The Shipping Collective Tackling Art and Fashion in Athens

Serapis silk scarves
Serapis silk scarves | © Serapis
We met the Chief Naval officer and Marine Personnel Operator of Serapis one morning at the port of Piraeus. It was lunchtime, and the sun was shining over a fleet of Blue Star Ferries. On the other side of the fence, away from the sea, the traffic was roaring. Closer to us there was a frenetic energy by the booths where men sold warm sesame pretzels at Akti Kondyli at their offices in the 4th floor of the Piraeus tower. The pair appeared serene, silk scarves billowing in the light port-side breeze and sunlight catching on their reflective jackets. A background of twinkling turquoise sea was a fitting setting against which to talk to Serapis, a maritime corporation that has made an international name for themselves merging fashion and art around a life at sea.

They first became famous for their huge silk prints that feature tankers, sailors and details from maritime life. Serapis has since expanded their offerings to incorporate a more diverse range of functional wear – huge waterproof jackets with fluorescent strips, white t-shirts with the company’s name and tracksuit-esque trousers that reference the multipurpose needs of sailors at sea.

Athenian brand Serapis © Serapis

Having come up with the idea while they were studying Maritime Law and Finance, Serapis experienced early success: after their first collection they were invited to participate in a show in the Comme Des Garcons building in Paris, as part of the ‘116 seconds’ exhibition curated by PAN. Taking place in the Place Vendome, Serapis showed alongside labels such as OFF White. They were quickly picked up by stockists from Tokyo and London, as well as the leading concept store in Athens.

With an emphasis on a slower and more considered production cycle, the brand works with local producers, staying true to their founding premise and ideologies while upholding the quality of design and aesthetic values.

Over Greek coffee and freshly fried calamari, we talked about the evolving nature of the fashion scene, life on tankers and imbuing shipping with a human narrative.

Athenian brand Serapis © Serapis

How did Serapis start?

Serapis: A few years ago we had a vision to expand our operations and build a platform where we could use our team’s knowledge and training on contemporary art and fashion, fused with our passion for shipping, the sea and the sun. We were playing with this notion of doing something on board so we created some items to make a photoshoot on board. One of the crew members took some photographs that we then curated and used for the scarves and the garments. This very particular photographic coverage of a trip with a tanker ship from Poland to Saudi Arabia through the Suez Canal was the basis of our first collection ‘I Will Care For You And Nurture Your Soul’. So that was the beginning of the concept of our theme and our main focus and point of interest.

Coming from a shipping environment and nurtured by the sea and the maritime world, it came naturally to infuse this visual stimuli into the creative projects of ΣΕΡΑΠΙΣ. We wanted to do something that has a Greek identity but not in a clichéd, summery or ancient kind of way. It was a way to tackle cultural, political and economical issues through the prism of contemporary shipping and find a way to open it up globally without being geographically contained.

Some of your members also studied art and architecture. Why did you not want to pursue these fields in a more traditional way?

S: The point of focus was mainly a means of distribution: artworks that would travel in the public sphere. It’s not a fashion company per se, nor an artistic practice that has a corporate identity. It just gets distributed through the fashion system and cycle, all held under the umbrella and protection of our day-to-day shipping operations.

CT: Why did you start with silk rather than anything else?

S: Mainly because it was easier to introduce our concept–for want of a better expression, ‘wearable art pieces’–working with rectangular shapes and things that are not ready-to-wear items, per se, that are easier to imagine hanging on a wall or as design pieces, and basically show the customer what we’re about. To make it easier to dive into the notion of what we’re doing. Then it expanded to t-shirts, sweaters and coats. Silk has always been our strong suit because apart from shipping and the sea we also have a big passion for the visual arts. We see every silk scarf as a work of art that could be exhibited as a standalone piece.

Athenian brand Serapis © Serapis

Do you see the textile industry in Greece reviving at all?

S: A little bit. But then with fabrics it’s very hard to get by, because there’s no market. Locally the brands that exist within the fashion system are very different. Whatever has been left is designed or cut to cater to these big businesses, which are very unrelated to what we want to do with techniques or quality.

How do you work? Is it by the fashion schedule, or more at your own pace?

S: We’ve been slowly coming onto the main course, which is the only way to do it because fashion runs like a treadmill. We know shipping but fashion is a completely different animal. You cannot begin by running like hell and exhausting yourself. Already there’s major brands who see that the system isn’t working and are changing it, and maybe it’s our responsibility as newcomers/outsiders to have a say on that and establish our own way of producing – in collaboration of course with your distributors, and so on. We would never actually undermine the quality or vision of the collection just to meet a season deadline. Cycles and collections don’t mean much, they’re just chapters in a body of work that we want to be proud of in ten years or so.

A lot of your collections are based around maritime traditions. In your research into that have you found anything that surprised you?

S: First of all there was an abundance of historical archival material gathered over the years, which was a big inspiration for us. Spending some time on board you come in touch with realities that are more or less known to the bureau but not directly talked about. Like it’s well-known that some crew members have sex with each other. And it’s fun because we were on board one of our tankers a few months ago, and you see amongst the crew that there’s a deep need for decompression and connection, and feeling like you’re not just in work all the time. The ΣΕΡΑΠΙΣ art and fashion department (extension of our mainline shipping operations) addresses that need. Art and fashion in particular have a strong healing power and spirituality that help alleviate the pressure of life at sea.

Athenian brand Serapis © Serapis

For instance, we had a beautiful experience at a karaoke night with the crew, where we all sang ‘Rocket Man’ in unison in Filipino. For sure there are things you can’t really use in a collection, but oddly enough other shipping corporations don’t want to expose or show any of the things that we’re showing. In a way, our documenting of the life at sea is much more sincere and personal as well, which is the exact opposite of what is generally communicated and conveyed through shipping corporations’ websites. You never hear anything about anything – the rust, the materiality of the boats, the spiritual agony. We have one scarf with a shark that was quite controversial, because it’s not supposed to happen on board.

Generally there is a big trend not to show what’s natural or real. This is the weirdest thing on board, whatever looks natural is forbidden.

I wanted to ask you about the reflective strips on the jackets. Also your t-shirts and trousers are a lot more minimal and functional, than the silk scarves. Why?

S: Nowadays everyone is doing it [functional wear], it’s part of the industry’s trending sartorial vocabulary. We liked blending these very clichéd blue collar elements and combining them with very expensive, more sensitive fabrics like silk. A big milestone for us in terms of ready-to-wear was a dress we did that was an elongated workers’ vest made from silk. So it was about taking the everyday garment that was not designed to accentuate the female/human body, and make it into a ready-to-wear summer kaftan.

The flashiness and exuberance of the reflective tape becomes a kind of peacocking, even though originally it was for safety. So we like this kind of material for its duality in relation to the context. It’s very saturated now but I think that our main contribution is that our imagery, and branding, our visual cues, are more daring and bold than a company that tries to mimic this workwear attitude just for the sake of it. We are proud of our scarves, and of expanding the visual vocabulary of the medium.