ODYSAY meets Ophélia Jacarini

Ophélia and I met through a mutual friend while I was living in Hong Kong. I texted her one evening to see if she was available for a chat. She suggested we meet the next day at 8 am. Not that I don’t do early meetings but from my experience, it is pretty rare for an 'artist' to do early-morning meetings. The early bird gets the worm, as the saying goes, and Ophelia is definitely one of those that seize the day. 
Ophelia is a real Parisian girl. Even though she spent a couple of years in the US as a child, she grew up and studied in Paris. “I always loved drawing,” she says, “but I didn’t really fit in the ‘standard’ French schooling system’”. After high school, she goes on to study fashion design but, being fascinated by the human body, she also attends fine arts classes in morphology. At only 20 years old and shortly after graduating she lands a textile designer position at the prestigious John Galliano fashion house. “My time at Galliano was a great experience but after a year I did not feel like I was better or worse than any of my colleagues''.
Ophelia Jacarini Carnets de voyage
She decides to fulfill a long-term dream to travel through Asia and study the traditional costume making of Asian minorities. In order to save enough money for her project, she spends the following 6 months working three additional jobs:  she runs a jewelry line, works as a waitress at night, and is the official photographer for Parisian university events during week-ends. Before her departure, she sparks the interest of the Yves Saint Laurent fashion house and gets a ‘tacit’ job offer upon her return.  
After booking a one-way ticket to Asia, she spends a year backpack-traveling in the most remote areas of the continent, searching for that ‘little something’ few Europeans knew about: traditional costume making techniques. I ask her whether she ever felt in danger being a young woman traveling to such remote places. “People were extremely generous and welcoming, happy to see a foreigner they weren’t accustomed to,” she says. “Despite having nothing, they offered me so much. In Miramar, for instance, locals would go as far as breaking the law to offer me shelter for a night. Wearing traditional attire (like the Indian sari which is 7m of fabric wrapped around the body) also helped and was very well received by the locals” she adds.

Sketch from Opheli’a trip in the Philippines I am curious to know how she managed to communicate with people. “India was easy as you can easily communicate in English but drawing proved to be a great way of communication in countries where I couldn’t speak the local dialect. I would also ask some locals to write down some basic sentences that I would use when needed. But in most cases, people would talk to me and I wouldn’t understand a thing.” Her eyes sparkle with excitement as she tells me about that time she got to see a fully embroidered handmade dress that took two years to create. “It is fascinating to see how a garment can be worn in different ways. In most Asian countries, people are very connected to the body, therefore the traditional costumes are usually very feminine and considered a form of art”.  Upon returning, she is struck by the lack of humanity back home. “The people I met had nothing, but they give you so much more than the Parisians.” She also quickly learns that YSL didn’t wait for her. “I felt upset almost offended,” she says with a laugh. “My reasoning was: if they don’t want me here then why bother staying.” Her new plan is to move to Hong Kong and to find a job as a fashion designer. “I had almost no money left and thought that as the cost of living in Asia is cheap it will be enough to get me through the first months while looking for a job”. 

Her one-way ticket booked, Ophelia landed in Hong Kong at the beginning of October 2014. Then, reality struck. “Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities in the world and there are quotas for visas. Everyone was very impressed by my CV, but no one wanted to hire me, as I had no working experience in Hong Kong”. With no official working documents, all she landed was an undeclared waitress job in a night bar. I never asked for any financial help from my parents, but I was so broke that I ended up borrowing 2000€ to make ends meet. “I was terrible at that job”, she recalls. “I kept making cashier entry mistakes that my boss had to correct at 4 am when the bar was closing”.

An intrigued client who could clearly see she was not in her place asked about her whereabouts. She explained she was a fashion designer looking for a job. He handed her his business card and told her to come to his office on Monday morning. “It turned out he needed to get some graphic design work done which I had obviously no idea how to do. I was so desperate to work that I took a one-day sick-leave. I ran straight to a graphic designer friend’s place who gave me a 24h Photoshop crash-course. Through YouTube tutorials, I managed to get the work done. From then on, thanks to word-of-mouth and determination, I was getting more and more freelance graphic design assignments while still working as a waitress at night. I would walk into a restaurant and offer to do a wall painting for free just to get that experience. I was working day and night for about a year and eventually was offered a position as a graphic designer for the main restaurant group in Hong Kong. It was such a relief to have a fixed income and have some financial stability.”

After about a year and some friction with her management, Ophelia decided to quit her job and fully focus on her own business. She remembers: “I was petrified of losing my fixed income and the financial stability that comes with it”. Little did she know that that night, she would sign one of her biggest projects to date.  Mural painting at Saigon restaurant by Ophelia Jacarini

From that point on, Ophelia ran her illustration agency business Merakilya at full speed and has worked with prestigious brands such as Diptyque, Princesse Tam Tam, the Shangri-La Hotel, and many more. In the following years, Merakilya acquired enough of a reputation that Ophelia did not need to hunt for clients anymore. The brand grew to the point where she could rent an office and employ people and she finally found the time to focus on her other brain-child, Jacarini Studio, her artistic outlet. I ask her what her biggest lesson in all these years was: “I learned the importance of surrounding yourself with capable and trust-worthy people ''. Things were going blissfully. Opelia‘s illustration work for DyptiqueHowever, when the Hong Kong protests started in October 2019, the sky fell on her head and Covid quickly ensued. The world of entertainment collapsed and, although Ophelia had enough savings to save her brand, she had to cut all her expenses, including her employees and her space. “When you’re an entrepreneur, you have to put money aside for this kind of situation because you never know when things will stop”. As for many small businesses, 2020 was very unlucrative, but with her joie de vivre and her tenacity, Ophelia never stopped believing that things would eventually get back to normal. Through constant contact with her clients and a push for Christmas-themed illustrations, things started to slowly shift again around Christmas 2020. As projects are once again flooding in and she prepares her next exhibition, both Merakilya and the studio seem to bloom once more. MANIFEST EPHEMERAL - Ophélia Jacarini latest exhibition in HKOphelia is the perfect portrait of a woman who never lets adversity defeat her and whose strength of character and work ethic are an incredible source of inspiration. She is a living proof that hard work always pays off. You can find her work on her Instagram account or her website.

The initial article was written in 2017 and was updated in 2021. It is co-written by Sona Sidalova and Alexandra Bikard

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