Fashion is a wonderful platform for bringing together different cultures and different nations. It reshapes our vision and aesthetics, it reshapes our way of thinking, and magically takes us places: through history, mythology, art, imagination, civilizations, through social movements and fairytales. Amazing what one can do by using fabrics, cuts and colors for a base, as well as the final product of once creative vision.
Fashion can be empowering. It can also be modest. Fashion is inspiring. It sparks joy and gives statements. Fashion brings the “unthinkable” together, and makes something completely new out of that combination.
What better place for cultural diversity, inclusivity and creativity than London? London is the city where everything happens. For years; even centuries. London is the hub of the world.
Gyunel was born in Baku (Azerbaijan), in the family of economists. Once she found her artistic passion, no wonder she decided to move to London. She has been based there for over twenty years now and calls it her second home. Gyunel is running her namesake couture house in Knightsbridge since 2012.
Her SS20 haute couture collection was inspired by 90s grunge music (think: “Come As You Are” Norvana’s greatest hit). Those two might seem world’s apart. But, that is exactly what fashion does: it brings the “unthinkable” together.
On the other hand, Gyunel’s couture kaftan and evening wear capsule collection DOHA was inspired by the mystery and fluidity associated with Middle Eastern dressing style, in combination with Gyunel’s favorite details of her past collections. Further she draws the inspiration from one of her favorite movies Sahara (1983), starring Brooke Shields, as well as ornaments and shades omnipresent in Islamic Art and Architecture. The last but not least, the inspiration for DOHA capsule collection Gyunel finds in her very own Hajj experience. Her favorite colors of teal, light mint, burgundy dominate the collection, injected with turquoise, silver, gold, salmon pink and black. Fabrics were sourced from highest quality silks of marocain, satin face georgette, beaded lace, sequin mesh, duchess and organza, while the breathtaking 3D embellished Swarovski crystal trims and bugle beaded appliqués were designed and created in-house at the Maison’s opulent Knightsbridge atelier.
How does a young girl from Azerbaijan come to London, and makes her way through one of the best art, and than fashion schools in the world; how does she find her voice in creative, yet business world of fashion? How does she stay in the game?
She is an artist, a fashion designer and a business women dedicated to carrying on the vocation of true haute couture. Meet Gyunel.
What was London back then and what was Baku back then? Please tell us about your experiences as a young person coming to London from Baku, and your studies at the prestigious Saint Martins College.
Gyunel: Long before London Fashion Week became an essential fixture in the world’s fashion calendar, London has been very close to my heart, as it’s the city I’ve been calling [second] home for the past couple of decades. Its sense of chaos nurtures in me an adventurous spirit that has always been a motivational factor in my artistic and creative persona. Meanwhile, Baku and the whole of Azerbaijan has undoubtedly a very diverse history, as witnessed in its art, literature, architecture and richness in natural resources. All this therefore makes for a plethora of interesting material for a creative personality to draw from as a child. Nonetheless, having always been passionate to follow a creative route, I started off in a very different direction focusing more on economics and business, as —with both my parents and most of my family being economists— I knew it would be inevitable not to study economics. While studying, I spent every free moment pouring over art and creative ideas of my own and came to London for some art and fashion courses. After successfully passing my A-levels and getting my degree in economics, I eventually followed my passion towards a more creative route. Having initially studied fine arts and photography, I then found myself naturally moving towards fashion as well. That's how I decided to continue my journey at London College of Fashion, Central St Martins and most recently Harvard Business School—to gain as much knowledge as possible.
What is the best thing you have learned during your studies?
Gyunel: I actually find that all of my previous studies come together in my current role with art now inseparable from my couture creations. I implement a lot of different art media into my fashion design and am of course grateful for my economics and business degree, as the knowledge gained from that definitely helps with the day-to-day management of my business. As an artist I am motivated by my desire to create an object or image that is timeless, a work that transcends trend. As a designer on the other hand I rely on the mutability of consumer taste. Embracing this ephemerality and merging it with my art and creative ideas outside of seasonal trends is the golden ratio that has allowed me to evolve as the couturier I am today.
How did you decide to do couture line?
Gyunel: Growing up, I would spend every free moment pouring over art and creative ideas of my own and have since childhood been in the presence of women, namely my grandmothers and mother, who paint, design and create in two/three dimensions as a hobby, but I just happened to take it to a professional level for a change. I am immensely influenced by those childhood memories, my paternal grandmother with her librarian career, who would invite me to spend time at the library with her, reading various novels that serve as inspiration to me today, the hours she would dedicate to perfecting her carpet-weaving art and the ones I would spend immersed in her wardrobe. Not to mention the ever-important roles of historical fashion, surrealism and my own imagination in honing my craft.
What do you love about doing haute couture the most?
Gyunel: Each of my designs actually starts off being inspired from elements from scenes from my oil paintings and is then transported from canvas to a fairytale-esque reality on one-of-a-kind pieces that bring my creative vision to life. As an artist at heart, I have put together an embroidery team with a taste for all that art embodies, utilizing their skills to capture the essence of luxury and surreal storytelling through every design. Every piece is masterfully sculpted with ornate embellishments that transform them into otherworldly timeless pieces of art with their very own unique identity.
What does creativity mean to you?
Gyunel: Speaking from the experience of having in parallel designed ready-to-wear for more than ten seasons, I can’t even begin to tell you how much thought does go into trying to be commercial and creative at the same time. I now feel more free designing couture as an artist, as I let my fantasy rule over the commercial side, even though I still keep both aspects in mind. Clients have lately been regarding my creations in the same light as precious works of art, which gives me freedom to explore and experiment. At the same time, I may be the creative force behind the brand, but am definitely not running a one-woman show - I am surrounded by a skilled team who attend industry trade shows with me, work with fine details, develop hundreds of sketches and illustrations based on my own drawings and season’s theme guidelines, and simultaneously play with combinations of colors and fabrics, draping them, before consulting with me for final decision as an oracle. As an artist who has gone into fashion and is trying out various methods to modernize it, my heart leaps up when, with the use of innovative technologies in printing, I look at fabrics featuring elements digitally transferred directly from my canvases.
What do you think is the most difficult part about having your own brand?
Gyunel: Becoming a designer is easy, especially for somebody with creative talent, but staying relevant and finding your niche in the marketplace is a totally different story that takes into account translating a creative vision into something that is desirable and actually sells. That, alongside various other factors beyond a creator’s control, is what makes the role of a couture designer in the modern day and age challenging. To stand out amongst the crowd one’s vision has to be unique, which can only be achieved by relying on memories of places visited and things sensed. A proper strategy, paired with effective marketing though, do make for a solid foundation to start with, which with the right X factor can work wonders!
Have you ever found it harder to achieve your goals as a woman?
Gyunel: It would be a lie in my case to say that gender has held me back. Apart from Azerbaijan being the first country in the region – and the Muslim world – to grant its women voting rights, which wasn’t the case in the whole of Europe or the UK back then, my home country had also allowed everybody, men and women alike, the liberty to attend school even before the early nineties and Soviet Union times. Having thus grown up in a gender inequality-free environment, I am confident in saying that being a woman has many advantages – I am more able to ask for support than many fellow designers, have a good network of female industry peers I can share lunch and a grumble with.
Which traditional techniques in your designs are the ones you prefer working with?
Gyunel: I actually see couture as a permanent gateway between the tradition for excellence in know-how and contemporaneity in creation, embodying today manufacturing techniques that are at the cutting edge of innovation. It is with that in mind that my primary field of interest is for my atelier to be a laboratory for ideas and techniques, a space where creativity can flourish freely, mixing traditional Eastern techniques passed down through generations like chikan embroidery and palas weaving with French artisanship, ergo a space where East meets West in the realm of couture.
A key piece of your SS20 couture collection?
Gyunel: This “Veni Sicut Es” (“Come As You Are”) collection was inspired by the grunge music genre and subculture which emerged in mid-1980s Seattle and had reached wide popularity by the early 1990s. Nirvana’s instant hit inspired the collection’s title, whereas the lifestyle of the band’s protagonist, Kurt Cobain, who represents the core of the movement and the phenomenon of the scene’s impact, influenced this season’s theme. True to my canvas to image process, one can see asymmetric satin drapes with extraordinary custom checked prints in neon striped electric blue, a unique taffeta printed train inspired by merging the legendary singer-guitarist’s and Courtney Love’s wedding day outfits, as well as the rock star’s image, inspired by one of his most iconic photographs, painted graffiti-style on a wall by me and then transferred to mint leopard silk satin.
How do you see the future of haute couture?
Gyunel: Rather than approaching luxury as something can be attained with the click of a button, I am trying to create a much more intimate ecosystem, so, in some ways, as a designer staying true to the principles of haute couture, I am taking things back the way the bigger Parisian maisons used to be, before many of them expanded and grew to be the powerful industry players they are today.
Gyunel SS20 haute couture collection
What are you most passionate about, besides fashion?
Gyunel: This probably isn't surprising coming from me, but I love experimenting with art. I really enjoy the process of discovery and getting feedback from people in my inner circle. It's exactly why I enjoy what I do all day as a fashion designer.
What do you wear on a daily basis?
Gyunel: I always think about my style in three words. Reserved, yet quirky and playful. When I’m deciding what to wear, I just go back to those.
What can we expect from Gyunel next?
Gyunel: I believe that by bringing people, brands and expertise together, chemistry can be created to reveal actionable insights that fuel big ideas. Being all about building relationships, mixing backgrounds and values, and watching something new and exciting emerge, I have from time to time partnered with the likes of Chopard, de GRISOGONO, Stephen Webster and Van Cleef & Arpels. In that spirit, I’m currently in the process of finalizing a jewelry partnership for this coming season to be unveiled in Paris in July 2020, as well as launching a capsule collection featuring highlights from my signature styles later this year, so stay tuned!
All Images: Courtesy of Gyunel
* This story first appeared in the March 2020 issue of L'Officiel Arabia.