By NUNE ALAVERDYAN
It all started with a sketchbook–a sketchbook filled with one young girl’s aspirations to become a fashion designer. From this sketchbook came the inspiration to hold an annual fashion show honoring its owner, Nataline Sarkisyan. After seventeen-year-old Nataline tragically lost her life to leukemia in December of 2007, her family sought refuge in the dreams she had left behind. Upon discovering Nataline’s sketchbook and studying the pages of clothing she had designed, they knew exactly how to celebrate their beloved daughter’s memory. Three years later, the Sarkisyan family continues to honor Nataline’s dream by presenting Nataline’s Fashion Legacy every July to celebrate her birthday.
Held at Mercedes Benz of Calabasas, the third annual Nataline’s Fashion Legacy was a night of remembrance and entertainment. Nataline’s brother, Peter Sarkisyan, explains that he wanted the evening to unfold in such a way that attendees received more from it than a line of models walking down a runway. He wanted the audience to remember that they were there to celebrate Nataline. With this frame of thought, the Sarkisyans gathered sponsors and organized a silent auction, a raffle, and entertainment in the form of a DJ, rapper Super Sako, and even Laker girls who were available to take pictures with. Members of the Major League Soccer team Chivas also attended and contributed items to the silent auction. Before the fashion show began, a video honoring Nataline’s battle with cancer and her family’s struggle with Cigna Group Insurance was screened featuring Nataline’s benefit song, written and performed by Tony Barkodarian and Mike Chakrian. A seat was reserved in the audience bearing the label: Reserved for our Angel in Heaven, Happy Birthday Nataline. Each of the nearly 700 patrons present that evening was given a gift bag provided by FIDM, Nataline’s dream school, full of items donated by various sponsors. Any and all profit made from the evening went to The Nataline Sarkisyan Foundation, a non-profit organization which grants scholarships to students pursuing careers in fashion, culinary arts, and medicine, all fields that Nataline valued.
Nataline’s mother, Hilda Sarkisyan, recalls how difficult it was for her husband, her son, and herself to blow out the candles of Nataline’s 20th birthday cake with Nataline’s absence so heavy on their hearts. But she managed to stay strong. “Nataline was giving me the energy,” she says. Peter mentions how overwhelming it was for them to hear clips of Nataline’s funeral played to the audience while they waited backstage. He continues, “It makes you realize this is real. It’s something we have to live with.” Hilda admits that to this day, she cannot sit through the entirety of those funeral clips.
Of course the sketchbook plays a great role in Nataline’s Fashion Legacy. Each year, celebrity designer Pol Atteu sits down with Hilda and chooses one of Nataline’s designs to create for the fashion show finale as a gift to the Sarkisyans. The ultimate goal is to one day hold a fashion show featuring only dresses designed by Nataline. This year, as they were flipping through the sketchbook, Hilda noticed glitter reflecting off of one of the pages. Surprised as to how glitter managed to get onto the pages of a sealed and stored sketchbook, Hilda decided that the dress created that year should without a doubt be the one on the glittery page. Designers Anooshka Zakarian, Ani Apparel, Arbi Avanessian, Sarin Minassian, and Maryam Gueramian also contributed to the show.
A most unexpected guest present that evening was Wendell Potter, former Vice-President of Communications at Cigna and the very man the Sarkisyans dealt with in their fight to gain approval for a transplant that may have saved Nataline’s life. Hilda introduced Potter to an apprehensive audience, but once they saw that she was inviting him to join her on stage with open arms and a smile, the audience welcomed Potter warmly. He admitted to his mistake of working for a company that denies people the chance to live and proudly announced that he had quit his job at Cigna two years before because of the realization Nataline’s story had given him. While on stage, he pledged to help the Sarkisyans reach their goal of passing laws under Nataline’s name to prohibit insurance companies from being allowed to deny patients access to medical procedures that could be life-saving.
When asked about this goal, Hilda confidently claims, “Our story has impacted a lot of people, and it is going to impact many more.” Her perseverance has led to national acknowledgement and support for the cause. The Fashion Legacy keeps her family strong and helps them mourn the loss of Nataline. “Without it, we’d go crazy,” she says. Nataline’s passing has changed her entire family’s perception of life. Peter complains of people who rant about the petty problems in life that he no longer considers actual grievances. Unlike everything else in life, he says, “A sister can’t be replaced.”