March 2020


Charlies Widow Charlies Widow Charlies Widow Charlies Widow Charlies Widow Charlies Widow Charlies Widow Charlies Widow Text: Gabriel Knowles Images: Lang Leav

At face value Lang Leav has done it the hard way. Born into a Thai refugee camp, she and her parents made their way to Cabramatta in Sydney’s west, where the push towards financially consistent vocations more often than not outweighs any creative endeavours. But Lang prevailed and headed off to the College of Fine Arts before embarking on what appeared to be a career in design. After a few weeks in package design she was promptly fired, so Lang drew on her childhood experience of writing and illustrating her own fantastical worlds and created the character Akina. The resulting fashion line, five books and SOYA prize suggest the self-confessed eBay addict is probably better off without the mundane design job. Lang tells Gabriel Knowles about her latest publishing project.

Gabriel Knowles: Where does Akina hail from initially?

Lang Leav: Akina was a little character I scribbled in my notebook, a few weeks after I was fired from a junior position at a packaging design firm. I sketched this little villainous girl and wrote, ‘Akina is a villain with a button fetish, she attacks teddy bears to steal their button eyes.’ I think everyone can identify with the teddy bear you had when you were growing up, who was missing a button eye. The entire world of Akina is built around that simple story.

GK: Is she a character you have worked with for a long time?

LL: It seems hard to believe but Akina is in her fifth year! Although she is the link between all the other characters I create, I keep her presence subtle. She tends to lurk quietly in the background.

My first book, The Teddy Bear’s Picnic began with a vivid image in my head of Akina whispering into Snow White’s ear. The idea I have always held is of Akina having a bewitching effect on anyone she encounters. In my first book she brings a surreal and sinister edge to the fairytale world. In my new book she enters the world of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with the same disastrous consequences!

GK: She is an often dark, melancholy and macabre character. What turned Akina to the dark side?

LL: I think as artists, we create worlds to belong to, because we find it hard to identify with the one around us. I created Akina during a time when I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do with my life. My design career was seemingly cut short and everything felt so dark and scary. In hindsight, I think I created Akina because she embodied all the things I wished I could be at the time – someone who was strong and focused, had conviction and knew exactly where she was going. I think it’s wonderful that over the years, these were the things that Akina in turn, taught me.

GK: Does she grow as you do or has she taken on a path of her own now?

LL: I think Akina and I have grown together and our paths will always be intertwined. I know it sounds strange but she almost feels like a real person to me. She has generated such a following that she has her own life force and it is one that draws the most amazing experiences into my life. She has become a character I deeply admire and because she is my creation, I feel this strong sense of pride and ownership that is difficult to put in words.

GK: Akina also seems to be a bit of a troublemaker. Where does her desire to wreak havoc come from?

LL: I guess a lot of what goes into Akina stems from my own personality. I’ve always had a naughty streak. I grew up with two older brothers and always felt the need to impress them – to show them I could do anything a boy could. I think this upbringing instilled in me, a natural tendency to push boundaries. Although, even when I’m not trying, I am still always getting into trouble!

GK: Akina is also a fashion line. Do you try to keep the aesthetic of each output reasonably similar?

LL: To be honest I never really plan what I am going to do, it sort of evolves from an idea. I don’t follow trends or stick to the rules of mainstream fashion. Initially, I felt the pressure to succumb but I was very lucky to have an amazing mentor Peter Morrissey who advised me to follow my heart. He told me as long as I created from within, there will always be an audience to connect with my work. Years later, I see how right he is. Now I have a wonderful network of people who continually support what I do. I am thankful for them, every single day.

GK: Charlie’s Widow is a beautifully bound book. Bookbinding and publishing in general can be an expensive process. Was it a challenge to produce without compromising your vision?

LL: There were times in Akina’s history where amazing opportunities were offered to me on a silver platter. But it always seemed to come at the cost of my artistic integrity. Looking back, I am very glad I never gave in to temptation. The path I have chosen has been very difficult but the most important thing is, it is completely mine. When you build something from scratch, with your bare hands, no one can ever take it away from you.

In terms of self-publishing, releasing these small editions of my books is technically not viable. But I don’t think of it as a money making exercise. For me it is almost a cleansing, meditative process. It gives me a chance to thank all the people who have supported my work. It is a very special experience for me to share with them, my stories in these intricate little books I painstakingly make by hand.

GK: Akina has quite a following in Asia and particularly Japan. How have you made that transition?

LL: I draw a strong influence from the underground subcultures in Japan so it is no surprise the Japanese market feels a strong connection to my work. I was lucky enough to meet with influential Japanese figure Junko Wong when I was on my Churchill Fellowship. She was really excited by the Akina brand, stating my artworks and designs were of the most unique and beautiful she had come across in years. To have this kind of endorsement from someone in her position is very encouraging for me!

GK: Charlie’s Widow acts a sequel to the Teddy Bear’s Picnic, have you got plans to extend the series into a trilogy and beyond?

LL: Charlie’s Widow is my fifth book and a definite milestone. It has an almost magical vibe and energy that is just attracting the most amazing things into my life.

When I think back to my first book and all the events that led me to its sequel, it is like a giant rollercoaster ride. Now, an important cycle has been completed and my next big adventure is already beginning. I have no idea where this one will lead and I like that.

There is this special synergy when things run their natural course. Which is why I never force things – this sequel just kind of happened. Like everything else so far, it sort of just fell into place.

To secure a copy of Akina’s new book Charlie’s Widow visit Akina’s website.

Next story: Lines And Fades – Rudin Rashid