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Arevik Saribekyan, Director of British Council Armenia: Dialogue through Culture Always Works Miracles!

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Fashion Road: Dialogue across Borders is a 2-year collaborative project starting in November 2010 through which ten fashion designers from Armenia, UK, Germany, Romania, Denmark and Czech Republic explore the way aspects of national identity are incorporated into contemporary designs. How did it all begin?

As a cultural organisation, it is our purpose to create cultural links between nations to build trust and promote cooperation. We always think of different means of bringing people together for exchange of expertise, networking and creation of lasting links, be it between public officials, artists, journalists, or any other group of professionals or people.

For this particular project, the idea was floating in the air for several months. It first occurred to me when I suddenly came across a book of the Armenian national dresses. I always knew that our national costumes are very bright, colourful and unique. But I never fully realised how these costumes could “speak”. They can tell you so much, like where they from are, which region / community they represent, which century, which societal status they belong to. They can even tell you the history of the nation, the different cultural influences, the climate of the country and the cultural identity and beliefs.

The idea was accepted by many members of the EU National Institutes of Culture (EUNIC) – Institutul Cultural Roman, Goethe Institute, Danish Cultural Institute and the Czech Centres. We worked together closely to develop this idea further and in the result we received funding from the European Commission to deliver this exciting project. Our partner in Armenia will be the Armenian Fashion Council.

You initiated this project as the director of British Council Armenia, a position you have occupied for more than five years. What have you learned about cross-cultural communication in this period?

First, let me say that I am happy to work for a cultural organisation because no matter what position you are occupying, you are always dealing with people, creating opportunities for them and changing lives. I have worked in different sectors – public, business, NGO – and when comparing, I can confidently say that culture is the safest area where people feel comfortable and they are more open to interact and share.

Throughout these years I learnt that wherever it is difficult to bring people together, be it because of conflicts, stereotypes and deep routed perceptions, dialogue through culture always works miracles. I expect that through this project we will manage to foster cross-cultural communication and cooperation between Armenia and five European countries which will encourage and facilitate a better understanding and acceptance of the cultural heritage of Armenia in Europe and the European cultural history and traditions in Armenia.

How do you communicate your project and how do you integrate social media in the communication mix?

The project communication and publicity will be ensured through wide rage of tools where social media will have its unique place. Besides the media coverage that will be ensured through all the project events and activities, booklets and brochures and various publication materials will be prepared and disseminated. The project information will be constantly updated in the websites of all the partners. We will use the British Council’s Facebook page for engaging the wider public in various discussions related to cultural heritage, traditions and diversity, cross-cultural cooperation as well as fashion design trends and news. Various contests and quizzes will be conducted through facebook, interesting facts will be shared and people will be invited to start and lead discussions on the topics related to the project.

The biggest means of communication of the project outcomes and the inspiration for the cross-cultural dialogue and discussions will be the exhibition that will be put together from the final collection created collaboratively by the participants and will tour in Armenia and in 5 European countries. Through various presentations and public discussions the participating designers will share their experience of the cultural journey made throughout the project and the lessons they learnt when exploring each others’ culture and picturing the diverse traditions into their collections.

Finally, the project will also have its own website where all the project information will be posted and which will serve as a tool for networking and sharing for professionals and general public.

You said that this project aims to use the universal language of fashion to explore and communicate the diversity of the cultural heritage between Armenia and Europe. In witch way communicating through fashion “says” more than verbal communication?

It goes without saying that words are very important for communication. In the meantime, no matter how descriptive, they leave little room for imagination and self reflection (and I am not speaking about poetry).

Fashion makes the story complete by providing the opportunity to see and feel the culture. The patterns of textile, colours and styles of the costumes encompass a very impressive “vocabulary” of culture. It visualises the encoded information about cultures’ history and identity. People forget words, figures, names. However, the history and culture of people presented to them through the professional mixture of colours, texture and national ornaments will mirror in their memory for a long time and maybe inspire them to explore and learn more about those cultures.

How do you think a national costume communicates the national identity of a culture?

As I already mentioned, costumes are more than just cloths. Like monuments, eposes, architecture and songs, they too are bearers of nation’s history and cultural individuality. It is not a surprise that while the design world is dynamically developing and progressing, many outstanding designers look back into history and into the national costumes to find inspiration and uniqueness.

In the case of Armenia, for example, people always had a creative approach in ornament and decoration expressed in different tribal styles as well as overall national traditions. The choice of colours and ornaments, the use of laces and fine-spun, gold-knitted patterns make the Armenian costumes quite unique and characterise the spirit and identity of the Armenian nation.

How do you think fashion PR will look like in the next 2 or 3 years?

Well, as long as fashion flourishes and the interest of people keeps on growing in fashion design, both in terms of consumption and in terms of career, the fashion PR will always remain an attractive and intensively developing field. Fashion designers will always need PR people to promote their work and brand and people will continue to be dependent on the fashion PR professionals to “renew” their wardrobes from season to season. So I see fashion PR growing and flourishing and many new fashion magazines, shows, events emerging in the coming year. 

Arevik Simonyan is the Director of British Council Armenia. She received her Diploma in English Langauage and Literature from the Yerevan State University. Her first Masters's degree is in Political
Sicience and International Relations from the American University of Armenia and the second one from Master's from the East Carolina University, USA, in the field of public administration.

She worked for the European Department of the State Radio as an editor, then was employed by IREX as an Educational Adviser. After her studies in the US, Arevik worked for the Public Sector Reform Project in Armenia, then joined a business company where she worked as a PR Manager. After her short experience with this business world, she joined my friend in establishing a local NGO, the Centre for Regional Development, which soon became the Armenian chapter of the Transparency International world movement. After working with the NGO for about 5 years and being engaged in a number of interesting and challenging projects, she joined the Britsih Council in 2005 first as a Programmes Manager, and was promoted to the position of the Director of the Armenia office.

Interview by Raluca Elena Rogoz, Forum for International Communications. Copyright PR Romania

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