When you enter the home of Russian-born, Belgian-raised Natalia Alaverdian, you can see where her design world comes from. Manga cartoons hang from the walls, and there are numerous books on Japanese homes and art (including the seminal TASCHEN book on Nobuyoshi Araki) and trinkets from her travels. Natalia’s love for Japanese art and culture is palpable.

A.W.A.K.E. is an acronym for all wonderful adventures kindle enthusiasm and a perfect embodiment of Alaverdian’s brand (and it’s hers in every way: she styles her collections as well as photographs the lookbook imagery) – a cartoonish approach to fairytale fashion with an outcome that’s elegant and forward-looking. And it’s exactly how one would describe the designer’s personality. The brand’s launch in London in 2012 came off the back of Alaverdian’s experience as a fashion director, working at the Russian edition of Harper's Bazaar.

Since the inaugural collection for spring/summer 2013, A.W.A.K.E. has steadily become an established fashion player. The brand has shown menswear, pre-collections and moved its presentation location from Paris onto the official schedule of London Fashion Week. The fans include everyone from Kim Kardashian to fashion editors from around the world, her collections giving an abundance of statement pieces easily implemented in anyone’s wardrobe.  

Here she tells us about the transition from stylist to designer and her love of wombats.

Because: Let’s firstly go five years back. It’s 2012. What’s happening?

Natalia: I wanted to start a brand for a long while and I was getting ready for two years, saving up money. But then all of a sudden I just had this very strong idea for a small collection, and I was like: “I’ll just do the spring/summer collection”. As there was very little proper business preparation, it was super slow and I didn’t have any contacts in terms of buying. I heard that people took their collections to Paris to sell them, so that’s what I did. For the first couple of years it was just a couple of stores here and there and didn’t seem very professional, but I learned a lot.

A.W.A.K.E. spring/summer 2013 based on a giraffe

B: What happened, what was the change?

N: It’s just always been kind of a very long, and gradual process and I just needed to be patient. With certain people, there is sort of a momentum, but I never had that. It was bit by bit, store by store.

B: Besides the Far East being an inspiration, each of the A.W.A.K.E. collections tells the story of an animal, from giraffes, through sheep all the way to the latest one which was inspired by the octopus. Are you an animal person?

N: I am, sometimes I even prefer animals to some people [laughs]. Since I was a kid I would always be into fairytales and I wouldn’t eat if my grandma wouldn’t read one to me. In fairytales and cartoons there’s often an animal who is a real character – wearing clothes and speaking, for example Fantastic Mr Fox. That sort of naivety, that’s not too serious and it’s not too fashion is what works so well. If AWAKE ever gets big, we will definitely get involved with an animal fund or charities and try to help the animals as much as possible.

B: Do you have a favourite animal?

N: I like all of them, maybe the crawling ones a little less, but I think wombats are my favourite ones.

A.W.A.K.E. autumn/winter 2015 based on a "bad squirrel"

B: Does that mean you’re going to do a collection based on wombats?

N: Maybe, one day, yeah. It’s my husband’s nickname as well, so it could be perfect.

B: Do you think your background in publishing was an advantage or a disadvantage when it came to starting your own brand?

N: It’s kind of both, I suppose. When I started with A.W.A.K.E. it was a fresh start on the one hand but I’ve always wanted to do design and not styling. Being a stylist helps you to be a bit more practical, but at the same time it drives me a little bit crazy because I sometimes end up creating pieces just to complete looks that are really good for the story of the collection; and that’s when the collection becomes enormous. So, I think it both distracts and helps.

A.W.A.K.E. Pre-fall 2017

B: Why did you start your brand in London?

N: I admire London for its creative space, I think it’s the most creative city ever. And I admire London-based artists and designers who I grew up studying about, like Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano, who I even wrote my high-school thesis paper on. And then my family lives in Brussels, so that’s just two hours away on a train.

B: And spring/summer 2017 was the first season you showed your collection in London. How did it go?

N: I’m a perfectionist and I want everything under control, and obviously it was madness. I felt like I didn’t have enough time to prepare everything perfectly and nothing was exactly how I planned. All of that was killing me from the inside, but people said it looked good, so I calmed down a little bit.

A.W.A.K.E. spring/summer 2017 based on an octopus

B: It really did! So, what’s next now?

N: The dream is to have more time to design and do the creative part of the work rather than management, because I do both at the moment. So, ideally it would be finding a lovely partner who could manage the company, while I could concentrate more on the production side of the collections. And also launching accessories which is in the works for the moment as well as launching our e-commerce platform which we have lots of requests for. We’ll see how it goes.

Interview by Dino Bonacic