Stepping into a Samuel Vartan dress is a transporting experience. Nevermind that one is perhaps, as I was, in his studio near the Fresh Pond Mall on a dark and dingy winter’s day. In the brilliant red floor-length dress, I was strolling down the gangway to a friend’s yacht for an evening gala off of Santorini. The warm breeze on my face, I smiled into the sunset, until I opened my eyes and remembered that I was in Boston. In March.
But one can always pretend—and one will want to, as soon as one sees the Samuel Vartan Collections, designed by Samuel Vartan Bizdikian, who has been a Boston resident for the last decade. Born in Athens in 1960 to Armenian parents, Vartan lived there until age six, when his family relocated to Beirut where his father studied at the American university and the Near East School of Theology. The family left Beirut in 1968, giving up a likely position for his father at the highly regarded Haigazian University, and immigrated to Montreal, Canada, where Vartan’s aunt and uncle were living. Vartan says he remembers there being “around 150 to 200 people, who had come to dissuade my father from going… The plan was I think to stay for 5 years and then leave. Obviously, as everyone knows, he did the right thing because a few years later, you know, it was just a nightmare there. ”
The move to Montreal turned out to be fortuitous in another way; the family’s arrival there in October 1968 is what Vartan considers now to have been his second birth. “Montreal really really really defines who I am, not only as a designer but as a person. I’m very proud of the fact that I was born in Greece, because I do love Greece and I’ve been there often, but growing up during your key years in a city like Montreal is a real gift.”
The thriving, European-influenced city provided the perfect environment for Vartan to explore his artistic interests. Majoring in film and communications at Dawson College, Vartan left his studies just before graduating. Consistently involved in the Montreal music scene, Vartan attributes his love of music to his family. “Our parents sang to us every night to sleep so we were all musically very well ear-trained. You know, we did the whole thing, we sang in the church choir, we were like the Armenian Von Trapp family.” During this time, Vartan also created many prize-winning short films and dabbled in stop-motion and 3D animation. “There was a point in my life, I think in the 80s probably the most, where there were several times I really felt like I was on top of the world because it was just so amazing to be alive and living in Montreal… It was a great city to express yourself, in many ways.”
Part-time work in a hospital and a popular clothing store, “Le Chateau,” provided him with the financial stability to pursue various avenues of artistic expression. Almost by accident, he discovered his interest in fashion design when he went fabric shopping with a friend from a rival band. When another friend opened a leather shop in the city, Vartan designed a few jackets for him, which sold well. The owner of a popular cafe then asked Vartan to design the outfits for its staff. One project led to another until Samuel Vartan Collections was registered in 1998 and incorporated in 2000.
Meanwhile, Vartan’s life was changing in other exciting ways. Unknowingly, he’d already crossed paths several times with his future wife, Kiky Papadopoulos, whose cousins were friends of his. After a long distance friendship and frequent phone conversations between Boston and Montreal, she visited him in Montreal and they were engaged in 2002. The couple married in 2003, and Vartan relocated to Boston, where his son Alexander Vartan was born in 2006.
For two years Vartan sold his designs from a stand-alone boutique in Brighton, which attracted the attention of the local press. “I opened it knowing that I would close it within two years. My sole purpose was to have a boutique where people could see the way the clothes should be displayed, in the right setting.” Currently, the Samuel Vartan Collections are distributed to free-standing, high-end boutiques throughout the U.S. and Canada by his representatives at the Christina K. Pierce boutique fashion agency. Although generally a wholesaler, his designs are occasionally available for purchase by individuals. While he has no concrete plans yet for another stand-alone store, Vartan says he hopes to open a flagship store in Montreal or New York in the future. For the time being, he does not see a Boston store in his plans, citing the city’s need to increase support for local designers. “There needs to be a lot more unity here…amongst designers, stores, the media. In Montreal, if you want to put on a show, people jump in, saying, ‘How can we help?’ So they’re into it, into discovering new talent. Here, they do fashion shows based on boutiques that carried names that were already household names like Chanel, Armani, or whatever, Donna Karan. They do a fashion show, but who’s Boston’s voice? What are you doing about the local talent?’ ”
Vartan’s line includes the spring/summer “Mediterraneo” and winter/fall “Dark City” collections. The Mediterraneo designs are warm and light, influenced by the mild climates of Greece, Italy, and Spain, whilst the Dark City collection channels the atmosphere of an urban European underground. Vartan attributes his aesthetics to a variety of influences, including Art Deco style, actresses from the 1950’s and 1960’s, and even the film “Blade Runner.” The essential goal of his line is always to create designs that respect women and their bodies and that embody an effortless, flowing elegance. Dismayed by the tendency in the fashion industry to focus only on very thin women, he designs his clothing for all figures, explaining, “There is no right size. It doesn’t exist.”
Designing is a complex process, beginning with the sketch of an idea, dissected into a pattern that is then modeled with life-sized paper cutouts that hang from racks like disembodied paper dolls. Created first with a test fabric and tried on by a model, the design is tweaked until the desired result is achieved, and the final product is manufactured with high-quality fabric and becomes a part of the collection. While the majority of Vartan’s designs are for women, he does design some men’s clothing and plans to expand his men’s collection in the future.
When not designing in his studio, Vartan is occupied with photo shoots, interviews, and mentoring his many interns. He also speaks at schools from time to time and is very active in the Boston area Armenian community. He serves on the committee of the Armenian Business Network and is a member of the Knights of Vartan. He places huge importance on Armenians working as a community and contributing to it however they can, and envisions a bright future for what he describes as a resilient, survivalist people who thrive on laughter. His focus is positive and forward-looking; while he recognizes the need for acknowledgment of Armenia’s history and the crimes against it, he cautions against letting this need become all-consuming. “Genocide does define us to a certain extent, but it’s not the end of who the Armenians are and where we’re going… In my own way, I would just want my Armenian friends, community, and new families through my work to understand that being Armenian is a lot more than just owning a piece of land that says ‘Armenia.’ It starts in the heart, it starts in your upbringing, and also in the faith that you believe in… But I want us to be happy Armenians, and not bitter, like a lot of other cultures are still to this day about their history. Of course, a genocide is a terrible thing for anybody to experience or to go through, but if you don’t move on, you’ll become a thing of the past, and you’ll be part of the dust of the earth. That’s exactly what I don’t want my Armenian nation, my people, to become.”
And in the spirit of moving on, there is much on the horizon for Samuel Vartan Collections. The collections expand in response to demand, which has been growing consistently since Vartan’s first designs for friends in Montreal. Eschewing what he sees as cheap fame-chasing, he has refused several invitations to appear on Project Runway, preferring to let his work speak for itself.
His next Boston fashion show will be on June 20 at the Liberty Hotel in Boston, and his collections will be showcased during New York’s fashion week in September. More information about these events and the collections featured can be found at www.samuelvartan.com.