The fact that I saw Alexander McQueen shouldering his way through the mob scene outside Sophia Kokosalaki’s show on February 20, 2002, is a testament to her impact as the indie Greek girl who carved out a new-wave female point of view in fashion. After word of her death at the tragically early age of 47 today, I found myself re-reading all the things I have written about Sophia. And there it is, documented on Vogue Runway, proof of just how much she was respected and borne up by the hardest of hardcore audiences—by London students, her peers, and by McQueen himself, who was already a star at Givenchy and, by that stage, hardly ever seen out in public.
Sophia Kokosalaki was—as McQueen must have sensed—at the leading edge of a different London generation. She was the first designer to emerge from Central Saint Martins who fused a European heritage—classical drapery, Hellenic folk craft—with a minimalist sense of how that could be worn on the street or in a club. In the beginning, her collections were very much in step with Helmut Lang and Nicolas Ghesquière’s early work at Balenciaga while also marching to her own music, the industrial beat of Kraftwerk and Joy Division. Her determination to start up on her own sparked firecrackers of ambition in younger minds. “Watching what Sophia did was mind-blowing to me as a student,” says Kim Jones. “That incredible, elegant warrior-woman thing she did.”
When I first met Sophia, she had just graduated from Central Saint Martins Masters course in 1998. She was the first of the army of individualists from everywhere that Professor Louise Wilson was destined to send out to reshape the reputation of London as a credible fashion capital. But Sophia, who was born in 1972, had arrived from Greece already entirely certain of who she was and what she wanted to do. “I was ready to abandon my home, my country, my lifestyle, my everything, to get in,” she once told me. “I thought my life would end if I didn’t get in. It was either you take me, or I shoot myself!”
She was 16 the first time she applied; she turned up with three garments, no portfolio, and was sent away. “Louise and I thought she was intriguing, had something, but she was far too young. We had to send her away,” says Fabio Piras, who is now the course professor, and remembers her coming in front of the admissions panel. “We told her to come back when she was 18. And then, you knew. She was one of those students who is totally focused on doing their own thing, launching their label.”
Tall and statuesque, a blonde goddess in a black leather jacket, Sophia did exactly that in 1999. Her collections, which simultaneously summoned the dignity of ancient powers and channeled hot-female-rockstar energy, quickly attracted international attention. Offers of collaborations came to her; she was the first to succeed Raf Simons and Véronique Branquinho as guest designer at the Milanese leather company Ruffo Research.
In the mid-2000s she shifted to show in Paris, consistently evolving ideas that grew from her background. Her roots were in Crete; her civil engineer father and journalist mother were both born on the island, “the motherland, we call it,” she said. She learned “macramé and ajiro” from her grandmother on long summer holidays, techniques that led to her abstract collaging of pieces of leather and fabric, strung together as conceptual bodices. Occasionally they’d turn up over draped pants and baggy, pushed-down leather boots, inspired by costumes worn by Cretan village men. “They wear loose trousers, flat boots, and a turban with tassels—and all in black. I just think it’s amazing and kind of sexy. How often can you say that about folk costume?” she laughed. “It’s a bit ’70s, even rock, but in a primitive way!”
As a woman, Sophia was sophisticated, resourceful, and stoic. In 2004, she rose to the occasion when the Greek government asked her to design the opening and closing of the Athens Olympics. I visited her then to see her at work, organizing a cast of hundreds, and dozens of seamstresses and set-builders in the secret, boiling-hot surroundings of the capital’s defunct airport. She pulled off friezes, floats, and performances that honored Greek myth, history, and culture in front of a global audience.
At the time, as a friend, I could see that even though she was throwing all her energy behind this project, it was not a period when she was in the best of health. Some time earlier, she had mentioned to me that she had first come to London when she was being treated for a childhood illness. She was always discreet about this; she lived with it and got on with it in such a way that nothing would prevent her from seizing the most that life could offer.
In the heady days of globalization, luxury fashion growth, and early internet fashion reporting, that meant moving to Paris to show, taking a side gig at Vionnet in 2006 for two years (she was perfectly cast as a draper of modern goddess dresses), and the selling of her brand to Renzo Rosso’s Only The Brave, parent company of Diesel. When the latter arrangement didn’t work out, she shifted to designing Diesel Black Gold’s collections for runway shows in New York from 2010 to 2012 before buying back her own label.
In recent times, she refocused to work on beautiful, non-chichi wedding dresses, and an eponymous jewelry collection that bears the stamp of her extraordinary ability to craft objects with both a sense of antiquity and a wholly modern vitality. However, her greatest delight, joyfully apparent on her private Instagram account until very recently, was in the life Kokosalaki built with her daughter and her partner. A woman of great dignity, discretion, and good humor, she leaves a legacy of long friendships in London and Athens, both of which are proud to claim her as their own.
Originally Appeared on Vogue