The vertiginous heels, Minérale, from JN. Mellor Club (Gilles Jaroslav photo)

Karine Arabian : A Fashion Muse Rises


PARIS — She has designed shoes for Madonna and jewelry for the House of Chanel. Karine Arabian: stylish, architectural, artistically pristine. Modish in the best sense of the word, this French-Armenian designer of accessories and footwear soared to the top of the European fashion world while still in her 30s.

Along with Alain Manoukian, Francis Kurkdjian and Alain Mikli, Arabian is part of a growing contingent of Armenian creators who sit at the very top of their craft. Arabian’s work, however, stands out even among this elite group.

Karine Arabian (Cécilia Jauniau photo)

You can’t mistake an Arabian creation: whether inspired by Sergei Paradjanov’s “The Color of Pomegranates” or street style from the Paris banlieue, art breathes from every stitch, beauty peers at you from every angle. Hers are not always the easiest pieces to understand precisely because they are so unique, so different: like a novel by Proust, a blue period Picasso or a poem by Rimbaud, something always stares back at you in an Arabian creation, whispering: What am I exactly? How do I fit in to your lifestyle? Arabian challenges the wearer to question their daily choices and aesthetic preferences.

Several years ago, she closed her eponymous line for personal and business reasons. Less than a decade later, like a butterfly emerging from an haute couture chrysalis, Arabian has created JN. Mellor Club. The concept is hip, stylish, environmentally conscious: millennial yet ageless. I sat down with Arabian to discuss her fascinating family history and to pick her wonderfully idiosyncratic creative brain:

AMS: Where were you born? Please tell our readers a bit about your background.

KA: I was born and grew in Paris. I first studied literature at the Sorbonne Nouvelle and then my passion for fashion got the best of me and I entered ESMOD [École supérieure des arts et techniques de la mode, a French private school of fashion], then the Studio Berçot at the end of the 1980s, beginning of the 1990s. It was an effervescent and creative time for fashion. I started off as an assistant to a few designers and then the First Gulf War broke out. A whole bunch of us designers found ourselves out of work, so we started our own companies while we were rather young.

Bag from JN. Mellor Club (Gilles Jaroslav photo)

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AMS: Where is your family from originally? When and under what circumstances did they come to France?

KA: My grandparents arrived during the 1920s as refugees from the Armenian Genocide. They came from the Anatolian heartland and like many Armenians found refuge in France. My paternal grandfather spoke excellent French: as a result, he quickly found work in Paris and was able to bring over his entire family. Both my parents were born in France in the same neighborhood, called Gentilly in the Parisian suburbs, where a large Armenian community thrived at the time. His entire family worked in the home crafts/clothing sector, so my father quite naturally became a master tailor. On my maternal side, my grandfather worked in the family atelier — he then started his own business as a cobbler and bootmaker.

AMS: It’s no exaggeration then to say that you have fashion in your bones?

KA: I remember the smell of leather and glue as a little child, and the work done repairing beautiful women’s shoes. I used to create all sorts of costumes for my barbie dolls using spare fabric left behind in my parents’ atelier. I was at ease with manual work, so creating clothes and customizing them comes quite naturally to me.

AMS: In your gorgeous and informative book The Armenians in Fashion (Les Arméniens de la Mode) you describe the rather remarkable contributions that French Armenians have made and continue to make in fashion and luxury goods.

KA: Researching the history of Armenians in fashion made me realize that I belong to a long and ancient line of artisans and designers who were obsessed with upholding only the highest standards. This emphasis on excellence was repeatedly drilled into my head at home.

When I discovered for example that Schiaparelli’s surreal sweaters were made by an Armenian woman, I couldn’t believe it! She not only knitted the sweaters, but she designed many of them herself — that is what interested me the most.

Which is to say that while Armenians have a long crafts tradition, what really fascinated me was to discover their creative power, the taste and refinement that these Armenians introduced to French fashion.

AMS: How did your own career kick off? What are most proud of?

KA: My career really began in 1994 when I participated in the “Festival de la Mode de Hyères” which is now the most important fashion contest in France. I entered my jewelry and accessories and won the competition. After that, I began designing jewelry under my own name but also for houses such as Swarovski and Chanel. This was a real learning experience for me, as it taught me the demands of working with a major luxury goods house.

In 2000 I founded my own line of shoes, leather goods, jewelry, and accessories. The company was in operation for 14 fascinating years, over the course of which I was able to create an entire universe of accessories which a woman can wear without it being a disguise of any sort — a universe at once sensual and creative without ever being excessive. I always try to find the true strength of each line that I create.

In 2000, I created my first line of shoes with rounded tips. This was a first, a precursor to later trends because at the time we were in the midst of “porno-chic,” an aggressive style that favored sharp, pointy tips — a very sexed-up style of fashion.

After that, many designers followed in my footsteps, including Marc Jacobs and Chloé. By the year 2000, and then definitely by 2010, rounded tips graced most women’s shoe wear…

The Karine Arabian brand: a Parisian imprint and an international success in Asia, the United States, Russia, etc. Clients included stars such as Audrey Tautou, Vanessa Paradis, Scarlett Johansson, Madonna, Beth Ditto and many others. That adventure ended in 2015. Then I took some time off to process those incredible and wonderfully hectic years. Running a business at the breakneck speed of the fashion world is exhausting and you have no time for a personal life. I started a family and reconnected with a more personal type of creativity.

AMS: Which brings us to your present endeavor. Let’s talk about this wonderfully exciting new creation, JN. Mellor Club. What’s special about this new line?

KA: I created JN. Mellor club with my partner Franck Blais, a graphic designer and artistic director and former art gallery owner. JN. Mellor Club is meant to bring together our expertise as well as our common passion for creativity. It’s a brand that makes objects and accessories that exist at the boundaries of fashion, where art and design intersect.

AMS: So the idea is to create leather goods and jewelry that doble as works of art—is that correct?

KA: The idea is not to fixate on the everyday notion of what an accessory is, but rather to free ourselves from fashion’s shackles and stereotypes. Going from the object to the accessory give us the freedom to broaden our creativity and to bring our own inspirations to life. And yes, that’s also the idea: we create accessories that are as beautiful when worn on the body as when they rest in your living room like works of art.

AMS: The name you chose for your new brand is intriguing as well, mysterious in a way—what does JN. Mellor Club signify exactly?

KA: JN.MELLOR CLUB tells our own personal stories and what we want to convey through the brand. So, to begin with, JN are the initials of our respective mothers. Then we wanted a name that wasn’t explicitly gendered, neither feminine nor masculine, or both or something in between. Mellor is the name of a society columnist form the 1920s but also the real name of Joe Strummer (John Mellor) who was the lead singer for the Clash — and 1/8 Armenian by the way! JN. Mellor therefore brings together questions of both gender and rock n’ roll — two things of major importance to us. Then there is the word “club” itself which brings together the notions of community, of coming together, of transversality, but also an image that inspires us: that of a nightclub, a sports club, an English Club etc… JN. Mellor Club is a long name for a brand, and hard to retain, but once you have it fixed inside your head it stays there forever!

AMS: Where do you find your inspiration? Who has influenced you or your brand’s style?

KA: We cling to the notion of creating accessories that privilege sensuality, and that are composed of exceptional materials that take on singular forms. We collect old leather material from the deadstock from the big luxury goods houses because this gives us access to the most beautiful leather and lets us participate in rigorous upcycling. We’re trying to free ourselves from any fashion influence per se and instead create bridges between art and design. We create objects from rubble that we find in the street or in construction sites, then we cover then in beautiful leather and sew everything by hand in the atelier tradition. Starting with found items, imposed on us by circumstance or hazard—this gives us the beginnings of our own personal alphabet. To take care of something that has been thrown away creates a puzzle. We take something that was considered obsolete and then we transform it, we change its status and offer it a second life. This is also another expression of the poetry that we find in our everyday lives.

Unique objects made from cast-off pieces of leather

AMS: Why a club though? That notion has something exclusionary to it, no?

KA: No. Here the club is a way of not isolating ourselves, of not remaining closed in on our own creativity. It means favoring collaborations with artists and designers, creating bridges between worlds, and growing our community. It also means that members of our club share our common values and the privileged moments that surround the creative process, in the wider sense of the word. It’s a way of seeing luxury goods as a vector of social diversity.

AMS: What are your goals or aspirations for JN. Mellor Club? And finally where can one purchase or look at these truly beautiful objets d’art ?

KA: JN. Mellor Club is a place where one can buy accessories and art objects, but where one can also attend an exhibition or a poetry reading. We want to make JN. Mellor Club a brand centered around “the art of living.” Until we have that location in place, we’re going to organize events with art galleries or out-of-the-ordinary locations so that our creations can enter into a dialogue with other artists. We are also creating an e-shop accessible from our web site.

AMS: This is all very exciting. Thank you, Karine.

KA: Thank you Christopher.

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