ONE MODERN PHILOSOPHER IN THE
WORLD OF FASHION
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 singersongwriter 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 marque 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 Leukemia and Lymphoma Research, where his collection was exhibited at London’s Royal Albert Hall).
Not that anything in his behavior 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.
I knew from media sources he was from a small Bulgarian town (a compatriot!), born to a builder father and a tailor mother who sewed models for prestigious fashion brands. A high school graduate of folklore music and dancing, Donev himself knew nothing about high fashion before being admitted to the prestigious Koefia – The International Academy of Haute Couture and Art of Costume in Rome. Nor had he really ever dreamed of pursuing a career in the cutthroat and competitive industry. That is, until a lady in Paris saw the precision with which he hand-sewed pieces fabric and encouraged him to do so, pointing to his evident gift with the thread and needle.
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.
“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 still produces only about twenty new garments annually (although he now acknowledges this must change, especially given the high demand for his designs). After months of trading messages online, here we were – two Bulgarians living and working abroad, on a short break home. Not that either of us was really having a break. I was on my second day of attending a ballet festival with my former ballet troupe, while Donev had just returned from the Red Fashion Party, hosted by the Bulgarian Academy of Fashion, where he exhibited his collection Bridge Between Cultures, a remarkable synthesis between Islamic tradition and Western European chic.
We ordered hot cocoa and while waiting Ivan shared that in Rome, his permanent home base these days, he cannot wake up without a cup of his beloved cappuccino, nor can he go to bed without having had some chocolate. In fact, his incontrollable love for chocolate is perhaps his biggest vice. “It is not just having a sweet tooth; it’s the fact that I’m generally a gourmand, which is a real problem.” His eyes sparkle and he bursts into laughter, leaving me with the impression we’ve been friends for ages.
Donev’s personal tale is nothing short of inspirational. Undoubtedly, the winding, circuitous path Donev has had to follow to success has added depth to his philosophical nature. Chatting with him, one can easily overlook the fact he has only recently turned 30.
Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview and for taking the time to personally meet.
Greetings to all readers of Falchion Publications! It is a real pleasure to be here.
As 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 on-going feud between Paris and Rome.
“If you want to become a successful fashion stylist,
you must become a successful tailor.”
And just like that you decided to completely shift gears. How difficult was 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 – the have worked it, they have lived it. One of the most beautiful encounters for me during these years was with my 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.
“What kept me going was the knowledge that in spite
of all the difficulties
God is always with me.“
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 behind me [laughs]. 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 would realize that everything I did not get right away was for my own benefit in the long run.
“I would realize that everything I did not get right away was only for my own benefit in the long run “
As a foreign student myself, albeit in the United States, I cannot help but ask – was language ever a problem for you?
When I came to Italy I did not speak any Italian. I had to adjust. Quickly.
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.
And here you are today – not only creating high fashion garments, but also teaching the history of fashion to students.
It was during my second year of studies, when the Director of Koefia, Professor Giovanni di Pasquale, an amazing human being and a father figure to all students there, gave me one very difficult and very important task. He put me in charge of the university’s library and to catalog every single book in it. I can say that I owe what I am today and what I know about the world and art to him. In order to do the cataloging, I had to annotate each book, which involved first reading it. I would get really tired and irritated for having to spend all this time in the library. But then I would go to bed and think about the book I read. I could not fall asleep because I would re-live what I’d read. And this is precisely why today I teach Fashion History at university.
I can say that the Director of Koefia was my main motor and motivation during difficult times. He saw my struggles, he witnessed the moments when I came really close to giving up, and he always managed to help me have the confidence necessary to move forward. In an interview he once gave about me, he stated that I entered as the poorest student and exited as one of the most accomplished and richest ones to come out of Academia, drawing comparison with the popular saying, paraphrasing “When he came to Rome, instead of drinking from the stream he bathed in the waters of Tiber.” This is exactly what happened [laughs].
Now that you teach yourself, 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 life, 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 selfcompromising, 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.
Can you give me an example of a big 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 succeeded”?
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 up I heard “Buongiorno. E academia Koefia.” My heart stopped beating for a few seconds as I told myself “I made it.” Also, I said to myself “I succeeded!” when I debuted with my own label on the stage during Fashion Week, one year after graduation from Koefia. This was another success. Moreover, that same day I was granted the World Fashion Award, which was an even bigger success. I said to myself “I succeeded!” when my name appeared on the pages of those magazines that wrote the history of fashion – Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Elle, Grazia. I said “I succeeded!” when www.ivandonev.com became a fact. Finally, I said “I succeeded” when I woke up and found I have somebody by my side; two eyes looking at me with deep love in them…
Let’s talk about fashion. What criteria do you think are associated with the term haute couture?
What irks me is that often people actually do not know what fashion means. What is, for example, haute couture? When one hears this term, one imagines a night gown and a red carpet. But this isn’t it.
Many people 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 in the inside as it is in the outside. It equates style, class, and artistry, all in one.
“The label haute couture means something as beautiful in the inside as it is on the outside.”
What makes your attire 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 that you are especially proud of?
You know, my biggest achievement 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 say “Nowhere. I made it myself.” And this makes me extremely proud.
“Culture” and “cultural diversity” have become such buzzwords in the 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 into 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.
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” [laughs]. But otherwise, I do not have a ritual per se. I put my hopes on my own strengths and run with it.
“One show is no longer than 15 minutes, but these 15 minutes are the result of one year of hard labor.”
In another interview you shared that you like to relax with yoga, music, and meditation.
Yes, I have created my own methods for finding inner peace. I also love candles, many of them. Whenever I receive candles as a gift, I never save them. On the contrary – I like to sleep on burning candles, because fire is energy and has a very energetically cleansing effect on me. As for music, I don’t have any particular style that I favor; I like any music that is emotionally charged. I like to go to the opera and have a seasonal membership to the Roman opera. In fact, I enjoy symphonies as much as I enjoy nigh-clubs. Also, nights out with my friends… We often spend them on the roof or balcony of the buildings we live in – with lots of candles, pillows, and nice music. We cook and make ourselves some cocktails, and then we discuss various topics, looking at the night sky.
If you could invite to dinner three of your idols, who would you have over?
I wouldn’t say an “idol,” but a person who inspires me and I dream to see wearing a dress of mine one day is Julia Roberts. When “Eat, Pray, Love” came out, some of the scenes were shot in Rome.
I got to be present for some of the shootings and at the film’s opening. When Julia Roberts walked on the red carpet, I was right above her, so I opened my arms and screamed “I love you!” She looked up. This moment was captured and ended up in some media outlets. Even friends of mine from France told me it was published there as well [laughs]. This was my first contact with Julia, however unplanned, but I was there with the goal to make her see me, to make her hear me. Of course, back then I was just student. There was nothing I could show her.
Another person I like very much and find extremely elegant is Princess Rania of Jordan. To me she is one of the most stylish among all women, public figures royalties, and celebrities. I would be very happy to meet her in person.
The third person is sadly no longer among us. Yet, meeting her would have been a unique experience for me. Mother Theresa. She has always been someone I looked up to with deep admiration. I do think there is more aggression than peace in the world right now and this is why I cannot shake off Mother Theresa’s words: the world needs peace more than it needs bread. [Mother Theresa] has always inspired me in her simplicity and at the same time her determination to fight for the things she held sacred. She was truly a quality person and I would have loved to meet her.
Now, I know you said three, but given that Mother Theresa is not among us… can I just say that I often dream of having tea with the Queen of England. Perhaps one day, completely by accident, I will find myself in the British court [laughs].
We at Falchion have no doubts this will happen! Please, don’t forget to give us the scoop when the time comes.Count on it!
Ivan Donev’s Insights On…
Every model I create contains an aspect of sexuality, for I truly believe that absolutely every woman is sexy. I don’t think there is anything vulgar in being sexy; on the contrary – it is beautiful and women should not be afraid to reveal this side of themselves. A woman’s sexuality is her weapon, and I believe when revealed with elegance and taste it is remarkable. This is why through my garments I strive to showcase the kind of femininity many women keep hidden.
I have always strived to achieve balance. The world of fashion is like a golden cage. One is either inside this cage or one holds the key to it. I could say though that I am one happy man who knows when to open the cage and when to close it. Despite the many different people I work with, I have never ignored the simple and normal things in life and this is what gives me peace and helps me maintain balance.
The Creative Need for Solitude
Solitude is very important for the artist. I love to take walks. In these moments, I do not need anyone around me. The fact that I am always surrounded by so many people is why I love to be alone. These moments, when I am alone, are solely mine and I take real pleasure in them, especially since they are so rare. And then, because you know each other so well, there are people that don’t require much conversation at all. We can just tell each other “Let’s be quiet together.” They also help me to be who I am and therefore are truly precious to me.
Reading Inspirational Books Versus Meeting with Inspirational People
I once tried to read “The Alchemist.” I never finished it. At some point, I just realized that the same conclusions and morals can be extracted from my own experience, so I stopped reading. No story occurs in a vacuum. You can write a piece of history, but before this you need someone to provide you with the story. Because history, before all, is not something we read, but something someone has lived. Every person I have met has taught me something. Every human life in itself contains a unique story with valuable morals. If one listens carefully, one can draw from it better than any book.
The Secret to Success
Patience and attention to detail. Truth is, society nowadays do not teach that you must fight for your success. What they teach instead is that there are many short cuts to success… Like most young people who fought hard for their dreams, I too wanted everything to happen faster, but it never did. As years went by, I realized that this is how things should be. In Italy, there is a good saying: The one, who walks slowly, walks healthy and gets far! It is not that you have abandoned something, but rather you have allowed enough time for the dough to rise, so to speak. This way, when you take the bread out of the oven, it will be the kind of bread that feeds you. If you rush it, however, you may end up with a bad taste in your mouth. And so it is with success, too.
What Really Matters in Life
I was once a babysitter to a beautiful girl who was born without sight. One day I put her on the swing. I asked her “Do you feel the wind?” She turned to me, replying with a question of her own “What is the color of the wind?” I paused for a second, pondering how to give an answer to someone who has never seen color. Then I began speaking… When we went back home, the little girl ran to her parents and said, “I felt the color of the wind!” This is it, right there. The victories, the awards, the statues – they signify how well we do our job. But the true successes are those we achieve not while working, but while living. To me personally, this is the success that really matters – to make a blind girl see the color of the wind.