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Grecian Formula

Soon-to-be-famous London-based designer Sophia Kokosalaki steps into the limelight with two stellar collections.

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You can measure how hot a young designer is in two ways: who comes to the show and how far they'll travel to see it. Sophia Kokosalaki scores on both counts. Though she showed her fourth collection in a far-flung corner of west London in late September, the 28-year-old Greek-born designer attracted a major-league audience, including representatives from Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and W. In return, Kokosalaki delivered a knockout performance. Her clothes mixed references to her heritage (Ancient Greece-inspired draped jersey dresses) with a tough, hard-edge attitude (leather worked into ruched pants and patchwork tops). "And there were lots of jumpsuits," she says, "just because I like them."

One day later, Kokosalaki is ensconced in her Covent Garden apartment-atelier, making the arrangements for her first Ruffo Research show in Milan. After favorable reviews for her own collection, which will be available at Henri Bendel ("One of the best shows of the London season," cooed WWD), the Ruffo Research gig is another step toward recognition. The Italian leather house has offered its Research collection -- which is sold here at Barneys -- to a new designer for the past three years. Ruffo's Joy Yaffe, who is responsible for the Research project, says she was looking for a designer who "had an affinity with leather, and who could do something interesting with it. We look for someone with a strong identity -- they don't have to be well known." The most recent incumbents were the Antwerp design duo A. F. Vandevorst, and, before them, fellow Belgians Veronique Branquinho and Raf Simons. "Joy came to my showroom last February and offered me the job the same day," remembers Kokosalaki. "I didn't think twice about accepting it."

Taking the Ruffo job has meant a steep learning curve for Kokosalaki. For starters, it meant that within a few weeks of beginning last April, she was designing her first men's collection. And how did the laid-back London resident cope with the culture shock of going to Milan, where women sport furs, tans, and status handbags all year round? Kokosalaki laughs. "When they saw me on the street, they probably thought I was someone's maid -- having a bad day."

The Ruffo gig has also meant dealing with the challenge that faces every designer who is responsible for another collection: How to imbue the label with her signature yet distinguish it from her eponymous line. "They'll look different by virtue of the production that's available to me," Kokosalaki says, gesturing at the workroom in her apartment. "For my own collection, I design and make everything here. With Ruffo, you give them a sketch and they produce something just as you imagined it would be." And her debut Ruffo collection, which showed in Milan the week after the London shows, was full of imagination -- leather skirts with pin-tucking or rosettes at the waist, suede sweaters with knotted sides -- plus the kinds of beautifully finished pieces, like one-shouldered tops made of hundreds of leather cords, that a big-name label allows.

Now, with two collections out of the way in the space of a week, there should be time to kick back and relax. "I wish," she says. "There's so much to be done -- I have to finish next winter's men's collection in a few weeks. . . ." She breaks off and smiles. Kokosalaki looks like she wouldn't have it any other way.


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