. When I’m at home I dress up casually. When I deal with my daily routine work, I wear a jean. I never dress up well unless it’s for a special occasion. I love fashion, I think it’s amazing, but it’s not my life”. That’s exactly how I feel about it too! I love how fashion exists in my life, but it’s not my life. It’s just one of those few reasons that make my life more beautiful. I don’t wake up or go to bed thinking about what I’m going to wear, but it’s my job, and I ‘m really good at it when it comes to deciding and constructing what you’re going to wear or training the next designer who will decide what you’re going to wear. However, every time I open my wardrobe to get dressed, I really enjoy it!
Do you have a favourite material or fabric?
Art should be able to seduce us as a stunning woman. It should be able to entrap us through her charm, astonish us, and eventually deliver us new or “destroyed”
Ιn my ”#SculpturalFashion” one can use materials that he would not usually find on a costume to wear. I never though let myself get sentimentally attached with the materials I use, and my work is never an autobiography in itself. Instead, my goal has always been to describe others. The notions that I try to embody in all my projects are without doubt properties of all of us, but I would never produce art just to describe myself. To describe others…, yes. To move them emotionally, yes. To change them, yes. That’s why I create art. For I strongly believe that the only reason for someone to create art is to move, to change, to affect the viewer. In fact, if he ever succeeds to alter him then this is a major accomplishment! Art should be able to seduce us as a stunning woman. It should be able to entrap us through her charm, astonish us, and eventually deliver us new or “destroyed”, it doesn’t really matter, but definitely altered! Obviously therefore, there is no favourite material. There are always though those proper ones that are capable to describe the story I wish to narrate!
What is the first thing a student learns in your atelier?
My foremost ambition regarding my students is to succeed to convey to them my philosophy, my stance towards the clothes. My vision concerning all persons I select for my team is to modify their position toward clothes, regarding the way they view, appreciate and make use of them in their craft or their daily life. To this end there is always an important part that connects all our work: costume as a form of art. Whether for today – if one can catch up with today – the past or the future, costume as a form of art serves in any case as the cornerstone whereupon all our presentations lay.
Have you decided the subject of your next exhibition?
Yes, of course, a long time ago. As far as I am concerned, every next exhibition begins when the research for the previous one is completed and its construction begins. From then on, while I work with my team, my mind travels to the next one, which I have already informed my team about and for which I am in research. To this end, I am actually travelling quite a bit recently.
I have to admit that I am currently considering several future exhibitions. That doesn’t mean of course that every exhibition finishes the moment it’s on. For instance, the #fashionrewindproject proved to be a surprisingly long journey, a journey that has not yet finished. The love and acceptance we received were such that people out there decided on their own to communicate our work, and in fact keep doing this!
Where can one see your work?
Besides my Athens atelier, where someone can see my work only by appointment, there are samples of my work on my official website, mariadiamandi.com, my You Tube channel, my Facebook page and my Instagram account.
Additionally, as I said earlier, someone can see my work occasionally in periodic exhibitions and in selected residences. Currently in Athens, works of mine adorn the premises of Unspoiled Athens, Thission Penthouse and Athens Factory Living and in Santorini at Pyrgos Santorini Panoramic View.
Can anyone attend the courses – online and offline – and when can someone apply?
Anyone and from anywhere can apply, as long as s/he fulfills certain criteria that I require in order to accept him/her to study at my atelier. One such prerequisite is the strong will, and a second, even more important, is to be eager to accept to readjust his view concerning the cloth, its importance, its use and the art of constructing. Actually, given the technology available that makes all the distances just one “I want” away, I am fortunate enough, through my on-line courses, to see some days the sun set in Saudi Arabia, next at my studio in Athens, then in London, then New York…, and at many other places around the world of course. You see, Hellenes are everywhere, and are eager to learn and communicate with their homeland. Anyone, either through my website mariadiamandi.com or by e-mail to email@example.com can request an interview in order to be accepted as a student. This can take place any time, since, in addition to my creative team, the crew, I am now working strictly through private lessons.