TO­WARDS THE LIGHT

EM­I­GRAT­ING FROM RUS­SIA AS A TEENAGER, MA­RINA AFON­INA TRIED CHEFFING AND AC­COUN­TANCY BE­FORE FOL­LOW­ING HER DREAM INTO FASH­ION. HER LA­BEL, AL­BUS LU­MEN, EVOKES MEDITER­RANEAN SUM­MERS WITH ITS BARE­FOOT AND EF­FORT­LESS AES­THETIC.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - MOTORING - STORY MILANDA ROUT

Ma­rina Afon­ina landed in Aus­tralia from Rus­sia at 17 not speak­ing a word of English. She spent the first two years in Ade­laide work­ing as a chef and learn­ing the lan­guage after her mother had to re­turn to her home­town of St Peters­burg. A rather ex­tra­or­di­nary start for a young per­son, left to fend for her­self on the other side of the world, and a rather ex­tra­or­di­nary start for a fash­ion de­signer.

“I think ev­ery­thing that has hap­pened in my life has hap­pened for a rea­son,” Afon­ina tells WISH of her un­usual path to the found­ing of a la­bel, Al­bus Lu­men. “I am a very spir­i­tual per­son and I con­nect with cer­tain peo­ple. I be­lieve there is a rea­son why I meet them.”

It was on a hol­i­day here with her mother in the early 1990s that Afon­ina came across the first of those peo­ple that helped shape her path. She and her mother made some Rus­sian friends in Ade­laide, and that so­lid­i­fied a de­ci­sion to em­i­grate here. “My mum al­ways wanted to move away from Rus­sia be­cause it was a bad time to be there in the 1990s and we loved Aus­tralia,” Afon­ina says. “She ap­plied for a visa and she got one be­cause she is an en­gi­neer.” They moved into a granny flat at the back of a house owned by one of their Rus­sian friends and Afon­ina started work­ing at a lo­cal cafe.

“My mum had to move back to Rus­sia [a few months after they ar­rived in 1997] and then I was on my own,” Afon­ina, says, rather prag­mat­i­cally. “It was kind of a good thing for me be­cause be­ing an only child, I was spoilt. It was a good time for me to grow up and un­der­stand how to do things on my own.”

But wasn’t it a cul­ture shock to go from St Peters­burg to Ade­laide and to be all by your­self and un­able to speak English? “Not for me. I loved it,” Afon­ina says. “For me, oh my god, it was Aus­tralia, and so com­pletely dif­fer­ent to Rus­sia – even the air smelled like flow­ers, it wasn’t pol­luted like Rus­sia. It was very ex­cit­ing for me and es­pe­cially be­ing young, I was more open about things. I loved it. I thought Ade­laide was the best thing in the world un­til I came to Syd­ney!”

Afon­ina’s mother re­turned to Aus­tralia in 2000 and they de­cided to move on from Ade­laide, keen for new op­por­tu­ni­ties, and set­tled on Syd­ney. She com­pleted her high school stud­ies at TAFE and then was ac­cepted into a com­merce de­gree at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney. “I al­ways wanted to be an ac­coun­tant as I was good with numbers,” she says. “My mum al­ways said you need to get a proper de­gree and ac­count­ing was some­thing I was com­fort­able with.” But after in­tern­ing at a fi­nan­cial com­pany in North Syd­ney, Afon­ina quickly re­alised this was not the path for her. “I worked there for a year and it was re­ally bor­ing, I needed to be more cre­ative. So I said to my mum at the time, I don’t think I want to fin­ish this de­gree, I want to be­come a stylist in­stead.”

This move to fash­ion was not en­tirely out of left field; Afon­ina had grown up ob­sessed with fash­ion and had made her own clothes (as well as some for her dolls) as her mother had done. “In Rus­sia, we didn’t have Harper’s Bazaar or Vogue. When I came here, I was more ex­posed to that,” she says. “But I al­ways liked dif­fer­ent things to what ev­ery­one else did.”

Afon­ina started study­ing fash­ion de­sign at FBI Fash­ion Col­lege in Glebe, then her mother, who was work­ing as a sales as­sis­tant at Gior­gio Ar­mani, met the next per­son who would help her forge her path:

Harper’s Bazaar fash­ion di­rec­tor Clau­dia Navone, who se­cured Afon­ina an in­tern­ship, work­ing in the mag­a­zine’s fash­ion closet.

It was the most en­try-level job – un­paid at that – but also vi­tal: she was re­spon­si­ble for all the thou­sands of dol­lars’ worth of de­signer fash­ion that would go in and out of the closet for var­i­ous shoots. She picked up pieces from the courier dock, re­turned them and as­sisted the fash­ion direc­tors. It was not glam­orous work but that did not bother her. “I loved it,” she says. “I think work­ing in fash­ion, it is good to start from the bot­tom, to un­der­stand the fash­ion as­sis­tant’s role. Some peo­ple start off at the top, go­ing into a big role, and I think they don’t have an un­der­stand­ing of what a fash­ion as­sis­tant does. And it is re­ally hard work.”

Over the next five years, she worked her way up the ranks to a mar­ket editor role. Afon­ina as­sisted on many fash­ion shoots and worked with var­i­ous fash­ion direc­tors and ed­i­tors of the mag­a­zine. “I learned so much about fash­ion from these peo­ple,” she says. “Clau­dia had trav­elled all her life, she had worked with Hel­mut New­ton, known Mick Jag­ger, hung out with Kate Moss. It was that cal­i­bre that you don’t re­ally see much in Aus­tralia. There was just so much knowl­edge there.”

Afon­ina left Harper’s Bazaar and be­gan con­sult­ing as a stylist across a num­ber of fash­ion mag­a­zines and brands. She also be­came, as Bri­tish Vogue de­scribed her, “the go-to stylist for cel­e­brated Aus­tralian ex­pats” such as Elle McPher­son, Phoebe Tonkin and Lara Wor­thing­ton. In that time, Afon­ina man­aged to fit in get­ting mar­ried to fel­low Aus­tralian-Rus­sian Jerry Leis and have a baby boy, Oliver, who is now six. It was a hol­i­day in Europe that kicked off her tran­si­tion from styling to fash­ion de­sign; she sim­ply could not find any re­sort wear that she liked so she thought it was fi­nally time to start pro­duc­ing her own clothes.

“I al­ways felt I wanted to be a de­signer but I wasn’t brave enough be­cause I was in a new coun­try, and I was not ma­ture enough, to be hon­est,” she tells WISH. “But after con­sult­ing for a while as stylist, I felt con­fi­dent about what I ac­tu­ally wanted to do. Then I fi­nally de­cided: you know what, I re­ally want to do my own brand. Be­ing a de­signer is re­ally hard work. It is not just de­sign­ing clothes, it is also pat­tern-mak­ing, cut­ting, fin­ish­ing, run­ning a busi­ness, ac­count­ing – so it is good that I have all that knowl­edge.”

Afon­ina fo­cused on cloth­ing she wanted to wear on hol­i­day in Italy, Greece or Spain: beau­ti­fully crisp white linens and cot­tons that looked “relaxed and ef­fort­less”. She was also in­spired by the many Euro­pean films she watched grow­ing up in Rus­sia, set in France or Italy, por­tray­ing sum­mer scenes and beau­ti­fully dressed women (think Sophia Loren). She de­cided to not use her name (she still con­sults as a stylist) but in­stead chose Al­bus Lu­men, Latin for white light. “I al­ways like this white, clean aes­thetic – un­com­pli­cated,” she says.

She showed the first pieces she made in Novem­ber 2015 to a few mag­a­zine ed­i­tors and did a pre­sen­ta­tion at Mercedes Benz Fash­ion Week Aus­tralia in 2016. This led to her be­ing no­ticed by Match­es­fash­ion.com and her first in­ter­na­tional buy, just a few months after launch­ing. Afon­ina then did a big­ger run­way show in May of her re­sort 2018 col­lec­tion, and that is when she was re­ally no­ticed. In the white-walled court­yard of La Porte Space in Syd­ney’s in­ner south, with a lemon tree in the mid­dle of the run­way, her mod­els wore white linen dresses, car­ried bas­kets of lemons and walked bare­foot across blue and white tiles. It was like step­ping into a sum­mer scene in Greece or Italy.

“All the el­e­ments worked,” she says of the show. “And I felt like that this col­lec­tion was Al­bus. At the be­gin­ning, I was still play­ing with a few things but now I felt it was per­fect.” Next she took her la­bel to New York and Paris, where she was picked up by Net-a-Porter. Not bad for a la­bel just over two years old.

Where does it go from here? Afon­ina wants a global brand but is happy tak­ing baby steps. She would love one day to have a bricks-and-mor­tar store in the right lo­ca­tion. “I want peo­ple to come in and feel like they are on hol­i­days,” she says. “I would love to have a store in a hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion like in Italy or Greece. I would also like to do pa­ja­mas, things for travel. Any­thing to do with life­style, re­lax­ation and es­cape.”

An­other key goal for Afon­ina is for her cloth­ing to be worn by women of all ages. “I would love to see a 60-year-old women wear­ing my linen shirt dress or a young girl wear­ing the same shirt in a dif­fer­ent way,” she says. “I want my pieces to be time­less.”

“It is not just de­sign­ing clothes, it is pat­tern-mak­ing, cut­ting, fin­ish­ing, run­ning a busi­ness, ac­count­ing.”

Of­fici unt aut autem­peli­tio cus qui se­quam, il­lo­rae volup­taspe sinum fa­cien­dan­tis autet dolum ex eu­mquiae et quam latiume ndan­dio dia veni­hi­ca­tum re max­im­pe­rupti se nis volup­tat mole­seq uia­ment ian­dand es­trum

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