Flags are flying from the Acropolis to the islands and mountains as the sun rises on today’s Greek Independence Day. It’s the 200th anniversary of the nation’s democratic liberation from Ottoman rule in 1821, a day of pride and celebration. Adding to the festivities, there’s breaking fashion news too: Marios Schwab has stepped up with his modern-traditional Greek vision at Zeus + Dione in Athens, just in time to hold out consolation for all of us desperately dreaming of a holiday in Greece.
“Athens is my birth city,” Schwab says. “My love of Greece was always inside me, even though I moved away to study fashion when I was 15.” The Zeus + Dione 1821 collection marks the official beginning of Schwab’s creative directorship, a role he’s held since March last year. Right down to the detail of the tassels on the Cycladian island shoulder bags, the airy off-the-shoulder blouses, and the embroidery edged linen caftans, everything he’s designed is entirely sourced from all over Greece, with local textiles and authentic regional artisanship to the fore. Scroll around, and you’ll even find Schwab’s salute to the blue and white Greek flag, cut into a subtly bias-cut striped halter-neck midi dress.
It was the pandemic which ended up aligning Schwab with Mareva Grabowski and Dimitra Kolotura, who founded Zeus + Dione in 2012 on a mission to give life to Greek textile production amidst the country’s economic crisis. “We’d been talking for a while. I thought they were doing a great job of integrating the artisanal and the sustainable element, and promoting Greek products with a modern identity.” The ethics and localism attracted him, only from London he couldn’t see how to do it. “But when COVID started, I came back to Athens to be near my mother. Next thing, I got stuck in lockdown, so I decided I’d get an apartment and stay,” he relates. “Lots of young people are relocating here now,” he adds. “All kinds of studios and galleries are popping up in Athens and Pireus, which were never there before.”
In a way, it’s a full circle for the Greek-Austrian designer who made his name with his neo-bodycon dresses in London in the mid-aughts. Schwab’s father was a lingerie manufacturer in Athens. “It was a huge exporter in the 1980s, before the industry failed,” he remembers. In those dark economic years for Greece, Schwab, like the late Sophia Kokosalaki, Mary Katrantzou, Eftychia Karamalegou, and many other Greeks who travelled to study at Central Saint Martins knew they had to emigrate to get a fashion education and find a future in the industry. Coming back now, Schwab is looking at things completely differently: how allying Greece’s skills and history with a fresh design aesthetic can belong to the progressive new wave of people seeking authentic values in fashion. “So my first Zeus + Dione project, the idea of the 1821 anniversary collection came out of all of that. It’s a combination of my obsession with Greece, all the stories I’ve been learning, wanting to reference all the archetypes I’m so in love with—but not literally, in a modern way.”Photo: Courtesy of Zeus + DionePhoto: Courtesy of Zeus + DionePhoto: Courtesy of Zeus + Dione
Last summer Schwab set off all over Greece, searching museums and galleries, immersing himself in books and documentaries about the war of independence, and discovering astonishingly long-existing specialist regional craft and textile techniques. He got into a collection of antique folk costume at Nafplion, and spent hours in the Benaki museum in Athens. “Going through the research for me was amazing—it was a passion for me to be able to ask experts, to see private collections, to be able to hold folk costume pieces from museums in my hands and study them inside and out.”
First of all, he needed to brush up on the significance of the Greek independence story. He discovered it was Amalia, the first Queen of Greece (1818-1875) who gave her name to the characteristic gauzy seersucker with which Schwab used to design a delicately modern semi-sheer, raw-edged jacket-blouse. “When the country became newly-established, Queen Amalia was keen to find folkloric garments; she loved the costume which was worn by the majority of the revolutionary heroes, which later became the uniform of the Evzones, the Greek military guard.” He then found himself invited to the Evzone headquarters: “They showed me where they make the costumes in workshops there. It was so great to find out about all the stories and the symbolism in them.”
The specifics of Evzone ceremonial regalia ended up embedded in Schwab’s design—ideas echoing the multi-pleated volume of the white Foustanella skirt, embroidery on bodices taken from the braided Fermeli jacket. Even the naked-shoulder wrapped sleeve device (a great look in a cotton blouse) derives from the soldier’s shirts. Their red uniform cap turned in to the folded-over shape of a Zeus + Dione bag. One of the most riveting resources he discovered is Mentis, the ribbon-and trimmings-maker which produces the luscious tassels which Schwab liberally applied on the hem of a dress, the distinctive twisted cords used for belts and bag-straps, and the tiny rows of knotted nautical buttons that run up the smocked bodice of an airy gray cotton ‘shepherdess’ dress.Photo: Courtesy of Zeus + Dione
“Mentis is an historic place—at one point, the story is they were making braid and fringe trimmings for Chanel. When the crisis in Greece started happening, someone working for the ministry of culture walked past one of the important shops which used to make tassels and trimmings, and saw them about to throw away the machines. She made a call—it was saved as the Mentis Foundation—and since then, they started buying up old machines from around Greece.” A generations-old factory at Soufli in the north makes the spathoto silk for Zeus + Dione’s tailoring. Hand-made embroidery is made by a community of Turko-Slavic women in the mountains at Metsovo, crochet and macramé is made by women in Volos in Thessaly.
It starts to sound like the best Greek fashion odyssey ever. But what does celebrating national independence day mean today, to a new generation? “For young Greeks, when we’re celebrating our national independence day, we feel pride in our democracy. For us, that should never be confused with the nationalistic movements that are happening in Europe and around the world right now,” Schwab says. Being able to be part of directing the future of Zeus + Dione is part of a bigger picture, creating employment and regenerating a modern Greece from its heritage. “Because this is a welcoming country to everyone,” he concludes, “which has a humbleness, togetherness, and openness to the world.”