Designer Spotlight: Couturiers On Aura Tout Vu

Bulgarian designers Yassen Samouilov (L) and Livia Stoianova
(Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images)

For over a decade, Livia Stroianova and Yassen Samouilov have been conjuring their couture dreams as the label On Aura Tout Vu. Their collections are always polished, offbeat, and spectacular, like a contemporary fairy tale. But the very Paris-based Bulgarian duo hasn’t stopped there, exploring the visual-arts realm as well. A few days before showing their new collection, “Cosmic Beetle,” on January 23 at Paris Fashion Week, they welcomed ARTINFO France into their workshop to talk about the new collection and finding inspiration in Salvador Dalí and Tim Burton.

How would you define your DNA as designers?

The word that describes us best is “fun.” We put a lot of humor into our creative approach, and I think it shows. Our fashion is pretty crazy. With age and experience, we have become more structured, but we’re still true to a certain sense of humor and craziness in couture, which is rather rare in fashion labels. We don’t take ourselves seriously. Of course, we take our invitation to be part of French [couture] week seriously, but we ourselves remain offbeat. We’re all here to create dreams, that’s the most important thing.

Which themes of your collection have been dearest to your hearts?

Our shows are very special in the sense that every season has a strong imprint. Once it’s defined, the theme dominates the designs and is seen throughout the collection of accessories for each season. We explore all sides of a theme. Last year, we put on a show that was especially dear to us: “High Light Fire,” which was about fire. Previously, for our tenth anniversary, we dedicated our show to Somewhere Else Kingdom [winter 2012-2013]. It was a kingdom where all women are queens. Throughout the show, the audience discovered the queens of pop, rock, fire. Each model represented a character. We did a show about another element, too: water and the seabed. For another show called “Flying Dreams,” we worked a lot with feathers and we had a winged unicorn, a design that Lady Gaga bought. What all these shows have in common is a strong, well-defined theme.

I remember some incredible designs, like the fire dress. How did you get the idea for that?

Yes, it smoked on the catwalk, but it didn’t actually catch on fire. The idea came to us because the whole show had been developed around the idea of fire. A model took off her bra, which had matches in it, and lit a fire, just after a barbecue, and then the wedding dress was a symbol of renewal just at the moment the crisis started. So, we thought that we had to burn everything for a real renewal. Hence this dress of immaculate white, which sparkled, embroidered with crystal and with huge amounts of tulle, in which we had installed a system that caused smoke. We worked with a set-design company to take our idea all the way when creating this show.

How do you find inspiration from other art forms?

We see a lot of exhibitions. Recently we visited the Dalí show, which will definitely influence us for our next designs, where there may be some surrealist touches. Livia studied visual art and was originally a painter. She also worked in a gallery. So we are very influenced by the world of the visual arts and painting. Film also affects us. We are big fans of Tim Burton in particular. Actually, that’s how we chose the theme of the beetle, which is reminiscent of Burton’s “Beetlejuice.” Travel inspires us also, of course. We just got back from Singapore. There, people have kept their astonishment. It’s very different from Paris, where people are generally blasé. But over there, they are really attuned to surprises. During the trip to Singapore there were seven of us from the French Federation of Couture who were invited and we had a real experience. For the first time, we met our fan club! It was touching to see that on the other side of the world people followed our work and knew it really well.

What’s important to you while you’re working on a collection?

An atmosphere of heady excitement. Our team at work has really strong bonds. After a while, we are all tired but we love the excitement before a show.

Tell me a bit about the new collection.

The theme is “Cosmic Beetle.” Once again we started off with an idea that resembles a dream. The beetle is a lucky charm, even a sacred animal because it was considered a solar divinity symbolizing immortality in Egyptian mythology. The animal has held onto its magic throughout the eras. It’s a very beautiful and warlike animal. We have always loved embroidery. Everything embroidered on the clothing in this collection was made with real beetle wings. We imported them from Thailand, where they are eaten. The wings then become decoration. The first piece we made with wings was a bag that we liked a lot. For the collection, we want to be shiny, light, transparent. We opted for something refined and above all very structured, even architectural. Were always very critical of our designs.

The pieces are more structured today. How did you develop in this way?

Over several shows, structure became a real focus. For our last few shows, we’ve worked with a head seamstress on the shapes, sleeves, and shoulders. More than before, we devote particular attention to the architecture of the clothing, whereas before we concentrated above all on the colors and the embroidery. Today we’re more complete. We have a lot of jackets and coats, as well as dresses. It’s a true collection, developed from A to Z.

Where would you place yourselves in the world of haute couture?

As the saying goes, if there’s no place for you, you have to make your own. If we’ve been able to make a place for ourselves, so much the better. Customers, journalists, and professionals recognize our work. Our excellence resides in the fact that we have a workshop where everything is produced. The totality of our collection is made in France. A head seamstress manages the team of seamstresses and embroiderers. Sometimes our techniques are not orthodox in the sense that these are not old-style embroideries or jewelry that one would normally design. But with us, everything can be traditional. Everything starts with our ideas as designers, then we discuss it as a team. Sometimes we sketch a design and then we develop a more technical design. The head seamstress creates it on a model. So it’s a true work of couture. And since we’re in Paris, we take advantage of existing know-how. For some pieces of embroidery, it takes two or three people working for over two to three weeks. For a shoulder, it’s three days of embroidery, for example.

Who wears your designs?

Singers, American clients, or Middle Eastern clients. Unlike what is usually assumed, our clients are not excessively extravagant like Lady Gaga, although we did actually dress her. They are people of means, since couture remains high-end and expensive. We have an evolving clientele between 17 and 60 years. They are women with character, who accept themselves and accept sometimes having an offbeat look. But we also adapt certain pieces for the Middle East, by doubling transparent fabrics, for instance. We have several outfits that are worn for cocktail parties and private events.

In addition to beetles, you invent monsters. In fact, you will soon be participating in an exhibition on monsters in fashion. You like to be quirky, don’t you?

We don’t consider ourselves creators of couture, just creators. We like to create new things and we often search for ideas in the depths of our childhood. We are Bulgarian and Bulgaria is rife with phantasmagorical tales and stories that have definitely influenced us. We created monsters that were shown in Monaco. Now we are going to show some of them at “Arrrgh!” [an exhibition on monsters in clothing design] at the Gaité Lyrique but we’re not sure yet which ones. The curator will choose from these pieces, which have never been shown in Paris.

So is it all the same to you whether you create fashion or art?

In this case these are art pieces treated as fashion pieces, because they are put together using fashion techniques and materials used in fashion. There’s lace, textured textiles, jewels. Each monster is created like a design on a model. They are couture textile sculptures.