“Fashion is a tool for hope”

Speaking to Tigran Avetisyan ought to be confusing. His considered, intellectual perspective is coupled with a childlike sense of wonder. Yet, somehow, this contradiction in terms makes perfect sense. For the Moscow-based designer, fun is the only hopeful response to the tumultuous times we’re living through. He’s an artist with opinions and fashion is how he chooses to express them. “It’s an incredibly important time for an artist to transcend all the negativity,” he says. “Fashion and colours, paints and prints, are tools to show that things can be better. Fashion is the language I chose to talk about hope.” 

As his Autumn/Winter 2020 collection hit the Paris showrooms this week, we sat down with Tigran to talk about balancing creativity and commerce, hitting the refresh button and why the Italian approach to design pulls at his heartstrings. 

“I don’t want to reference things that are ephemeral. I want to talk about things that are timeless, like human values.”

What inspired the new collection? How does it continue/differ from your previous work?

For me, it’s always about evolution. I don’t set out to contradict myself. It’s about remaining a child, or retaining a naive, childlike outlook on life. It’s crucial for me as an artist, or a designer, to bring some lightness and hope – something positive and joyful.

Your new collection features some really provocative images – a phone case complete with shackles, the names ‘Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’ from the bedtime prayer ‘Black Paternoster’ and references to the Berlin Wall – what message are you trying to send with this collection? What reaction do you want to provoke in people, beyond hope? 

The worlds of art and fashion really intrigue me, but the most interesting thing is to blend those two things together. For me, it’s about bringing up values that will transcend beyond the six month cycle of fashion. I don’t want to reference things that are ephemeral. I want to talk about things that are timeless, like human values. This collection is about contradictions. Even though I just spoke about positivity and joy, they are contrasted with things like the iPhone case or the Berlin Wall reference, which many would not consider positive symbols. It’s about doing something positive and joyful within today’s world.

When I design, I have to make sure my pieces are Instagram-friendly. I have to work in a context where the image is being perceived for 5-10 seconds.”

What were you trying to say with the phone case? 

It’s about phones becoming part of our bodies, that’s how I see it. It’s not necessarily negative, just a fact of our lives now. We are shackled to our phones. They are usually in front of us when we walk – phones lead us in very real and metaphorical ways.

Have phones changed your creative process in any way? 

They have changed everything. I was born in 1988, so I am old enough to remember a time before phones. They have changed fashion immensely. When I design, I have to make sure my pieces are Instagram-friendly. I have to work in a context where the image is being perceived for 5-10 seconds. It has to make an impact and linger in people’s minds to create a response. I try to create something that will resonate in that space. 

You took a six month sabbatical from fashion. What did you learn from that time? 

I was a bit overwhelmed with orders and I didn’t have any structure behind me. Pretty much everything was done by me and my small team, from the design and pattern-cutting to shipping and customer service. It was too much work. I fell into this trap of trying to please other people and putting them in front of me. In design, it is always best to stay true to yourself and understand why you do what you do. I lost that for a bit and I was quite unhappy for a year or so with what I was doing. I think it shows in my collections from that time. 

Eventually, I took a break for six months and I returned with a new set of ideas. So I went all-in and stopped caring about what other people thought. I tried to please myself first and foremost. One of the first collections after the break was me trying to sell air. There were cans labelled with things like, ‘Virgil Abloh’s creative genius’ and ‘Air from Paris fashion week.’ It was so crazy – we had a couple of Japanese stores just buying the air. It wasn’t super expensive, so it was fun to see people purchasing it. 

I value comments when they are constructive and when they come from somebody who has knowledge of art. But not all opinions are equal. It’s about choosing who you want to listen to.”

In that context, you’re making a comment and when someone buys it, they are almost joining the conversation. Do you have much dialogue with the people buying your clothes or ideas?

Yes, for sure. I try to engage with the people that post about me on Instagram. Just recently, I did a collaboration with the cycling brand Cinelli. It was funny to see the different mindsets of people who are engaged in fashion versus people from the cycling world. It made me realise how lucky we are to work in fashion, which is so open-minded. If I may be honest, the cycling world didn’t receive it so well. Many people said it looked like a 3-year-old child made it. For me, this was the biggest compliment, but to them it was an insult. A lot of those customers grew up with the brand. Maybe they revere it for the utilitarian aspect, for the cycling part, not for the art part. At this stage, I value comments when they are constructive and when they come from somebody who has knowledge of art. But not all opinions are equal. It’s about choosing who you want to listen to. 

Going back to your sabbatical slightly – how do you maintain balance now you’re back to designing? And how do you keep that sense of who you are and why you’re doing this? 

I mix it up every now and then. This year, I’ve been doing some side projects, trying things with the bikes or ceramics. I did an art performance in Moscow recently too. It’s about taking a break to refresh and reset my point of view. That way, I can make sure I’m pleasing myself and not just creating what other people want to see. 

In terms of what other people want to see, how have  commercial responsibilities and expectations changed your relationship with creativity? 

I have to compromise and divide the collection into my concept and commercial pieces. We do a lot of hand painting and things like that, but we still need to do T-shirts and sweatshirts – things that sell. That is the baseline that funds my creative endeavours. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just how it works right now.

It was better for me to have a break. I was damaging the brand more by releasing wacky collections.”

Did the break damage your brand reputation or sales in any way? 

Not necessarily, because it wasn’t a long break. As a designer, you might not want to be portrayed as a brand or a person who is not doing so well. In fashion, there is this facade that you need to keep up, but I never thought about it damaging my sales. It was better for me personally and for the brand to have a break. I was damaging the brand more by releasing wacky collections. 

After graduating from CSM, you decided to base yourself in Moscow. How has that decision affected your work and do you think it was the right decision? 

Moscow is by no means a fashion city, so it has probably distanced me from the fashion capitals a lot, but it was good for me to take a break from London. It’s a very draining city. I studied there for so long – I did Foundation, a couple of years of Product Design and Fashion with a gap year. It was about six years in total. For me, London will forever be the city I associate with that period of my life. Leaving was about escaping that for a bit. 

Now, I’m working with a really great factory in Italy where they can realise my craziest ideas. Provided everything goes well, we will move to Italy this year. I really like the country and the people; I’m in love with their passion for design.  In their language, ‘bella’ means ‘beautiful’. It is one of the only languages in which ‘beautiful’ and ‘good’ are the same word. It says a lot about their approach to design. Russia is the opposite. In Russia, it’s beautiful if it’s useful. In Italy, it’s beautiful if it’s good. It’s a completely different mindset.

Tigran Avetisyan x Cinelli

PHOTOGRAPHY: MENHIR STUDIOS

STYLING: EMELIE HULTQVIST

MODEL: KHALID BONAMER

SET/PROPS: CARLO COSSIRI