Folklore in fashion

London-based fashion designer Melissanthi Spei thinks the next generation of Greeks are the answer out of the economic crisis

When 25-year-old designer Melissanthi Spei lived in Athens she rejected the Greek culture. But now, after eight years of living abroad in the United Kingdom, her Greek heritage is at the core of what inspires her.
“When you come here [abroad], you see that people have a specific stereotype for every culture and for us it’s ancient monuments,” Melissanthi tells Neos Kosmos.
“For me that was really annoying because obviously we have a really rich culture and I think there are other parts of the culture that we need to support more that are slowly fading away.”
A designer of garments that fit somewhere between a happy medium of fashion and costume, her work is influenced by the world of her childhood.
Growing up with a father who worked as a writer of folklore and consequently making countless trips to the Hellenic Folklore Museum as a child, it’s easy to see why the backstories of her pieces find their origins in the folkloric tradition.
That’s where this designer’s work differs.
Where she perceives the majority of Greek designers have typically taken direct influence from classical Greece, with the reassurance that it is something that will sell, her work is something quite unique.

Instead of looking back to the Greece of antiquity, Melissanthi stresses the importance of looking at modern history and the current economic crisis of Greece as something that can be a source of inspiration and advancement.

“I think when you’re at home you don’t appreciate it and you don’t realise how much you have,” she says.

“I think it’s really up to us, the new generation, to do something positive.”

Thanks to the continual support of her family and the opportunity to study abroad at the impressionable age of 17, Melissanthi has been exposed to different views and ideas, which in turn have developed her creativity.

Tossing up between fashion and interior design, her interest in working with the body and its form led her to study Fashion Design for Industry at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland.

Following this she pursued the study of Art, Media and Design at the University of Wales, after which she graduated from the MA Artefact program at the London College of Fashion in 2013.

Although she considers her work more costume, there is no denying her fashion design background. Unlike most costumes, which are made with the overall visual effect in mind, the finishing details on a Melissanthi Spei garment are just as impeccable as the design.

Her work embraces and emphasises beautiful craftsmanship; however, to the untrained eye, many would not be able to comprehend the complexities behind the creation of one of her pieces.

Although she has the skills to design and make commercial wearable garments, it would be more apt to liken her creations to works of art.

This pursuit, however, has not come without its challenges for the designer.

Catering to a niche market, it has proven difficult to gain financial support and to make a living.

“It’s more about sharing your work with other people; exhibitions, editorials, collaborations – but also having fun,” she tells Neos Kosmos.

Aside from running her own label, the designer is currently working for a young London-based fashion label to keep her financially afloat, limiting the time she has to work on her own creations.

Wanting to steer clear of the time constraints of working to fashion’s ‘seasons’, she has so far released two collections entitled ‘Death is a Dialogue’ and ‘Beautiful is Just Another Degree Of Terrible’.

Both have had poetic and dramatic interpretations, with influences from Greek mythological characters and folklore traditions like the Karnavali.

A socially conscious individual, the designer is known for incorporating recycled materials.

She recalls noticing objects in her environment that were a part of everyday life, which she found beautiful in their simplicity, and set out collecting them.

“For one project I used pegs, for another one I used beer cups, so everything I find,” she says with a laugh.

In one of her collections, the designer also used the same trimmings used on the garments worn by the Greek Orthodox priesthood.

Liking the effect the soft trimmings had against the other materials, she got in contact with the company that makes the trimmings in Greece.

Surprised by and interested in her concept, they agreed to produce her custom-made pieces for one of her collections.

“It made me really happy to find these materials in Greece,” she says.

“In London some of the trimmings come from Greece and then they sell them in London for five times the price.”

With a romantic yet modern aesthetic, Melissanthi Spei likens her work to her personality.

Known to use bondage elements such as wooden clips, leather straps and harnesses, her work has been interpreted as having sado-masochism as a big influence.

This is particularly interesting considering her use of the church robe trimmings.

“As a person I come across as very quiet and sweet, so for me it was trying to keep a balance between light and darkness in a way. That’s why my work is always a bit fetish,” she says.

The designer was actually quite surprised when she was asked to take part in an exhibition on fetishism.

Divided into different sections, she didn’t expect that folklore would fall under the umbrella of fetishism.

Despite living abroad, the designer has maintained her ties with family and friends back home and recognises that although she has developed and changed, things in Greece have remained quite static.

People, in particular young people of her age group, she feels, are quite disappointed and feel they have been let down by the system.

Melissanthi shared in this sentiment upon embarking on her research about Greek folklore.

The designer found that when she reached out to various institutions for support, not of the monetary kind, but help with conducting her research, that she was met with confusion and a disinterest in helping her with her project.

“I just find it really disappointing because I didn’t ask for money, I just asked for help to explore this further,” she says.

“I think for a young person to do that, they should be more excited because it means there are people out there who want to do that from the next generation. We need the government to support other parts of the culture.”

While living away, she has had the opportunity to look in on Greece as an outsider and believes the problem with the Greeks moving forward and out of the crisis is negatively impacted by “the Greek way of thinking” and the education system.

“I think it’s our mentality in a way. I think they just like to be in their comfort zone, they don’t question things sometimes.

“It’s the education system as well; it doesn’t really push you to think individually,” she says.

Despite the external influence however, Melissanthi still sees herself as a Greek designer as she recognises that all of her work has been inspired by Greece.

“In a way I think it’s about trying to find who I am through my work. All the projects I’ve done, they’re all very personal, so there’s always an element of Greece in it.”

For her next project she is once again taking her inspiration from Greek mythology, with a focus on the Myth of Sisyphus.

The collection, she explains, will look at life from the view point of being a cycle and explore the role of routine in the life of the individual.

Although she has a passion for fashion, when envisaging her future, she doesn’t see it taking place in the confines of a studio.

Aside from working as a designer and writing for a fashion blog based in Greece, she would also like to explore the world outside of fashion to inspire her interest in the research and inspiration behind her creations.

“I’d like to work in museums and do more research on history and costume,” she says.

Young and ambitious Greeks like Melissanthi appear to be the hope and future of what a country like Greece needs, bringing a necessary breath of fresh air.

“A lot of people actually studied abroad and came back and they bring a different way of thinking. So slowly I think there’s hope for improvement,” says the designer.

Does she want to return to Greece? There’s not a hint of hesitation in her voice.

“For sure. In a dramatic way, I don’t want to live away from home for too long. It’s already been eight years. I go home and I feel like an outsider now because I have a different way of thinking.

“I see people who have lived here for 20 years now and they don’t want to go back anymore. I don’t want to lose part of who I am.”