Laiik Interviews: Natalia Konstantinidi
We are so excited to relaunch the Athenian Discoveries section of our e-shop with an expanded collection of luxury handbags from Almira. Crafted in a small artisanal studio in the heart of Monastiraki, Athens, Almira is the brainchild of the young, Greek talent Natalia Konstantinidi. A graduate of Parsons School of Design in New York, Natalia is a scion of one of Greece’s most artistic families.
To celebrate the relaunch, we sat down (virtually, of course) with Natalia, and went deep into her rich personal history, her unique perspectives on design, fashion and the modern Greek aesthetic, and how this all relates to her passion for preserving artisanal Greek boat-making. Enjoy!
Natalia, your handbags are unique yet tastefully understated and undeniably Greek in their aesthetic. How and when did you decide to create Almira, particularly because we understand that you are a trained naval designer? How did those two seemingly different passions intersect?
Well, I think everything begins with my deep obsession with the sea, which began from an early age with my grandfather, who taught me to sail and fish on his traditional fishing boat – a Kaïki, in Greek. I was always fascinated with boats, especially old artisanal craft. Their design and structures need to be both beautiful and functional. The choice of materials and the attributes of those materials are crucial.
When I studied fashion and industrial design, I thought deeply about materials. I gravitated toward leather in particular because of its inherent structural qualities. And so, for my senior thesis I decided to design a line of handbags because of this desire to work with leather. It also tied in with my interest in boats, and the functionality of vessels. For me everything begins with building a solid base. On a large scale, that is a boat that needs to not only hold its passengers and cargo, but also to float and glide on the sea. On a smaller scale, my vision of the perfect bag was the same. Not only did its structure have to secure the wearer’s contents, but it needed to float on the hand. Boats and bags have a similar function and boat shapes can work in bags.
I started Almira – which means “Salt of the Sea” in Greek -- in 2017 while finishing an immensely difficult but spiritually gratifying project to catalog, preserve and innovate on the ancient tradition of Greek Kaïki fishing boat manufacture. I was astounded to discover that each of these boats were 100% handmade, without formal design planning. It was astounding! Each boat begins with a sketch drawn in the sand, and over two years is built organically from artisanal memory into a beautiful and solid fishing boat. At this time the EU was encouraging Greek fisherman to destroy their Kaïkia to reduce overfishing. It was a terrible program for reasons I won’t get into. It didn’t solve its intended problem, but threatened to destroy a hundreds year-old traditional industry. So I worked for almost a year and a half to document and understand the process, and to help save and design a program to convert these kaïkia into sustainable tourism charters.
That project helped shape my design philosophy, inspired by the Kaïki boat-making process – which hadn’t changed in hundreds of years. It was very similar to the artisanship that goes into luxury handmade bags. I didn’t want to start a “production line” but to make unique and individual bags. For me, each Almira bag that we make in the studio is its own vessel, just like each Kaïki is an original, not a copy.
It's not an overstatement to say you come from a renowned artistic family in Greece. Your grandmother for whom you were named, Natalia Mela, is considered the grand dame of modern Greek Sculpture. Your handbags exude the same statuesque quality. How did your family, and your grandmother, influence and inspire your design aesthetic?
Haha, yeah … my family has had a huge impact on my work! I grew up with architects and designers – of course my grandmother Natalia Mela, as well as my grandfather Aris, the first modernist architect in Greece, and my parents who are also architects and interior designers.
I can tell you that one of the biggest things that I remember is that growing up in my family we never had plastic toys. Each one of them had to be handmade from wood, and we were taught to design and make our own toys from wooden blocks or found object. We always had a great thirst for life and excitement, and there was always something you can make with your hands.
What I learned most from my grandmother was that “there are no useless objects. “ In terms of design thinking and design creation, this had a profound effect on me. She taught me that all objects can inspire design thinking and creation, from shape and color to texture. She told me to focus on “story” and not to focus on “process.” Everyone would always ask my grandma about her “process” (for getting inspired) and she hated that question. She could never pin it down and neither can I. She would always say “I don’t get why we have to talk about the process. I get inspired by life and then I go for it.” She was a true original – and her inspiration came as much from her friends as it did from ancient Greece. She didn’t overthink it. She was so spontaneous and yet so skillful. It was the perfect mix for me. I don’t overthink the process although I love observing and breaking things down. There was a sort of negligence that those kaïki makers had by also not having a process, but my grandma had the exact same thing and I loved it.
Speaking of process and inspiration, tell me about your team in Athens. What is it like working with your makers?
Well, I first learned how to make bags myself, while studying in New York. But I also knew that there were people who had decades of knowledge, and that I was being foolish not to tap into it. I’m a designer. I always really wanted to do something in GREECE -- because of the (economic) crisis, and because of my own pride and love I wanted to build something in our country.
So I started looking for makers and it wasn’t easy at first. But I ended up finding a guy named Nikos who, along with his brothers, were running an artisanal production studio. They were the exact kind of people I was looking for. They were interested in all aspects of the craft, and, despite having a wealth of knowledge themselves, were open to new techniques, and they loved my designs.
Despite this they rejected me at first. For a full summer I would go to their studio every single day and they would say no. But I kept showing up until they took me seriously. In the end, I think I convinced them to work with me because I wasn’t only a designer, but KNEW how to make bags. It was critical for building mutual respect. We ended up making a couple of samples together. I showed them how to finish the edges and paint them – a process they couldn’t wrap their heads around at first. But they had such a thirst and were so interested in tools, designs and patterns. Today, we build every bag together. I remember this summer as both very stressful and immensely gratifying. I am so proud of what we accomplished that summer and I would be nowhere without them. It was very… human. That was 2017 and now we’re a studio of 10 people.
It’s amazing to hear about your pride in Greece and in both artisanal manufacture, and in the importance of innovation and modernization. Now that you've worked in fashion in New York for several years, what advice would you give to emerging young Greek designers and makers who want to grow their brand reach internationally?
If I had any advice to give it would be -- get as many internships as you can. You learn so much on the job… it paved the way for me and helped me understand what I wanted to get out of my academic experience. I would say that the biggest advantage for me was working for, and eventually with, a showroom (Almira signed recently with the vaunted Rainbow Wave) and the feedback I got from that. You learn what’s working and what’s not. If what’s not working is the SOUL of your brand, then you’re probably addressing the wrong customers. It doesn’t mean what you’re doing is wrong, but that you probably haven’t identified the right customer. All the high end showrooms have a very specific aesthetic. It’s important for people to understand there’s no one way to do this right. I’m always looking for ways to grow and develop the business. But if you don’t want to compromise, you can’t be in wholesale, you have to be in retail.
In terms of Greece, I read a lot about our country’s history and how many industries got disrupted during the economic crisis. We’re in many ways a broken country — wars, dictatorships, and economic crises. It’s a huge disruption and it has affected our young designers and manufacturers. It means that it is harder for young Greeks starting. I would say to them: have one foot inside the manufacturing facility, get involved in every part of the process. You have to always find solutions and can’t outsource that. We have to use our artisanship to its greatest effect.
In terms of marketing I would say -- don’t overplay the Ancient Greek card. We’re not stuck in antiquity. It’s getting old. Don’t fall into the trap of souvenir marketing. We can be inspired by our heritage, but we should learn how to modernize and brand it rather than copy it in terms of design, architecture and shapes.
There are so many parts of Greece and sources of inspiration that are neglected. Our naval heritage, our regional cultures, our mountain culture. There is so much inspiration to draw from; we don’t need to rely on ancient Greek souvenir marketing. Many young Greek creatives have so much talent and ability, but they feel they need to do fall back on this, and they don’t.
Tell us a bit then about your favorite designs and what inspired them.
The Nat, which I named after my grandmother, is not only our bestseller but, I must confess, my favorite bag also. It inspired the whole brand! This little bag was so similar to this little basket I used to carry around in Greece in the summer. I wore it day and night for four months, on the islands. The structured, round bottom, getting narrower on the top… I was so amazed at how much it could fit while appearing quite small. I just felt I NEED this bag. It’s what started everything and I still love that shape. I have clients that come back and buy more colors. It’s wonderful to hear people being satisfied by something.
I also love our new Lucia bag, named after my mother, which was totally inspired by the shape of my grandfather’s Kaïki.
How are you staying inspired while remaining quarantined in the time of COVID? How do you stay creative?
I’m one of those people who sees the best in a bad situation. I think these times expose a lot about our character. For me, I discovered the silver lining one day when I realized and said to myself “I haven’t had this much time in soooo long.” With the hustle of starting a brand and working so hard to grow it, I discovered that I may not have this opportunity again to take a breath and go back to fundamentals. I mean… I’m drawing again! I haven’t done that in 10 years! I forgot how much I miss that. I feel that the whole world has pressed a pause button. It’s mundane but it’s beautiful. I have found some serenity in these times. Take the things that you’ve said you never had enough time to do, and do it (unless its outdoors! :) )
In the most important way, it seems that Greece has done an incredible job weathering the Covid crisis. However, the economic devastation of losing a full spring and summer tourist season is going to be very hard on tourism-dependent Greece. What do you think should happen in Greece when this is over and – for those reading – do you have any recommendation on where they should go in Greece for their first post-Covid vacation?
Well, Patmos is my favorite island! I’ve been going there since I was 15 days old and I love it. But honestly, there are so many vacation spots in Greece that I don’t want to recommend one over the other. And in fact, I think that is what we as Greeks need to start focusing on together after COVID.
Even if Greece loses the Spring and Summer, it NEEDS to make the best of this by finally focusing on Fall and Winter tourism. Fall is when Greece is at its most beautiful. Not only on the islands but in the mountains and in our smaller cities and in towns. I mean the weather in Greece is amazing almost all year round!
We shouldn’t get so caught up about summer. I know it’s hard for families who have their children on summer vacations but the best times to be in Greece is not necessarily in the summer. I think this is an opportunity to really showcase that. Let’s start focusing on the rest of the year.