by Natela Potskhveriya

Sofia Tchkonia has been a driving force of the Georgian fashion industry since her very first initiative — contest for the ayoung talents called BeNext. Five years ago she launched Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi and 11 seasons later made it digital — closed borders due to pandemic made digitalization quicker. After the first online fashion week was over, we talked to Tchkonia about the biggest challenges she faced and which way she thinks the industry should move on.

Was it easy to digitize the fashion week?

You have launched the platform within a couple of months, right? To be honest, that was a huge challenge. I got to see our industry from so many new unexpected sides. Some of our designers proved how creative and hard-working they are, despite all the circumstances. Of course, there were some disappointments, but I still think it has more positive impact rather than negative.

What positive impact do you see?

First, I believe that more people actually saw the shows. More potential clients and buyers. Those who never came to Tbilisi. Second, we had viewers from very unexpected countries like Egypt. We didn’t even know people there had any interest in Georgian fashion. I could also see which countries prefer which designers. For example, we had a lot of viewers of Lado Bokuchava’s show in one European country. It means that he might use this information and find a retailer there. We have later transferred all this information to designers. Hope they will use it. I can’t control that.

What about the Middle East? Is Georgian fashion popular there? I can say from IERI’s side, we have some good requests from that part of the world.

Extremely popular! Kuwait, Dubai — they watched every show. If I had my brand, I would think of targeting Middle Eastern audiences and potential clients. Looks like the interest is all there. We even got a request on opening a pop-up in Egypt. Though, I have noticed that some designers don’t use analytics, don’t work with commercial data, with clients reviews and comments. They have this ideal picture of Dover Street Market or other “cool” retailers, which might be very good imagewise, but might be totally unhelpful from the business side. Building business properly is no less important than having creative breakthroughs. I wish more designers could have proper knowledge on brand management.

What about your new project — Georgian Fashion Foundation? Isn’t sharing knowledge one of its missions?

Right. The name, social networks and the official manifesto are new, but my team and I have been doing a lot for the industry for the past 15 years — more than 150 projects, including BeNext Competition, exhibitions in Paris and so much more. The Foundation shall work with designers and support them — search for grants, investors, sponsors. Do PR and advise on marketing strategies. Not only designers shall we support, I mean the whole creative industry. We invited famous journalists, professors, teachers, mentors to join our Advisory Board, and they were all so excited and inspired. We have CFDA representatives on board, the Polimoda team and many more. People are joining with pleasure. Later we shall launch online courses and online lectures for designers and professionals, and after that, when the world gets better, we shall start the grants programme and announce official school opening. 

Sounds very ambitious. But why would international supervisors and professionals support Georgian industry, if their own industry is also suffering?

industry, if their own industry is also suffering? Well, in Italy, for example, fashion and design is a part of economics, it’s supported by the government, and brands as well as retailers are key players of what is called the financial environment. In The USA there is CFDA — a Foundation run by Anna Wintour and Tom Ford, and you have probably heard that they have announced financial support to some designers. In Georgia the process is way different. Our designers get very small support from the authorities and there has not been any kind of Foundation, like CFDA. Also, we are not asking international advisors to support our designers financially. What we want them to do, is to share knowledge on how the business should be built or maintained, give their audit to the brands and some up with the analysis of the most weak points. Thanks to my experience and networking, all these people, who are on the advisory board, love Georgia and are willing to share any kind of knowledge. Also PR is so important. I have made a huge research on the industry abilities, and there is always someone in search of new and fresh talents. Why don’t we tell them about Georgian talents. Having a foundation like Georgian Fashion Foundation will make the match-finding process easier.

Like Fashion Tinder?

In a way. I believe that Georgian fashion is an underrated investment opportunity. Those who will correctly evaluate these opportunities will get benefits very quickly. Mark my words.

And what about young talents and those smart kids who graduate from the Universities? Will they somehow benefit from the Foundation?

Well, you know we used to make internships for the graduates in big fashion brands, but then we had to cancel that. We got very poor feedback on our students abilities, which was very upsetting for me personally. That’s why I decided to go deeper and start working on the Fashion School in Tbilisi. We are now in the process of building the educational plan, negotiating with professors and so on. Also we work a lot with the Academy of Arts, with Nino Mgaloblishvili, who is a passionate enthusiast, and I respect her a lot. We hope that we shall open our online School as soon as possible. The real one to follow in a year or so. We are glad to share our networking, our experience, our knowledge. Hope to see keen interest from the side of students. But that’s a different topic.

There is one question that has been bothering me for a long time. So many Georgian designers are following this trash aesthetics, do you think that’s a correct way of presenting Georgian brands?

To be honest, that’s my huge pain. Several seasons ago ugly fashion and trash aesthetics were trendy. But now people are searching for beauty, they want fresh and pure pictures, beautiful garments on them and clean, nude faces. Trash is totally out. I think they should think of changing their visual language. This question of what is cool and what is not has been our stumbling block with so many designers. We have talents who don’t want to be featured in Vogue, because they think it’s “not cool”, and they are dreaming of Dazed and their whole concept is built around being one day featured in Dazed. Which is not bad at all, but there should also be money-making opportunities. You need to buy fabrics for the next collection, pay your workers.

Exactly. That was my next question. You are saying about PR-success which, we all know, is not the same as financial success. Would you agree that in some cases PR-success is bigger than the brand can actually handle?

Blinding lights of PR-success can be very harmful. I never told anyone, but when we started out our fashion week 5 years ago, I had to pay some journalists so that they would come to Tbilisi and write about Georgian collections. Now I said that. Not to promote myself, but to underline how things actually work in the industry. That’s why our Foundation shall work on business education promotion on an equal basis with sponsorships and grants. Just giving a scholarship or sponsorship is harmful. We need to educate the industry.