‘It's so hard to find a place like this in Athens. It took us two years,’ says Elina Tseliagkou, who looks tiny in a corner of the vast, near-empty art deco apartment she shares with her partner and creative director Epaminondas Coutsicos (known as Nondas). Built in the thirties as one of the first polykatoikias [multi-storey apartment blocks] of central Athens' Kypseli neighborhood, the building features a grand entrance with weighty wrought-iron doors and impossibly high ceilings.
‘I love the old window frames, the parquet floors, the high ceilings. I wanted it to feel like a studio, but also the interior of a house,’ says Elina, who's still in the design phase of the apartment's renovation.
Originally trained as an architect but now heading her own fashion label, Unsung Weavers, alongside Nondas, Elina's making use of the space as a studio and a location for fashion shoots while she designs the interior. ‘It's a work in progress, but fashion design and architecture aren't so far apart. It's about the interaction between bodies and the objects around them, whether that's a home, furniture or clothes,‘ she says.
Having just moved to Kypseli, she's excited about the neighborhood's possibilities. Formerly where the well-heeled intellectuals of Athens lived, Kypseli took a dip in the years of Greece's government-debt crisis and is now seeing a resurgence with young creative types. ‘It's one of the few neighborhoods of Athens [where] you come across different cultures other than Greek. It reminds me of London and, at the same time, it has this really local vibe,’ says Elina. ‘There are African hair-braiding salons next to traditional kafeneios [cafes]. It has a flare of the super-old Athenian aristocratic families, and everyone knows that the most beautiful buildings in Athens are in Kypseli.’
She's getting back into architecture and interior design because of the new apartment but, for nearly four years now, her label has been the focus. Sourcing woolen blankets from bi-monthly trips to rural mountain villages in the Arcadia region of the Peloponnese peninsula, Elina crafts one-off garments as an ode to the Greek weavers behind the fabrics.
It began when she found that her aunt's dowry, consisting of beautiful, hand-woven woolen blankets, had gone moldy in a basement drawer. ‘I had this fear that, at some point, these fabrics are going to be lost forever,’ says Elina, explaining the lengthy process that went into producing the textiles she's now committed to salvaging. Pre-industrialization, Greek weavers would use seasonal cycles to craft the heavy woolen textiles Elina uses to make her utilitarian-style coats. The blankets would be left out on the riverbed or in the rain for days to give the textile a waterproof, felted quality, then they were dried in the sun before being gifted to brides on their wedding days.
‘They're very precious materials, the very opposite of fast fashion. These fabrics are unique; they carry the personality of the weaver in a strange way,‘ says Elina, who spends her days in the studio trying to work with the fabric. ‘I can't replicate my designs, and no one coat or jacket is the same, because I can't find identical fabrics. Even if I cut the same pattern, with a different textile, it won't fall the same way,' she says, eyeing up a red-and-white blanket draped around a mannequin that's destined to become a blazer.
My daily routine
Elina's days take time to get going. She likes to draw out the hours, reading the news and musing while making her silty Greek coffee the old-fashioned way, with a briki pot over the lick of a blue gas flame. ‘The brewing of a Greek coffee is so ritualistic, and I love that, because it gives me time to get into working mode,’ says Elina, who values the transition from home life to work life all the more now that her studio is also her apartment. ‘I like wasting time in the morning, and that means my working hours tend to extend to much later on in the day.’ Today, she's working on designing the studio and on a coat commission for a private client, but her day-to-day changes a lot. It can vary from doing fittings, sketching, cutting and dyeing fabrics.
Breaking for lunch doesn't happen until around 3pm, when Elina steps out of the studio store-front section of the apartment onto a balcony that overlooks a lush garden dotted with fig and orange trees. ‘Lunch is a bit delayed, but what can I say – I'm Greek,’ she says, arranging an assortment of veggies into a salad. Lunch strictly happens away from the work zone, because food around precious, one-off fabrics is risky business. ‘I try to be conscious in everything I do, so when I'm eating, I'm eating, and when I'm working, I'm working,‘ she says. She adds that stitching is her favorite meditative activity and she doesn't listen to music while she works, preferring podcasts. ‘I usually listen to philosophy podcasts in the afternoons. I'm into Karl Marx Does the Washing Up at the moment.’
Elina schedules another break at around sunset, when she dons running shoes and heads to the ancient Kallimarmaro stadium (the only one in the world to be built entirely from marble). ‘I don't listen to music. I prefer to be present, because there's always so much going on there,’ she says. Aside from the spot being ‘objectively beautiful‘ with its trees, impressive views of the Parthenon and ‘all that marble’, it appeals because every day there's something new to see.
‘Sometimes I'll run past an event there and there'll be live classical music as the soundtrack to my run. Or there's teenagers hooking up and the tinny sound of Greek rap coming out of phone speakers. It's a very Athenian vibe – a bit all over the place,’ she says. The day rounds off with more work at the studio until Nondas gets home, then they head to the neighboring zone of Exarcheia for meze with friends in the courtyard of Ama Lachei, their favorite restaurant to grab a bite.
Where to get inspired in Athens
1. Mavrommateon Street
‘For architecture, I love Mavrommateon Street, overlooking the Pedion Tou Areos park. The buildings are a combination of Bauhaus and art deco – they're really brilliant examples of early modernism that are old and majestic.’
2. Limanakia beach
‘This is a nudist beach where the landscape is so magical. There are giant rocks, and the contrast between the very white rocks, the super-tanned bodies and the blue sea is so soothing and sensual. When I first moved back from London, I was going to philosophy seminars every day, then I went to this beach. I found it all so evocative and inspiring – aesthetically and intellectually.’
‘The polykatoikias blocks of Athens are a little bit all over the place, but I kinda love that. It captures the spirit of the city, and you can really feel that in Kypseli. There's this mix of sixties apartment blocks with sweeping marble entrances, then in between those are neoclassical houses and art deco buildings like [ours], from the early 1900s. It's like a happy accident [and] surprisingly beautiful. It's a mess, but it's better than being sterile. There are plants on every balcony, and they're even seeping out between the concrete cracks – it's like nature is taking over.’
Four favorite brands
‘[Founder Kiki Karayiannis was] an artist before she was into making jewelry. Her background is in fine arts and all of this informs her designs – big, chunky organic shapes, influenced by Greek mythology.’
‘These guys curate exceptional pieces of every single type – from candle holders to jewelry and clothing.’
‘He has a really punkish attitude to design, and he combines art with design to craft furniture made from materials that might have otherwise gone to waste, which obviously really appeals to me.’
‘This brand never fails to inspire me. I just think its model choices – as well as its fabric choices and shapes – are unusual, and I love that.’