DUCFS IN CONVERSATION: Sasha Reviakin, Head of Marketing and PR // DUCFS 2019
Given that Sasha masterminded and edited (with help from Miles Callaghan and Jemima Bunbury, of course) the original 2019 print edition of THREAD, it seems only right that it should be an interview with Sasha that opens our new THREAD series, ‘DUCFS In Conversation’.
Sasha recently moved to Lebanon to continue his work with designer Larissa von Planta (featured in last year’s show), and was as such one of the first people that sprung to my mind when considering who best to interview for this inaugural piece.
I spoke with Sasha about his recent work, what his move has taught him as well as what has been inspiring him over the past few months.
: Caragh Taylor - Head of Marketing // DUCFS 2020
: Sasha Reviakin - Head of Marketing & PR // DUCFS 2019
So I understand you recently moved from Durham to Beirut - how has that been?
It’s not my first time here. I came to Beirut in 2017 for nine months during my year abroad. That was a very important time for me, and eventually what brought me back- the people I met, the work I got involved with, the feeling that this place holds so much more to uncover than nine months could ever possibly hope to show me. But coming back this time has been different. There’s a different pace to it. Rather than rushing around trying to make new connections, explore as many other things as possible, I feel much more ready to give myself the time to work out what I want from my life here, and actually more to the point what I don’t want. As you might guess, it has been quite a change of scene moving from Durham to Beirut, but I actually feel more of a change moving from being a student to a graduate. For the first time I can remember, I don’t really have a plan. I mean, yes, of course I have my jobs and a rough idea of how long I’d like to stay here, but that could all change. And the wonderful thing here is that that’s ok. There’s such a pressure to find the job that’s going to take us through the whole of our lives when we graduate, and I find that toxic. It closes so many doors.
How has it been to not follow a traditional graduate path?
I mean, I have no idea what it would be like to follow the traditional graduate path! Maybe I’d love it! I certainly thought about it. As I prepared to leave university, I felt judged, almost guilty, about coming back to Lebanon. Somehow by not following a traditional graduate path and getting a grad scheme I was a disappointment to society and my family. But what utter tosh!* This perceived judgement wasn’t coming from anyone except myself. I decided to lay the blame on society for making me feel inadequate, when, let’s be honest, who really cares. Instead, those feelings stemmed from some strange internalised guilt complex which told me that work shouldn’t be fun; work should be a nine to five job which sets you into the establishment of society. Work should be about the pay packet and the assumed status of saying “I’m on a grad scheme.” Or “I work in finance”. Before coming back it felt a bit like taking a leap in the dark. But how are you going to find something new and exciting if you stick to the light?* I wouldn’t rule out the graduate path and I do respect people that can do it, but for me if I come to it I’d like to have seen a bit more of what’s out there first. We’re young. Why should we have to decide what we’ll be doing in 30 years now?
Who knows? Maybe this is just me getting overexcited. But I hope that taking this road less travelled will make all the difference.
What are you appreciating at the moment?
The past has been playing on my mind a lot. Not in a nostalgic way. I don’t long to return to university or anything like that. That’s always an impossible way to think. It’s just that last year everything was such a whirlwind with the fashion show and finals and suddenly I’m in Lebanon without my dearest friends and family around me. There are people I care about deeply who I didn’t get the chance to see before I left, and Facetime is no substitute for a real conversation. I guess it’s homesickness. But it has actually given me space that I never gave myself to really appreciate those people, to really reflect and become aware of the effect that they have had on me and on my life.
I’ve spent more time than ever before going through photos and it’s been wonderfully cathartic. It’s also led me to write more and helped me focus. I’m now working on a personal project to pay tribute to those who have been so important to me, and without whom I don’t feel I would be the Sasha I find myself to be now. My grandmother’s death played a large role in triggering this. Suddenly, someone who was (and of course still is) so vital to my understanding of life was no longer there. I’ll never receive another postcard from her which exactly expresses and guides, complete with a newspaper clipping or line from a poem (my Granny was an encyclopedia of English verse), or play cards with her and my cousins on the floor of my grandparents’ drawing room. I can’t talk with her anymore, and so I really want to engage with the loved ones I am so fortunate to have.
Talk to them. Explore what aspects of myself I feel they have changed and how they have made me grow, love, hate. It’s all sounds so soppy! But I really think it's important to take the time to appreciate people. Distance brings the realisation of how integral they are to me and how I view the world. It’s so important to write down, record, and remember. From my family and oldest friends who have had a profound impact on my life - my mother, cousins, school friends and London friends, to people I have only met in the last few years - Jemima, Larissa, Illy, Jenny, Fi to name only a few.
I started with my mother. We sat down after supper one day last month when I was in London and I just started asking her questions. It was beautiful. I learnt so much about her in an hour and a half that I had never heard before. We covered subjects ranging from her art to her time in Russia hanging out with underground rock bands, to her relationship with my father. I was almost brought to tears at several moments, not necessarily because of the content, but because there was so much more I wanted to know and it has brought me a far deeper appreciation of her. There was something so grounding about talking in a structured way (I had prepared some questions- not that we stuck to them) which meant that conversation flowed and touched on points we would never have discussed in the hurly-burly of everyday life. I wish I had had the chance to do the same with granny, and I cannot urge everyone more to do it. Take the time to sit with a loved one, with someone you respect, and talk with them openly. And record it. Voices are so important. That’s what I miss most. Anyway, we’ll see what comes out of this project as a whole but for now I am appreciating the space I have to have these thoughts and take the time to write. Maybe it is nostalgic, but I hope it’s progressive: an active nostalgia.
What is inspiring you at the moment?
Alongside the work I do with Larissa, I’ve also taken on other projects to make ends meet. This is tricky because it is a 24/7 job building a fashion house but I’m more and more amazed by how much I can apply what I’m learning on these jobs to Larissa’s project. In my other job I am working with startups to help improve access to financial services and ultimately empower them to equip the most disadvantaged in society with the knowledge and means to improve their situation. You might not think there is much in common between providing micro loans and building a luxury fashion atelier, but everything is interlinked and I find myself able to apply what I learn to the work I do with Larissa. It’s partly exposing oneself to other people.
So I’ve learnt so much by trying to keep my eyes as wide open as possible, and not allowing myself to get bound by a tunnel vision. I read a very interesting article which linked blind specialism to digging a trench. At some point you try so hard to follow one field that you lose sight of what is out there and how other sectors are working. So you’re digging and digging and eventually find yourself in the dark, not taking the time to put your head above ground and learn from other sources other people. I’ve never liked feeling boxed in. Even academically at Durham I studied Arabic, Spanish, International Relations and History of Art, and there was always an overlap, or a way of thinking about an academic subject which could breathe life into the other subjects.
How many times have you had a conversation with someone, been reminded of something super left field which has then sparked an idea or an even more interesting conversation? It’s curiosity. I don’t like whoever first said curiosity killed the cat. That’s so limiting.
How would you say your approach to dressing has changed since vacating Durham?
I’m definitely not out there when it comes to fashion - I have pretty traditional tastes and you won’t catch me wearing a fluorescent leather jumpsuit. But when I put something on with colour I instantly feel empowered. Colour is everything. I can’t stand greyness. And it’s such a human invention. Nature is all about colour, and some of my fondest memories are outside, in our garden at home surrounded by bright pinks and yellows, or stomping up a fell in the Lake District in autumn. My mother is a brilliant artist and our house is bursting with colour. It makes all the difference. It’s so wicked when humans make everything so grey. I hate that now when I walk around London there’s such a tendency to make things grey: grey doors, grey window frames, grey tabletops, all in the name of ‘minimalism’ and ‘sleek modern living’ . It is so draining. Colour totally changes the way one feels about a situation, a building, a person.
Out here the Mediteranean colours are stunning, not least because there’s sun which brightens everything. People here embrace colour more- it’s in their DNA. I hope I’ve been able to soak up some of that love of colour. And it does have an effect on fashion. Leaving Durham I suddenly felt I could wear what I wanted to. I remember packing some absolutely marvellous clothes coming back to Durham for final year. A bright red vintage Etro jacket, a woven Peruvian waistcoat. And I didn’t feel I could wear them! Before I knew it, I was walking out of the house in chinos and a blue shirt. How boring!
How do you feel about Lebanese cuisine?
Lebanese cuisine sums up everything that food should be: sharing plates, conversations and time. It’s totally communal and the best of Lebanon and its people. I love seeing how Lebanese cuisine has spread across the world and that the first thing people comment when I say I live in Lebanon is always related to food. But what’s funny is that Lebanese cuisine goes way beyond the hummus, moutabal, shawarma combo that is most often found in your local Lebby. It is so much more. Cracked bulgur wheat with almonds and lamb, green beans cooked in a tomato sauce, sour spinach soup. The home cooking out here is something else, and it’s something I am so grateful that I have been exposed to and welcomed into. The people I have met take such pride in their food, from the ingredients themselves, so importantly rooted in the land to the presentation and hospitality of the dinner table. Serge and his kibbeh neyyeh, Josette and her waraq ‘enab, I have gained such a stronger appreciation for the importance of cooking at home and breaking bread with friends. When I return to London I dream of having an open kitchen at my imaginary two bedroom flat overlooking Regents Park Canal (I mean can you just imagine!) one night a week, when friends know that they can come over and that there will be food and conversation without fail. During our final term at Durham, Greg (my housemate) and I pretty much succeeded in making this happen, and we were all the better for it. Less stressed, happier, and became closer with each other and our friends (two of them practically moved in!). It’s that kind of hospitality that I find to be so present in Lebanon and so lacking in London.
And we need to preserve it! Especially now where in Lebanon, as everywhere, people cook less often. When a delivery is cheaper or more convenient that cooking oneself, who’s going to cook?
Beirut sounds so vibrant and dynamic: how do you think this has shifted your attitude towards self-expression?
Beirut certainly is vibrant and dynamic. I’m very lucky to move around in circles of open-minded, creative people who possess a wonderful spontaneity and pizzazz. It’s a melting pot here and as a result one has to constantly change and adapt one’s attitude to culture. There’s an inspiring fluidity within the Beirut creative scene. No sense that there’s one set way to be, way to act. It’s much less rigid, much more open to change because who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. That’s where the vibrancy comes from, a joie de vivre that everything could end so get up, go out and share your ideas and inspirations.
And that’s had such a positive effect on me. I feel in Beirut that I can really express myself without being judged. And I hope that it has also made me less quick to judge, and more able to take people at face value. I am far more direct now about what I think which is liberating.
But it does come with a caveat. The open liberal Lebanon that we so love and cherish is a minority, and there are sometimes very stark reminders of how far there is to go, that this country is not all cosy rosy, and that there are serious structural flaws and outdated attitudes to overcome. For example this August one of the most-loved contemporary Lebanese bands Mashrou’ Leila had to pull out of a concert in their own country because of homophobic threats from Christian religious fanatics. We all rallied round but for my Lebanese friends it is heart-wrenching to be suffocated by the obsolete attitudes that are still so prevalent here.
I can have all the fun I like, and want to share the amazing experiences I’ve had with friends back home. But it’s important to acknowledge that as a foreigner, I am not as bound by the strictures and traditions of this place. And also to stay aware of the issues- the refugees, the pollution, the open wounds. It’s terrifyingly easy to forget them, and as soon as we close our eyes and become inured to it all, we’re complicit.
I understand you worked previously with Larissa. How did that come about?
So yes, I was lucky enough to meet Larissa in November 2017, on my birthday in fact, and we became dear friends. That’s how it started. Friends having interesting, engaging conversations over coffee or lunch or whatever. One evening Larissa came for supper at mine. We were sitting on my terrace shooting the breeze and then began talking about her debut Beirut collection, ‘2200’. Larissa asked me to help her write a press release for the show, she liked it and everything snowballed from there. We were working towards a close deadline getting everything together to make the show a success. And it was!
We hosted the collection show in Mansion, a 1930s Beiruti villa that was left practically derelict until a collective of artists, designers and architects took it over and made its faded walls into one of the most exciting creative spaces in Beirut where Larissa’s atelier also sits. I had to keep all the guests at bay in the garden as the last minute rehearsals went on indoors, hopelessly trying to charm some of the big personalities of Beirut from pushing through before we were ready. But as soon as they walked in their attitudes changed. I had brought Jo Malone Pomegranate Noir from London - my favourite candle - and its sensual smokey smell suffused the room. It was a scent that speaks so much about what Larissa does. It’s at once luxurious , sophisticated, complex and compelling, and it created a palpable sense of anticipation and calmness.
When the lights dimmed and the show began, wow. You could see how captivated everyone was by Larissa’s designs, from the shirts she had worked on with Palestinian embroiderers to her grandfathers hand-dyed silk shibori shawl which she had folded around the a hundred-year-old silk devoré mourning dress inherited from her great grandmother. It was really powerful to see her pieces, which focus on transforming antique and found textiles into contemporary artisanal couture, really come to life.
Do you think your understanding of her work has shifted since your move?
I think it definitely has. When I first started working with Larissa, that show was our deadline and goal. I was thrown in at the deep end and we were on a very tight time schedule. Now that I’m back for longer I have the time to immerse myself in Larissa’s work and her vision. Thinking about our production methods, developing a clear strategy and business plan, finding clients and collaborations, securing press opportunities, keeping up to date with the latest market developments. It can be quite overwhelming. I often feel wholly unqualified for the job and there’s always more to do and so many different avenues to pursue; things to think about. I spend hours and hours trawling the internet for resources. So it’s much more complex and all-encompassing now, but that complexity makes it all the more exciting. We’re exploring different ways of doing luxury, and I’m learning so much as I go. About design, about sustainability, about business. I rely a great deal on the kind advice of friends and family and they have helped me realise the importance of patience. I have a tendency to want to do everything. While that’s great - throwing myself into all the different aspects of Larissa’s atelier and having the energy to do everything at once - I’m really trying to breathe more, prioritise and give myself the clarity of mind and structure needed to really share Larissa’s work and vision with the world.
Can you divulge anything about the projects you are currently working on with Larissa?
I mean how long have you got! Alongside the bespoke commissions that we work on with our clients, we are aiming towards a show in June next year, which will take place in Switzerland. Sustainability and artisanship are incredibly important to our work. So we are setting ourselves the goal of completing this journey using only sustainable transport alternatives. Our research so far has shown just how difficult it will be to bring her latest upcycled couture collection to show in such a way. But we will sail, take electric transport networks and ride on horseback if necessary to discover what can be done to be sustainable and remain efficient. That balance can be daunting, especially for small businesses like ours, and so to fit these longer transportation times into an efficient production cycle we will engage with craftspeople and establish design and retail opportunities along our route, which will help grow the business and provide Larissa with a network of like-minded creators to empower small-scale and sustainable businesses. We’re still at an early stage, but we've got a fab team, including Jemima who arrived a few weeks ago, so I’m very excited for our 2020 vision.