Ten Meets Sheryn Akiki, The Emerging Designer Creating Clothes for Women on The Go
“Weird, exciting, grateful and scary, but exciting again!” exclaims Sheryn Akiki, in response to being asked how it feels to be graduating from Central Saint Martins after the best part of seven years. “Six and a half!” she corrects. Alongside fellow designer and classmate Goom Heo, Akiki scooped the accolade of the annual L’Oréal Professionnel Creative Award at the university’s MA show during London Fashion Week in February.
Closing the 2019 show, Akiki’s post-graduate collection was designed for a woman perpetually in a rush, and is an advocate of a confidently chaotic dishevelled glamour. “I wanted to focus on going back to the simple thrill of obsession over possession, of designing a world that represents the living woman, the woman-on-the-go, and the woman in action,” she explains. “For me, it’s about going back to that joie de vivre so synonymous with the past and enforcing it in a time of chaos.”
The pervasive underlying urgency was a continuation of Akiki’s 2017 BA collection titled The Blue Index 1.1, in which models subversively hurried down the catwalk as if it was a minor inconvenience along their path, rather than the final destination. The deconstructed figure-accentuating clothes were modelled with hands deep in pockets, whilst consuming a sandwich on the go or haphazardly applying lipstick sans mirror. The antithesis of passive, Akiki’s clothes are designed to fit around a woman and her lifestyle rather than constrain her.
Two years on, Akiki’s models had this time been shortchanged on sleep, snatched out of bed, dressed in a hurry or caught in the midst of a beauticians appointment. They appeared as the reminder of the contemporary realistic reality of the “self-care” routine for ladies who are no-longer expected to lunch, and business is inextricably linked with leisure. Her shoes don’t necessarily match her outfit, the zips might be undone, handbags fallen open, eyeliner smudged and hair windswept into a matted mess. One look was finished with a “pie-in-the-oven wig” that resembled a mid-highlighting tin foiled mass, whilst another wore “pediheel” shoes fashioned from a pair of disposable foam pedicure flip-flops, elastic bands and a glued-on kitten heel. Akiki’s woman is enjoying life, caught in a state of flux between combating contemporary crises whilst trying to get between 6-8 hours sleep and make it to the hairdressers.
“On a very grand scale, I am exploring and will continue to explore how you can create a wardrobe for the woman of today, creating a wardrobe that doesn’t compromise looking good, feeling good and glam, but also practicality,” Akiki says. But, as she points out, it’s simultaneously about investigating a love of clothes and the feelings the right clothes can induce: “It sounds very corny, but you know the unexplainable feeling you get when you put on a coat or a skirt you love before leaving your house in the morning, I believe that feeling is so powerful, personal, and relatable and it is worth working towards. Clothes can still do that, whilst simultaneously open up an incredible platform for expression that branches out of garments, and for me that is so stimulating,” she continues. “So more directly, I wish to explore the now, the woman in the now as a subject and not an object, and to challenge myself through multidisciplinary and immersive media.”
The Beirut-born designer first came to London aged 17 to study art foundation before enrolling in the fashion BA at Saint Martins. In Lebanon, Akiki attended a traditional science-focused school, which had little to no space in the curriculum to explore the arts. Before she became spontaneously drawn to fashion; hooked on it’s human-centrism, her creative background was a self-initiated interest in drawing and cinema. “I used to skip school and watch as much of a director’s filmography as I could download or find,” she explains. “I always wanted to see their body of work, same with music, so I will say what directors got me hooked? I was, and still am, obsessed with [Andrei] Tarkovsky, [Abbas] Kiarostami, [Ingmar] Bergman, [Robert] Bresson, [Federico] Fellini, [Billy] Wilder, [Peter] Greenaway, [David] Lynch, Jonathan Glazer, [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder…” she could easily go on.
Cultural experience, perceptions and idiosyncrasies are also an integral influence in Akiki’s approach to design. “Leaving Beirut influenced me the most, the whole “Orientalism” phenomenon is bound to struck you. Lebanon is such a paradoxical melting pot, both infuriatingly and fascinatingly so. The influences are immense, whether emotional, visual, socio-political, and I am still exploring that within my work,” she says.
“Halfway through my MA I remember being super blocked and went to speak to my tutor, who advised me to pick starting points instead of overwhelming myself with a lot of ideas – he compared it to Italian cuisine where you use a few, but good, ingredients and make a complete meal. I blurted out “But I’m Lebanese! We have a mezze!” and since then I can’t forget that because I started seeing my work as a design mezze – the intrinsic chaos and the inherent laissez-faire attitude,” Akiki laughs, gesturing to the diverse amalgamation of techniques and finishes that run throughout. “In my eyes this collection is Beirut! Not Beirut how most Lebanese want to be seen, it isn’t coated in bling (except for one parody [a sequined gown]) but the raw irony and complexity of Beirut, its people, its soul, and its women,” Akiki asserts.
As recipients of the L’Oréal Professionnel Creative Award, both Akiki and Heo follow in the footsteps of designers Kim Jones, Christopher Kane, Craig Green, Mary Katrantzou, Matty Bovan and Stefan Cooke, who all graduated as previous winners of the prize. “I found Sheryn Akiki’s work fascinating as for me is equally important the story that a designer tells, what they stand for and where they coming from,” explains Stavros Karelis, co-founder and buying director of Soho-based concept store Machine-A. It was Karelis, with his omniscient eagle-eye for emerging talent and as this year’s guest judge of the Award, who selected the two winning designers. “Coming from Beruit, Sheryn is telling her own story and sharing her own experiences through the garments, particularly that characteristic of Lebanese culture where you live for the now, not in the past and not for what will happen tomorrow. It’s a very liberating approach given that many times the past doesn’t explain fully what’s happening now and the future feels uncertain. It’s an approach that can apply to what is happening at this time around us,” he continues. “Her collection stands for something important as it’s not anymore just about a good product, but the story one tells.”
Akiki has previously spoken of wanting to curate a space over having an eponymous line, to work collaboratively across an array of media in addition to clothes including film, graphics and sound. Post-graduation is this still set in Akiki’s sights? “Yes, give me any form of space to takeover and I’ll be happy,” she laughs. But what’s next? “More” she coyly replies. Stay tuned.
Photographs by Alexander Bucko