His designs have been worn at the Venice Film Festival, BAFTA, and Film Independent Spirit Awards, to mention a few. Among his clients are singer-songwriter and actress Mýa, TV personality and producer Padma Lakshmi, Grammy Award winner singer-songwriter Daya, CSI: Miami’s Sofia Milosz, Miss Italy Giulia Arena, top model Jacqueline Lara, actress and model Lady Victoria Frederica Isabella Hervey (daughter of the six marques of Bristol), and many others. These days he designs exclusively for his own haute couture line Ivan DONEV, teaches fashion at several universities, and participates annually in a variety of artistic and humanitarian projects (on October 15, 2017, he participated in one of the biggest European fundraising events in support of Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research, where his collection was exhibited at London’s Royal Albert Hall).
Since his 2012 debut, Donev has steadily climbed the heights of haute couture, winning in the process the love of critics and the public alike, all while bagging a number of national and international awards, including the World Fashion Award (which he won shortly after his debut), the Four Luxe Award (awarded to Donev for his innovation and high quality of work), and the Nefertiti statue he took home at the Nefertiti International Fashion Festival in Egypt. His collection of awards continues to grow. Just recently, in February 2018 Donev won the fashion Oscar for Best International Designer in Chicago.
Not that anything in his attitude would reveal his booming success, mind you. Ivan Donev is a rare blend of creative vision and zeal for the highest aesthetic expression paired with a deep, philosophical outlook on life and its many peculiarities. It is precisely this ability to balance his artistic mastery and the pretentious world of fashion with unassuming grace and kindness that sets Donev apart.
Ivan Donev describes himself as a “dreamer, a person who is simply in love with life, and a reliable friend.” “But,” he adds quickly, “it’s not realistic to assume anyone can be recognized solely by positive attributes,” Donev admits to being somewhat messy (a trait accompanying many artistic people, I have noticed), and tends to get offended easily (an attribute of a creative soul). We at the Falchion Pub should add “meticulous” and “perfectionist,” given he is known for creating every garment in his collections on his own – everything from sketches to fabric prints and embroidery, down to the engraved buttons and accompanying accessories. This attentiveness is why he used to produce only about twenty new garments annually (a tendency he had to since overcome due to the high demand for his designs).
“It is precisely this ability to balance his artistic mastery
and the pretentious world of fashion with unassuming grace
and kindness that sets Donev apart”
Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview and for taking the time to personally meet.
Greetings to all readers of Argent Publications! It is a real pleasure to be here.
Per the adage, “All Roads Lead to Rome”. Do you think this is so?
If we speak in the sense that all paths eventually lead you to the center of everything, then yes – as long as one doesn’t lose sight of one’s ultimate goals. The power of attraction is a mighty one. If thoughts, goals, actions, and pursuits are all concentrated on your sole aim, then all the forces in the world will help you attain your dream. Of course, there will always be someone who will want you to fall, but I guess such people are necessary, too [laughs].
Let’s go back a little bit and talk about the beginning. How does a dancer and stage designer from Bulgaria become a student at The International Academy of Haute Couture and Art of Costume?
Koefia was one of the biggest challenges for me. I was in Paris when I first heard of Koefia, choreographing fashion shows and working backstage. What I really loved at the time was the stage design, the lights, the play – I did not have even the remotest thought of becoming a designer. But while there, I met an older lady who was very observant of my work, noticing the detail with which I handle clothing. At one point, I detected a rip in a dress. I took a needle and thread and began to sew it back. She asked if I was a tailor. I said no, I am not. She then inquired as to how it was I came to sew so precisely. I replied that in Bulgaria, back in the days, sewing was something we learned at school. She then said: “You should not be displaying someone else’s fashion. You should exhibit your own collections.” I answered that I do not want to be a tailor, but she insisted that I must become one. And so, on my last day in Paris she put in my wallet a piece of paper which read “If you want to become a successful fashion stylist, you must become a successful tailor. You will learn how to do this at Koefia Academy.” The fact that a French lady was advising me to go to Koefia really impacted me, especially given the ongoing feud between Paris and Rome.
“I had to fight with my own impulse to just pack my stuff and go back home because at times the difficulties were so unbearable they would prevail over my spirit”
And just like that, you decided to completely shift gears. How difficult was it to transition from singing and dancing to jumping into the deep waters of high fashion?
It was not simple or easy at all. While I admit to having a gift for art and drawing, I didn’t have the required technical knowledge, nothing really. But Koefia doesn’t want you to enroll there as an artist. All they necessitate is that you have the foundation so that they teach you how to build your style. There I learned not only about fashion and creativity, but also honed my business acumen and communication, self-marketing skills, knowledge of history and art, and so on. The best part of it was that teachers at Koefia are not people who have merely studied fashion – they have worked it, they have lived it. One of the most beautiful encounters for me during these years was with Professor Bianca Maria Piccinino, one remarkable 94-year old woman and the first female journalist in the Italian history of journalism. She teaches history from the standpoint of someone who has actively participated in it, which is an immense advantage for her students.
If there was a song about your first years, what would be a good title for it?
My first years were very trying and challenging; like a reality survival show, only without the cameras following me everywhere. It is hard to put my finger on just one particular title, but if I really must, perhaps the most accurate one would be I Will Survive. And I mean every aspect of survival – physical and spiritual.
I read somewhere that there were periods when you had nowhere to sleep, and so you found a roof at a monastery. What were some of the biggest challenges during this period?
First, I had to overcome hunger. There were times when I could not dream to have something as simple as a sandwich, because all my efforts were concentrated on paying for my tuition at Koefia, paying my rent, or buying the materials and fabrics I needed in order to showcase my creativity at the Academy. Despite the fact I worked three jobs, the money was never enough. So, my menu often consisted of milk and cookies since these were the cheapest items at the supermarket. The situation was indeed I Will Survive. But besides hunger, I had to also overcome the racism and prejudice streaming from the fact that I come from little Bulgaria. To say nothing of the competition at Koefia, which is really not a place where one meets and makes friends, but rather a place where only the best survive and move forward. In that sense, I fought hard to prove I am Ivan Donev and not “the boy who comes from Eastern Europe,” which is what I was initially labeled. Finally, I had to fight with my own impulse to just pack my stuff and go back home, because at times the difficulties were so unbearable they would prevail over my spirit. But I persevered and I made it!
What kept you going?
What kept me going was the knowledge that in spite of all the difficulties God is always with me. You know, there is a saying in Italian, it means something like “to be born with a silver spoon in my mouth.”
This expression exists in English too. You said God was always with you. So, you are a believer?
I am a huge believer. Throughout my life, I have had many instances where God has been close by helping, even though I would not always realize it at first. But there were definitely times when I was conflicted with my faith, my principles, the people around me, and everything else. So many times I would fight with God because I needed Him and He was not there. Later, I realized that everything I did not get right away was for my own good.
“I realized that everything I did not get right away was only for my own good “
Was language a problem for you?
When I came to Italy I did not speak any Italian. I had to adjust. Quickly, too. Without being able to communicate freely at Koefia, I could not demonstrate efficiently who I was, nor could I establish myself. Not to mention how difficult it was to watch my peers discuss art, all the while I knew so little about it. To tackle this, I began spending every spare minute educating myself. Every day at the Academia, while my colleagues would go to the café downstairs to grab a croissant and a cappuccino, I would hold tightly to my 2 Euros, so that at the end of the week I would have 10 Euros to buy a museum pass and learn about art and culture.
Now that you teach (history of fashion), what is the most important lesson you try to give your own students?
Often when I guest lecture at schools and universities they ask me to lead a lecture that can be conditionally called “Life, Uncensored,” because they don’t just want me to lecture but to share my early experiences and compare them to my life now. The point is to have everyone understand that you don’t have to come from a wealthy family or be someone’s protégé in order to achieve success. For I was neither, but I believed fiercely in myself and was ready to sacrifice much to attain my goals. We live in the age of recommendations and networking; our society is divided into “ours” and “yours.” But I want to show everyone that it doesn’t have to be like this; I want to empower young people to fight for their lives, to fight for success.
What would you say is the trickiest thing to watch for when you try to establish yourself?
Having to make compromises with yourself. True, compromises are part of life. But when you cross your own principles which in turn become self-compromising, then you indeed have reached a very difficult point in your life. This is when you deviate from your very essence, which can put people in a quite peculiar place.
What is the biggest compromise you have made?
To bite my tongue. To bite my tongue when I know very well I am in the right and the other person is in the wrong. But there are times when you are not in a position to speak up, however sad that is. This is simply how the world functions. But I have come to a point in my life when I can say that this won’t be happening again.
Do you remember the moment when you finally told yourself “I’ve made it!”?
There were many instances when I said that to myself. When you shared with me in our preliminary talk that you are a ballerina, the association that came to mind was with the Italian “ballerina,” which means a professional dancer. Which, incidentally, is what I was in Bulgaria before becoming a designer. I was working in Bulgaria, rehearsing with my colleagues for a performance when I got the call from Koefia. Suddenly I heard my phone ringing backstage. When I picked it up I heard “Buongiorno. E academia Koefia.” My heart stopped beating for a few seconds as I told myself “I got it.” I said to myself “I’ve made it!” when I debuted with my own label on the stage during Fashion Week, one year after graduation from Koefia. That same day I received the World Fashion Award…
Let’s talk high fashion. What criteria do you think are associated with the term haute couture?
It’s funny, but often people actually do not know what this means. When people hear haute couture, they imagine a nightgown and a red carpet. But this isn’t it. Many believe that the term “haute couture” reflects the way a garment looks, which is not correct. It is all in the elements that reveal the quality of the garment and the process. High fashion involves standards to abide by, rules to be followed, and steps to be taken in producing a garment – from the fabric to the jewelry. Almost 90 % of any couture is handmade, which also makes it very expensive. So, in a way, the label haute couture means something as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside. It equates to style, class, and artistry, all in one.
“The label haute couture means something as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside”
What makes your garments so unique?
I do not reproduce couture that has been already made somewhere. Nor do I repeat the same model for two clients. Before all, I draw my inspiration from the person I design for. To do that, before I even begin sketching, I need to spend a day with my client. We have lunch together, we walk together and talk, I visit her home and inspect her wardrobe so that I can gain insight into her personality. It is very important to me that I can show through the garment this personality; the little and sometimes hidden nuance that makes my client unique and beautiful. Each one of my haute couture pieces is 95% handmade. What makes them truly unique is my own DNA spread all over each garment – literary and figuratively, be it because I pricked myself while sawing it or because of the pallet of emotions I pour into making each piece.
Do you have a collection you are especially proud of?
One of my biggest achievements was my collection Bridge Between Cultures. It was my very first collection. I handmade every single element in it – the fabrics, the buttons, the decorations, the jewelry… You won’t find any of these items on the market; I custom-made all of them for this collection. The buttons, for instance, are porcelain, polished in black, and engraved. The engraving is part of the fabric’s print. The knitted lace has golden screen printing, all handmade. The embodiment is handmade as well. Finally, the fabrics have been laser-decorated especially. When someone sees them and says, “This is a very beautiful textile design, where did you get it?” I answer “Nowhere. I made it myself.” And this would make me extremely proud.
“Culture” and “cultural diversity” have become such buzzwords in recent years. What prompted you to create such a collection?
This collection was dedicated to Islamic art. It is very important for me to note that I created it before the Paris bombing. Many journalists accused me of taking advantage of this global problem, which cannot be further from the truth. During my travels to Turkey, Qatar, and Dubai, I saw one modern, globalized, and yet – antique – world which left me in awe. Particularly, I was on a cultural exchange program with the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, where I saw decorative ornaments in the mosaics and fabrics, in carpets and rugs, the intoxicating smell of perfumes and frankincense, the simplicity of living, and mainly – the people I met there who made me fall completely in love with this art. My goal was to demonstrate that “Islam” and “Muslim” are not synonymous with terrorism, but instead can be a source of inspiration. Also, in doing this collection, I wanted to exhibit the purity of the female soul.
Would you say that the designer’s vision has become distorted in recent years?
Yes. But I would also add that such are the needs of the masses. You see, it is not enough to sketch something on a white piece of paper and then make it into a dress. One must be a bit like Nostradamus and try to predict the future. In order to create something good, a designer must be able to sense the tendencies, to live among people, and recognize the needs of these people. When you gain an understanding of human psychology, you then know what you need to create; what you need to offer to a society, which is always undergoing an evolutionary progression. I really think that this distortion in fashion is not so much the designer’s doing, but it is rather societal. What we create is adequate to the needs of our society, so before anyone starts pointing at designers for creating crazy stuff, first one must ask how we came to be here in the first place. Fashion evolves along with society. So, if fashion is distorted, this distortion reflects society. And if there are concepts in fashion that are over-the-top and incomprehensible, the reason for this is that we live in a society that knows no boundaries.
“One show is no longer than 15 minutes, but these 15 minutes are the result of one year of hard labor”
Do you have a preferred female feature that you try to highlight in your designs?
To me, the most beautiful and sexy female part is a woman’s back. The one element I always strive to highlight is the back. This would also be the first part I would undress and reveal. It is this femininity that many women keep hidden and that I love to elegantly expose.
Do you have a good luck ritual you perform before each fashion show?
The truth is that although I have so many shows worldwide, I still cannot overcome having to make an appearance at the end. I feel huge suffocation, I lose all of my strength; getting out on the podium feels like a panic attack when I consider the reaction of the audience. One show is no longer than 15 minutes, but these 15 minutes are the result of one year of hard labor. Hence, the tightness in my chest and the gasp for air. In Italy, there is a tradition before the start of any show, be it a musical, a play, a concert or any performance, all the participants hold hands and say three times “merda, merda, merda,” which literary means “shit, shit, shit,” ha-ha. There is an interesting history behind this: Back in the days, people would go to performances with a carriage. The backstage and the closets of the theatres had windows that overlooked the street, so before the performance, all the actors would gather to see if the stairs are full of horse feces – a clear sign that the theatre is full of people. And so before each show, they would wish themselves a lot of “merda” in order to ensure the success of the show. This ritual has remained throughout the centuries and we too often wish each other lots of “merda.” But otherwise, I do not have a ritual per se. I put my hopes on my own strengths and run with it.