Sophia Kouvarou (SOPHIAK) set up her eponymous fashion label after graduating from University for the Creative Arts, Rochester, following her post-graduate short courses at Central Saint Martins and work experience at the side of Jean Pierre Braganza. The label is defined by a minimalist approach to a dark aesthetic, combining art elements with quality clothing to create bold, dynamic silhouettes influenced by architectural forms.
As an emerging designer – Sophia started out working by herself from her studio doing custom-made clothes, before taking the plunge and launching SOPHIAK. The showroom for the label is located in the heart of Larnaca’s downtown area where, as of late, lots of locally owned boutiques, independent fashion designers’ and artists’ studios have been popping up. Somewhat of a veteran in the area, Sophia first opened her studio almost five years ago when very few local designers were around.
Right upon entry it’s clear the designer has paid close attention to the experiential aspect of the showroom, as the aesthetic of the brand is communicated through the space. It’s characterised by a simple palette of colours and materials, and furnishings are few to fit right into the minimalist setting. The clothes are presented as works of art, placed on chains hanging from the ceiling. At the window, there is one of the showroom’s main attractions to the passer-by, a headless mannequin lying on the floor – another element adding to the art gallery atmosphere. (Sophia later explains that it was an impulsive decision that has proved to be a great marketing tool.)
As she mentions during our talk, she is fiercely committed to her aesthetic but now with more years of experience on her back, she’s more comfortable diving into new waters. Even if her brand is characterised by its dark aesthetic, Sophia herself is quite the opposite as she warmly welcomed us to her space where over wine, we talked about following your passion, how lockdowns affected her creative decisions for the brand, and the blessings and challenges of having a space to house her creative process and the brand.
What were your first experiences with the fashion industry, before starting the brand?
At university, my bachelor course was very hands-on. We did everything from research, to design, to patterns to production – only a handful of universities go into such depth into the technical part. It was very useful that I had gained an insight into designing and tailoring before university and had developed an understanding of how clothes are made so I was prepared. Instead of traditional school, I went to a Technical high school which was one of the best decisions I made. These schools are often underestimated which is very unfortunate, as there I was able to find teachers who truly paid attention to me and supported me throughout my high school years. And that, combined with some afternoon work experience at a men’s tailor, meant that I was basically able to do jetted pockets by the age of 15.
At UCA, our teachers used to be the toughest critics, but eventually, you realise that they were only preparing you for what’s expecting you in the real world. It’s important to accept criticism, even from someone who is not an expert. If you don’t, then you’ll never move forward. It was hard, especially since I was only 17 when I went to study, but I pulled through.
I took every bit of criticism and paid attention because I always knew fashion is what I wanted to do; I was fully committed to it from the beginning. After three years at UCA, I graduated in 2013 and moved to London for two years to gain work experience while doing some additional courses at CSM.
I interned with a designer and was later hired to work with them, and I truly felt that working alongside him was like doing an extra degree. He was thriving back then, presenting in London Fashion week, with shops and clients worldwide. The brand matched my aesthetic 100%. The best thing about it was that it was a small team, so the designer would ask about our opinion and give us lots of responsibilities. It was so important to feel trusted by someone like him. We would do everything from patterns to grading, to creating new samples, and also got to visit the factories. I worked in men’s tailoring for a while as well. One year after I returned to Cyprus, I started SOPHIAK.
When I first opened my space, my aesthetic was even darker than it is now. I started with some custom tailoring combined with some side projects and then with time I felt like I was getting ‘stronger’, so I began the collections. People were intimidated at first because the aesthetic of the brand was perhaps too dark and didn’t seem very approachable, so that’s something I’ve worked on since then. The feedback I’ve heard from people coming in was helpful. When I started gaining customers, word of mouth played a vital role to get more people to come in and of course, later on, social media helped a lot too.
What’s the process that goes on before creating a new collection? How do you usually collect your inspiration and find your influences? Do seasonal trends affect your work?
My most creative periods often entail a spiral of sadness (laughs). I’m completely fine with this – as it helps me look within – and my friends have become accustomed to it as well. I self-isolate and create. I find inspiration from every little thing – it could be simply from a random person I see on the street who’ll say ‘good morning’! I try to stay on top of trends and what’s happening in the industry but largely, I remain unaffected by these as I want to stay loyal to my aesthetic.
Did the lockdowns influence the creative decisions you made for the collections that came out in 2020 and 2021?
Last year we did our first ever sportswear collection because we understood that people still needed to feel the joy and excitement of getting something new, but of course, it had to be something they could wear and enjoy. The collection was limited edition with selected colours and styles and did very well. It was an interesting challenge, as I wanted to maintain the character of the brand, and from the feedback we had about it I was happy to see that we succeeded. I’m not afraid to try out new things but I’ll set my boundaries to the point I feel I’m diverting from my aesthetic. When I first started, I was less open to trying out new things but now I feel more confident that if I try something new, I can adjust and ‘refine’ it to match that aesthetic.
As a fashion designer and brand owner, what’s the secret to remaining original and authentic? What are the key elements that can make your brand stand out from the competition with local brands or chain stores?
Trying to remain focused and true to my aesthetic. I try as much as I can to remain unaffected by trends, and not allow sales and numbers to dictate my decisions. I think this was what kept me going, as I didn’t change from what I am, I didn’t do anything different to sell more, I chose to grow and expand my circle gradually, and I worked very hard to achieve this. The most important thing is to respect your customers and be honest with them. There’s always a personal element to the interaction with every one of my customers, so there’s no way I would lie to them just to sell – I love them all! I treat the showroom like my home, and I want everyone who walks in to feel welcome and happy to be here.
How important is having your own space to work on your collections and showcase your work? Do you think locating your brand in Larnaca has influenced the direction of the brand? How was your experience so far and what are some of the challenges to maintain/manage the space?
I think it’s important, and it’s very helpful. That being said, it doesn’t mean that someone who doesn’t have a space can’t make it work. You only need a desk, your sewing machine and a computer. Having the space has affected the brand in some ways because in a physical shop you can listen to the comments and thoughts of your customers. I also get the chance to ask them what they would like to see in the next season, or if there’s anything missing. I value their opinion and I’ll listen to it, adjusting it though to what I think is right for the brand. For example, a couple of years ago I would never imagine working with colours, but now I truly love it! And by lining them with black I’ve kept the ‘SOPHIAK’ element to them. Had I worked only online, all of this would have been a lot different.
As for locating the brand in Larnaca, that has had an impact on the direction of the brand too. I love my town and I love its people, but during the first years I started I could see that other cities were far more welcoming to new artists, independent designers, and new shops in general. I think it took a while for Larnaca to get there, but things have changed the last couple of years, and I’m pleased to see that. And even more pleased to see that it’s young people who are driving this.
When it comes to the challenges of running your own shop, you have to be prepared to work with people every day, and some customers can be quite tough or rude, so you have to be able to stomach that. There are lots of costs running constantly and you have to be very punctual while dealing with everything. But if there’s a will there’s a way, and I think it’s 100% worth it.
Do you think downtown Larnaca has changed since the showroom first opened? As a local store owner, how do you wish to see it in the future?
I’m genuinely happy about what has happened in the last couple of years here. I really hope more independent brands take over the space here and the market downtown becomes the go-to location to discover local designers and artists. I think it would be great if with the mall opening now, most of the chain stores re-located there and boutiques, designers and artists’ spaces remained here.
Young creatives are a driving force in this, they have changed the face of Larnaca but also of the creative industries in Cyprus. And by driving these forward, we’ll make it so much easier for the younger generations to return to the island and bring in even more fresh ideas and projects.
What’s next on the agenda for SOPHIAK? Do you have any specific goals for the future?
The pandemic put a lot of our plans on the back burner for a bit but we’re gradually back on schedule for what’s coming next. On top of our list is definitely our online shop which will go live with the new collection. Also, menswear! I have worked on custom men’s tailoring for years – actually since I first started – and a lot of people have been asking to see a menswear collection. I feel that now is the right time to do it. It will be a small collection for Autumn/Winter and mostly more easy-going pieces.