​how one cultural institution is building a bridge between young creatives in london and athens

Forget Brexit, Grexit and any lingering post-crisis inertia, the Onassis Cultural Centre-Athens and MACHINE-A’s collaborative Uniform project demonstrates that creativity knows no bounds and ignores all borders.

by Steve Salter
26 April 2017, 4:35pm

Right from its inception in 2010, the Onassis Cultural Centre-Athens' mission has been the promotion of contemporary cultural expression, the support of new Greek artists, and the cultivation of international collaborations. Its latest project encapsulates all of these aims. After a chance meeting between OCC's Deputy General Manager Afroditi Panagiotakou and MACHINE-A's Founder and Buying Director Stavros Karelis, the Greek-born, London based industry insider was commissioned to curate Uniform — an opportunity for an emerging designer to dress the OCC's front of house staff.

From Coco Chanel to Pierre Cardin, some of fashion's most iconic designers have designed uniforms for the wider Onassis establishment in the past (both designed uniforms during the Golden Era of Olympic Airways in the 60s), but the focus in 2017 is emerging talent. Who better to embody what OCC stands for today than the stars of today, and who better to nurture them than Karelis? Not only is his MACHINE-A a curiosity shop of cool, but it's also an incubator where talent can grow and have their promise realized. Once discovered, its brand relationships run far deeper than your average retailer-designer because Karelis doesn't just support young talent, he champions them.

"The brief was relatively open because we wanted to give the designers free rein, but as the uniforms are for the front of house, they need to be functional and striking while also representing the foundation," Stavros explains on the eve of the project's launch. After a number of the industry's most exciting names submitted their designs, Panagiotakou and Karelis chose the Russian-born, Britain-based DELADA. "Her unisex design best suited the project as it stands today," Karelis adds, hinting that this project is just the beginning. "It's just the start for this collaboration because it's important to continue supporting and encouraging young creatives — establishing a bridge between Athens and London and helping to get the best out of two amazing cities."

Against a backdrop of market difficulties, industry shifts, and turbulent politics, now is the time to support creative talent in genuine ways. Furthermore, while the news is dominated by discussion around borders and breakaways, we should be encouraging cultural exchanges and a cross-pollination of creativity. Under Karelis' creative direction, the Cristos Sarris film that supports the launch encapsulates these ideas. Shot in and around the premises of Onassis Cultural Centre, Alex Komarovich, face of the DELADA brand and recent Burberry campaign star, features alongside rising homegrown Greek talents actor Michalis Sarandis and skate talent Mike Vasilakis. "We wanted to show the mood and atmosphere of Greece today, to capture its promise and optimism whilst showing the collaboration in the best possible way," Karelis adds with a smile. Like the project itself, the film champions youth culture, moves beyond borders, and invites an open dialogue and idea exchange with the aim of inspiring the next generation. Alongside DELADA's winning design, Raf Simons x Adidas and Maison Margiela have provided the shoes to complete the uniform for now. As we exclusively share the visuals below, Panagiotakou talks us through the project and discusses hopes, dreams and fears for the creative future of Athens.

What was the catalyst for the particular direction of this project?
A catalyst is something which, when added to the mix, speeds up a chemical reaction. When it comes to collaborations, the important catalysts are always people and ideas. The idea was to add an element to our visual language that would both help communicate our productions and tell a story about who we are and where we fit in in Athens' urban environment. The audience's connection to the OCC goes beyond simply passing through our doors to enjoy a great performance, we want to provide experiences both before and after the main event. I mean, how could we stage the most cutting-edge dance production and not have the right hosts for the event? Even the process of creating the Uniform project made the OCC team feel great because we were participating in something as close to us as our skin and body.

Why was Stavros Karelis the perfect partner?
He's the personification of function following fiction, method and madness, brains and good vibes. And this is only the beginning in terms of the OCC's relationship with MACHINE-A. . The best thing about catalysts is that, in principle, they are only needed in tiny amounts and they can keep on working their magic over and over.

Could you tell us a little about the current creative climate in Athens and the wider implications this may have for Greece?
Athens is buzzing. It started out as a necessity — the arts help us understand what is going on within and around us. With the crisis banging on our door, there was a lot for us to understand. The thing is, artists don't only understand — they feel, too, and very intensely. Emotions shape culture no less than reason, and our emotions have been stirring lately. Hence the creative mania of our artists and the curiosity of the people who come here from around the world to see what's going on.

Athens is the new Athens — an inspiring, interesting, surprising capital. Not beautiful in any rational sense. It's a vibrant urban jungle, not a theme-park, like all the cities I like. Large organizations, both Greek and international, have all primed society to view reality and their desires through a new prism— this includes small artistic platforms and collectives, public and private institutions, and artists and cultural management professionals. Athens as a creative capital cannot be ignored. I, for one, truly believe that it will put positive pressure on decision makers to invest in Greece's real industry: Culture.

What do you hope this project  and the OCC in general — will inspire? What are your hopes, dreams and fears for Athens' creative future?

At the OCC, we present more than 100 productions per season, but that's only part of what we do. We aim to support Greek artists, acting as a stepping stone for them on their way to achieving their aspirations and providing them with the necessary tools. We set out to serve as a point of connection between people and institutions. The Onassis Foundation, of which we form part of, has also defined our mission: supporting talent and releasing potential.

Hope and fear are emotions with a lot in common. They both relate to the unforeseen future. I'll get fear out the way first by expressing my own: I don't want to see Greece and Athens branded with a new post-crisis identity, and I don't want to see our creative forces trapped in a continuous loop, regurgitating the same old ingredients. The point is not to replace the picture of the white chapel overlooking the blue Aegean with a different kind of exoticism. But we do need to get beyond the trend that wants Athens to be "cool" at the moment. We work hard to make this a reality by creating infrastructure and networks, helping arts and culture professionals develop, making curators of public curiosity and creative minds choose Athens as a destination — as a place to be.


Text Steve Salter

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stavros karelis
onassis cultural centre athens
uniform project