WHEN you traipse through the city’s historical zone perusing souvenir shops – Monastiraki, Plaka and Acropolis, in a desperate last-minute hunt for a decent gift for your loved ones back home, you’ll come across a range of things you keep seeing over and over like a hellish design nightmare: tacky T-shirts, featuring various scenes and lines from the movie 300, quotes by ancient philosophers, ancient scenes of all varieties (sometimes with a lewd sexual twist) and those with nudge-nudge, wink, wink references to drunkenness. An assortment of classical statues through the historical ages in all shapes, sizes and materials. The ancient warrior headgear, spears, armour plates, dinner plates, “hand painted” bowls, jugs and other vessels. ‘I love Greece’ bags, island donkey-lovers trinkets and cat-starring toys, off the shoulder cotton dresses with gold stitching inspired by the Greek gods that the Greek gods wouldn’t be seen dead in, orgy themed playing cards. There are also new age / hippy / traveller uniforms, bags, ruck sacks and sarongs and then sandals, lots of sandals. And that’s all folks.
That’s until you may be as relieved as I was, to stumble upon Forget Me Not store that opened in 2014 and follows on from the string of tourist shops along the busy, touristy Adrianou St on number 100. As soon as you step inside, you know you’re in for something completely different. Probably because Forget Me Not’s entertaining, quirky and unique concept is the very antithesis of your typical Greek tourist shop.
The cultural gifts shop, as it calls itself, is currently selling decor objects, accessories, clothes, toys, kitchenware and even food products all based on the witty design and creative reinterpretation of Greece (both as it is viewed by locals and by tourists)
The concept store, owned by former interior designer Filippos Khoury, is home to works by 90 Greek designers, many of whose true artistic character began to emerge in earnest as the volume started to go up in the financial crisis here. Khoury says: “The idea came when I realised that Greek designers from all fields were producing beautiful products, and many of them were gaining international recognition and winning prizes in design contests. It became obvious to me that something new and interesting was happening, and that’s when I thought that I would love to see everything gathered in one place.”
Although just the fact that the store is showing the works of almost 100 new designers all presenting Greece in a fresh way is interesting enough, the more quirky designs indicating that the newer generation of Greeks is able to laugh at itself and sometimes ingeniously reinvent, offers a real sense of novelty to the visitor.
Objects showing the humour of the time include a tacky leather arm bracelet to be worn while sunbathing that will leave a ‘Tanned in Greece’ or ‘GR’ tan line once removed, as well as a build-it-yourself smoking-hot cardboard Greek Lover, with frappe coffee in hand, an olive oil can tote bag, and a sarong that looks like fishmonger’s paper.
Khoury notes: “The crisis is the reason so many individuals -including me – had to change career, it’s the reason many people started producing their own ideas, trying to show a more optimistic, colourful or even funny profile of Greece. The redefinition of greek stereotypes, irony and a sarcastic sense of humour is obvious in the shop. In a way, you can say that the crisis pushed us all to change the way we see things.” When asked about the positive international feedback he has received so far, he says that: “I think people love the idea that in hard times, young designers take control and create. It gives you the half-full-glass side of life..”
Forget Me Not is attractive to locals as much as foreign visitors, looking for cool, trendy design objects from Greece. Designers come from all kinds of backgrounds – from avant-garde fashion designers, product designers, architects and street artists, to photographers and graphic designers. The shop combines all their forces to sell everything from clothing by graffiti artists, olive oil with gold leaf in it as an extra special gift, iPad and iPhone bags with breezy Greek themes and styles, industrial style and geometric jewellery, coffee table books, table wear and even ties are among the other objects sold there. Having received such positive feedback so far, Khoury is already planning an expansion: “This year I decided to open the lower level of the shop which is bigger and hopefully will attract more designers, this time focusing on new fashion brands, accessories and small furniture. I am also going to expand the books and music section.”
Forget Me Not is cheerful but not cheap like the tourist shops. You can find some great items for under 10eur, but the average price for larger objects, clothes items and prints, is between 35-60 euros. Then again, considering you are buying original designs by Greek designers, not tacky, factory manufactured junk, and are supporting the new designer’s careers at the same time makes it worthwhile. There are several varieties of fancy olive oils, including one with gold leaf that costs over 100 euros that I personally find gimmicky and pointlessly extravagant, yet I can understand its glittery appeal for some. The good thing is that there is something for everyone here, and soon to be even more.
ONE DESIGNER’S STORY
One day after I discovered Forget Me Not I passed a tiny (as in broom cupboard size) shop that had interesting looking things reminiscent of what I’d seen the day before, in the window. I walked in, standing right in the middle of the place with only one step, saw that there was no one there, felt awkward, and stepped out again. “I’m here!” I heard a man call out, and was quickly joined by Spyros Papanikolaou, a tall, large-framed man with a pleasant smile, who invited me to come in and sit down.
As I did so, I noticed a multitude of small open pipes with what looked like T-shirts stuffed into them, lots of larger pipes snaking around the walls and ceiling, various objects decorating shelves and that our seats were in the bottom, blue portion of the otherwise white wall, as if below sea level. I told Papanikolaou I wanted to ask some questions and he was happy to share his story: “I had this idea years ago, to make a souvenir T-shirt shop that is absolutely nothing like the ones one finds in the tourist stores – we have around 760 different designs right now, there in the tubes on your right. I eventually quit my job as a banker and opened this place, inspired by my experience in some of the world’s most beautiful cities of never finding anything to buy beyond the typical cliched, garish tourist fare.”
The Ble Aspro team write on their site: “Zorba has become a pensioner, and moussaka has been replaced by fusion dishes. Leonidas and his 300 have become hollywood heroes, leaving in their wake a distorted impression and adding to the already existent kitsch. That’s why we started again, on a blank sheet.”
Papanikolaou is the brain behind the designs that are worked on by a team of four designers, and the reason why the things I’d first spotted in the shop’s window seemed familiar is that some of their designs are indeed featured in Forget Me Not. They can also be found at the Press Point chain stores at the Athens International Airport and on various islands.