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.
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.”
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