Published on: August 31, 2015
Grow ah beard. Kill them with kindness! F*uck Monday… Two Feet and a Heartbeat.
Seemingly random thoughts that you may have heard in the street or seen on designer tees apparently aren’t random at all. They trace and shape the journey of a Trini engineer turn designer and a Russian digital media expert who found love in art and art in love.
From Russia to Trinidad to Bali and back, SAYSM is more than just the brainchild of Nick Salloum and Elena Molchanova. It’s the topsy-turvy, globetrotting work/love affair that started as a Friday night brain-cooler over wine and sketchbooks to give birth to the SAYSM t-shirt brand. They opened up to Designer Island to share their trials and triumphs and definitely have something unique to say…
DI: So tell me a bit about yourselves and what you both do.
Elena: Okay, I’ll start… My Twitter 'About' says storyteller and visionary. I have a background in digital media, video editing, motion graphics, art, writing, illustration and design and then my website states that I’m also Art Director! Which is what I’ve come to think of myself professionally over the past few years.
Nick: This is tricky for me because a lot of people know me for my t-shirt brand NIQ. I do paintings here and there, but my formal training is in mechanical engineering and now software development is where I devote most of my time.
DI: From engineering to creative?
Nick: You know, : I think engineering has its creative moments. At least it teaches you to think about problems creatively.
DI: That’s interesting… But how did NIQ come in to play?
Nick: Well, I actually studied art at O’ and A’ Level and, after that, art was just always there on the side for me. I would doodle and draw and, occasionally, paint but my engineering degree took up most of my time. It was a love-hate relationship – more hate, in all honesty – but I somehow managed to pass and my get my degree eventually.
When I came back home, I wanted to distance myself from engineering completely, so I started thinking, what am I going to do and how am I going to do it? I sat down in my dad’s t-shirt factory and had the idea to release my own t-shirt line in 2010.
There was an event at the Carlton Savannah featuring Anya, Meiling and some foreign hot shots and I somehow got roped in... I was definitely way out of my league, you know, but I got some good exposure and, from there on, I started to really develop my own style and the NIQ brand evolved. The year Elena and I met was the final run in my brand because the local retail market does not help you in any way at all. I just kinda got pissed off and fed up with the local stores so I did my final collection on my own, sold them at Drink and that was that. Less than a year later, we founded SAYSM.
DI: You sure like abbreviations… What’s SAYSM mean?
Nick: SAYSM is a play of letters and words. S is the first letter of my last name - Salloum , M is the first letter of her last name-Molchanova, but SM is also an abbreviation for ‘something,’ so the whole brand was effectively Say Something!
DI: Did your relationship and SAYSM develop together?
Nick: Yes, it kinda coincided: the birth of our brand and the birth of our relationship just combined creatively. At that point, it wasn’t a t-shirt brand, it was just us having a lot of fun, putting together our styles and coming up with a collection.
Elena: I was deep into my advertising job at the time, which was very stressful and demanding. Nick also joined the agency, so SAYSM was an outlet to have fun and express ourselves without constraints or censorship of any kind. It was more of a creative bonding exercise, which conveniently became an actual brand and a product. Since we both had jobs, there was a lot of freedom to just be creative and not focus on the money.
If we had started it as a venture for financial gain as the primary objective, we would have approached it very differently. Iit would have probably had a more neutral voice
Nick: We just did whatever we wanted.
Elena: We churned it out based on the purest inspiration that exists for one person and between two people. We just splashed it all out and so the product speaks for itself.
DI: I love that: Splash it out! But before SAYSM and the agency, you came here as a tourist from Russia?
Elena: Well, I wasn’t really coming from Russia, to be honest, because I had lived in England for about five years already, so I was a London girl, an East London chick. I finished university with a degree in Media and Cultural Studies and Television Studies, which is a really broad academic degree. And then I graduated in the worse possible year: 2008. That’s when the recession came pouring down, so of course, it was impossible to find a job or do anything.
DI: So what led you to Trinidad, of all the Caribbean Islands?
Elena: London was kind of depressing and I knew some people from Trinidad. So I tagged along when they came back and it was just love at first sight! Coming from London was just like coming out of ice water: I could breathe again! To not feel cold and get to see the sun every day… everything just fell into place here.
I left for a bit – more out of necessity than desire – but I got a job offer from one of the advertising agencies to work as a motion graphics art director and here I am.
DI: So when did you two actually meet again?
Nick: That was Christmas 2012: there was a sale at Drink Wine Bar and I booked a table to sell the last NIQ t-shirts. That was the end of my fashion career… or so I thought!
Elena: And I turned up with some drawings. It started raining and everybody started rushing in… That’s when we met.
At the same time the digital team at the agency I was working at was growing and…
Nick: …I met with the agency after Christmas. Three months later I showed up and gave Elena a lil wave.
DI: So did SAYSM begin at the ad agency?
Elena: Ha! Oh, funny, funny story. Shortly after Nick started working with us, he posted a status on Facebook looking for a studio apartment. My neighbour downstairs was moving out and he had a super nice studio apartment, perfect for one guy. Nick saw it, loved it and I was like, “I get you a job, I get you an apartment, so what’s next? You want me to introduce you to your future wife?!”
Nick: Shortly after moving into the apartment, we started the tradition to have some art nights we called Salloum-Molchanova.
We would choose any book that was lying around, pick a random word on a random page and just draw on the topic of the selected word.
Elena: But the real reason for those nights was to vent about work and life…it was real friendship then.
DI: So when did the transition from casual nights to brand and then Bali happen?
Elena: Well, I think we were both starting to think outside of Trinidad… I was starting to reach my peak at the job and kinda wanted to quit while I was ahead.
Nick: And I just had a general kind of wanderlust. South East Asia seemed like a good place to travel.
Elena: We really enjoyed being around each other. It was nice, good energy between us. But it was all up there: my plans, his plans, and we never really knew then how much our lives would collide until we launched SAYSM at Drink and sold out!
Nick: It was around the same time of the year when, we told everyone that we were quitting our jobs and moving to another country.
DI: What a big change for the brand: leaving Trinidad and trying to continue it in a new country with new lives?
Elena: Yes… We were going on a journey and we thought that we were going to take the brand with us but I think the brand went on its own journey. We thought that we would just do random designs on the go and throw them out there, you know, to try and sell online.
Nick: One big realization for me was that our brand was at its best when we were at our busiest with at our full-time jobs. That’s when it could truly be a creative escape.
DI: Like a creative binge?
Elena: Yes. We worked with no phones, no distractions. Just food and drinks.
Nick: Those were good times for us. So, when it became a business, outside of Trinidad, it became difficult.
During the early days of SAYSM, sometimes I would paint and we would take that and manipulate it digitally and then Elena would add her piece – the digital madness – and make it cohesive.
So, when it became a business, outside of Trinidad, it became difficult.
Elena: Like anything in life, you always have preconceptions and ideas of how things will work out, but then they never do. Most of the time, something else happens…
I was anxious to keep going. I didn’t want to become one of those things that appear and disappear. You see it in a lot of things. You see it with music, fashion, magazines. I didn’t want SAYSM to be that. I really wanted it to continue. I think with all that in mind, I was probably pushing it too much.
When we left Trinidad, we were working from cafes, staying in small guesthouses so it wasn’t a comfortable working environment. I mean, we were putting out some designs, but then after a few months, we changed most of them, because, really and truly, everything just seemed so…
Elena: ...so incohesive, because you could see where it was Nick and where it was me, and it didn’t look like something that we created together. So I let it go and, at that point, I also realised that it was okay. We didn’t owe it to anybody.
DI: You painted the house you stayed at in Bali though. How did that happen?
Nic: That was Elena's work on the Humming Bird House.
The whole rent system in Bali is very different to what you are accustomed to here. Basically, as soon as you sign your one-year or five-year lease and you pay your money upfront, the landlords don’t want to hear from you.
Elena: You can do whatever you want so I took full advantage of that and I left my mark in Bali creatively.
DI: What’s the future of SAYSM now?
Nick: We’ve talked and I do remind Elena, as I remind myself, that at one time we would say: this weekend, let’s get down to it, let’s create! My talents and hers: they meshed. We want to bring that back together and keep it fun, you know.
DI: Having had all this experience working together, how would you describe what it’s like? And what happens when working together as a creative couple doesn’t come easily anymore?
Nick: I think it started hot and it stayed hot for a long time and it was very natural: we never struggled with an idea.
Elena: It happened very abruptly, even how we fell in love. In the beginning, when you realize this about each other, the world doesn’t exist… creativity was just gushing out, like new love and hot and all sorts of things. There was no stopping that flow. We actually had to cap our creativity at some point. We had so much to do, so when it worked, it worked. You didn’t need to ask yourself how, why, when. It just worked, you know. And when that creative flow stopped …
Nick: …you wonder why. It’s hard to pinpoint why, or how or what. Because the love is there, it’s still there, obviously. Now it’s just a matter of how we transition SAYSM through this new era of our lives.
Things changed. Our environment changed. Our careers, circumstances and tracks changed, and that obviously affected things a lot.
Elena: At the end of the day, I think as Nick said, if something is not working, you need to take a step back and try to let your emotions settle. When you have a clear head, try and ask yourself why it’s not working… At some point, you realize: it’s not about me. It’s about us.
So I accepted it and, ever since then, I’m cool. If it stands to rest, I’m cool. If it continues to live in some shape or form, I’m also cool. And I think it’s a good way to look at it: nothing has to be set in stone. You need to evolve with your project, with your brand…
DI: Why is it that creative people seem to fall in love with each other?
Nick: I think we seek someone else for balance. We’re both creative but also very aspirational and realistic about things.
DI: So what next, or where next?
Elena: I’m not sure... It’s very hard to say at this point. We're in San Francisco for the summer, I’m writing and Nick is very focused on his web-development work… A lot of things can happen and I’m open to it.
I think, when you’re open to these creative energies, opportunities will come and find you and, before you know it, you’re deep into it, working on it, and you look back and ask, “How did that happen?”
Saysm? Say yes to life!
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us guys!