For Vivian Dourali, each of the garments she creates is a conversation starter and in the social media era, this conversation begins on Facebook. That is where she demonstrates her craft, taking her ‘followers’ by the hand and showing them how each one of the garments she makes and sells at Eimai, her store in Carlton, is created; handmade piece by piece, stitch by stitch.
“We’ve got this incredible shift in the market these days; we have this amazing thing with stores like Zara, H&M and Uniqlo, where you can buy a t-shirt online for $10,” she says.
“I can’t even buy the fabric it takes to make a t-shirt for that. So, what I’m doing is, I explain to people that if they want something special, then this process has a journey. Most women these days don’t understand what that journey is. I want my customers to know how everything is made, that it is not mass-manufactured and part of the appeal is that this enables them to have a conversation about the clothes they wear.”
The result is a fascinating, detailed approach to dressmaking, that is also therapeutic for the maker.
“It keeps the demons away,” says Vivian with a smile.
“When you’re happy, you create; when you’re sad, you create; when you’re joyous, you create; when you’re wounded, you create. That’s the way it operates for me.” And it has always been like that for her.
“I grew up in a family where we always made stuff,” she remembers.
“You know how it is; wog engineering 101,” she adds, laughing.
Vivian recalls that if there was something that was wrong and needed to be fixed, that she would find a solution and fix it – or one of her parents would. But her love of fashion truly comes from her mother.
“I remember she would put this piece of fabric on the table, put some paper on it, cut around and within an hour I had a dress,” she says, recalling the first time that her mother taught her how to operate the sewing machine at the age of six.
“I never looked back. From that point on I was always making stuff.”
We’re sitting at the back of Vivian’s shop, in a small room occupied by a large table – hand-crafted by her late father – a swarm of unfinished garments and pieces of fabric dangling over our heads. In one corner, a sewing machine patiently awaits for the next task at hand.
Vivian speaks, then looks over her glasses at the little square pieces laid out in front of her. She bends, places a couple of pins and returns to the conversation.
Everything about her is big – her hands, her smile, the red hearts that seem to be dominating on some of her creations.
“This project has taken two months to get it right,” she says, describing her work-in-progress as “a dress coat that I perceive as a piece of jewellery” involving “gravity, grain and form”.
These are definitely not simple clothes.
“I certainly don’t want to make structured garments,” she admits, expressing her fascination with simplicity.
“Simplicity is the hardest,” she observes.
“Creating a garment that simply has one seam in it, it can take a really long time to evolve, but the outcome is fabulous, it rocks my world. Every item in the store has a story to tell, that’s why I don’t give them numbers, I give them names.”
I ask her to tell me one of her stories and she decides to “go Greek and tragic” and remember the time when her father was in the hospital.
She would be next to him in the morning and afternoon, trying to run her small business in the middle of the day, and working on her own creations at night.
“He was dying and this dress appeared to me,” she remembers.
“He died just as I finished the first sample. I wore it at the funeral. So yes, I share my stories in the form of a garment.”
This is not lost on her clientele, mostly comprised of women in their 40s.
“I love 40 plus women, they rock my world,” Vivian says.
“They are extraordinary, amazing women with complicated lives. A woman gets into a certain age and she’s seen as either too young or too old. They still want to feel sexy and I want my clothes to do that, to reflect confidence, elegance and be wearable. To make them stand out.”
Vivian Dourali has been doing that for her customers for 16 years, her small business having received Lord Mayor’s commendations four years ago.
She still remembers the first day she opened for business vividly.
“I had spent two months renovating the store, all on my own and I opened the door, all dressed up, standing at my doorstep and taking the moment in, when this incredible woman from the neighbourhood stops by. She is Iranian, she lives in one of the commission flats with her son who has a disability. She is walking down with a shopping trolley and stops, pulls out an apple, hands it to me and says ‘good luck’. She does that every week for the last 16 years,” says Vivian, acknowledging that being a small business owner within a community is about far more than selling and profits.
“There is a whole collection of people who never bought anything here, but who enable me to be part of it,” she says.
“I was the new kid and they showed me love first, they chose me and I’m happy to be part of the community, to do alterations, to give whatever I can. You got to give, because there is a great deal of hardship here in Carlton, it’s evident. Yes, property prices are up, but you see the homelessness.”
Having said that, she still looks upon Carlton fondly, an enduring love after all these years.
“I spent my youth here in Carlton,” she says. “Back then it was so fantastic, it was pumping. It is still lovely, gorgeous, rich with colour and movement – it’s not white,” she adds, laughing.
For the Carlton community, Vivian is known as “the shop around the corner”, something that she bears with pride.
“You always want to be ‘that’ shop,” she says, explaining how the Greek name ‘Eimai’ – meaning ‘I am’, and a testament to her identity – is not the easiest for Australians to pronounce. But of course, she also uses this as a conversation starter.
“I teach them more Greek,” she laughs.
Eimai Clothing is located at 176 Elgin St, Carlton, VIC. For more, visit eimaiclothing.com.au