Serbian Fashion On the Rise

BELGRADE— Salma Hayek took her time looking though the racks at Supermarket, Belgrade’s first concept fashion store. The Mexican-born actress was in the Serbian capital in 2013 filming a thriller and on a free day she decided to peruse what the store, which focuses much of its collection on Serbian designers, had to offer. “She came in and asked if this was a spot for Serbian designers,” said Slavko Marković, the founder of Supermarket. “We told her it was and she started shopping. She was very studious, going from one piece to another, really examining the [collection.]” In the end, Ms Hayek purchased 10 items, including a pair of trousers by designer Marina Mićanović, two skirts by Super Rumenka by Dejana Stanojević and a dress by Jelena Stefanović.

It was a coup for the concept store, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this year and will be opening an outpost in Berlin’s Bikini Berlin Centre in the spring, not only because Ms. Hayek is a Hollywood A-lister but also because she knows a thing or two about fashion; she is married to François-Henri Pinault, the chairman of Kering, which owns high-end labels including Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga. “She is a superstar and her husband is very well-known in the fashion world, so it was a very big distinction for me that she would wear one of my pieces,” Stefanović said in a phone interview. “I was very, very pleased that someone like that would be fond of something from here. I am very proud to put ‘Made in Serbia’ on my labels.”

The fashion scene in Serbia generally, and Belgrade specifically, has been gaining more critical attention over the last several years thanks not only to the creation of the fashion spots like the Belgrade Design District and concept stores like Supermarket. Other famous clientele include Scottish actor Gerard Butler, Serbian model Nataša Vojnović and Serbian tennis player Viktor Troicki. The growing importance and relevance of Belgrade Fashion Week, which this spring will mark its 18th anniversary, has also increased international attention on Serbia’s emerging fashion industry.

The fashion week has already served as a springboard for many designers, including Dejan Despotović, Tatjana Tatalović, Ana Ljubinković, George Styler and Roksanda Ilinčić, Serbia’s most famous fashion export. A favourite of celebrities including Michelle Obama, Kate Middleton, Gwyneth Paltrow and Penelope Cruz, Ilinčić opened up her first flagship store in London’s Mayfair in the early part of 2014. Though Belgrade will likely never become an international fashion centre like Milan, London or New York, the Serbian capital is certainly becoming an important player in fashion not only in the Balkans, but across Eastern Europe.“All designers from the region want to come here to present their shows, so Belgrade is the place for new designers,” said Nenad Radujević, the founder of Belgrade Fashion Week and also the director of Serbia’s first private modelling agency, Click Fashion Studio. “So I think Belgrade will be a hub of fashion for the region for sure.”

The last two decades have not been easy politically, economically or culturally for Serbia. Spring 2014 marks the 15th anniversary of the NATO bombardment of Belgrade, which left the already-beleaguered country even more isolated than it had been after the series of wars that tore apart Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Viewed as the pariah state in Europe for years, Serbia has struggled to gain admission into the European Union, with membership talks beginning in earnest January 2014 after the country showed efforts to improve ties with its former province of Kosovo. Foreign investors have been deterred from investing because of the country’s political instability, which included the ousting of Slobodan Milošević in 2000 and the 2003 assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić. What’s more, the unemployment rate has hovered around 23 to 25 per cent over the last few years.

Roksanda_Illincic2Economic and political problems have also wreaked havoc on the country’s cultural scene. Due to a lack of funding, several museums in Belgrade, including the Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Museum, have had to temporarily close their doors until more money is made available for renovations, infrastructure and maintenance costs. Artists, musicians, filmmakers and designers have had to make due with very little money going towards culture. It is hoped that the newly appointed Minister of Culture Ivan Tasovac, a concert pianist and director of the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra, will be a positive step for culture in Serbia.

Despite all the obstacles that the industry faces, fashion has become something of a cultural bright spot for Serbia, with a number of designers, stylists, critics and managers who have helped grow and promote the scene, both in Serbia and internationally. Historically, Serbia in the 1970s and 1980s was not only home to Yugoslavia’s textile industry, but was also a fashion mecca for the region.“Yugoslavia, and specifically Belgrade, was really trendy,” said Dragan Mrdja, a New York-based shoe and clothing designer who left Belgrade 25 years ago. “It was very much a fashion-forward place. There was this amazing rock-and-roll scene and everyone was so full of imagination and very individual in expressing that.”

But as the country moved from socialism to capitalism and as the wars caused mass devastation across the region, the industries quickly died.“We have a strong history of textiles here and during the days of Yugoslavia, most of the factories were based in Serbia,” said Nenad Radujević. “We had big international companies like Pierre Cardin producing here. I do think it is possible to redevelop those things again and that there is opportunity for our industry here.” Radujević said he was inspired to start a fashion week after being invited to the Paris Fashion Week in 1995, when he spent two weeks talking to designers, fashion critics and stylists. “It was a great experience,” he said. “So we started it in 1996 [in Belgrade] and it was not really ready but we decided to start anyway and show that it was possible. We had three days of [catwalks], lectures and round tables and it was successful.”

Radujević stated that the Belgrade Fashion Week is the oldest fashion week in Eastern Europe and that people from across the region, including from Russia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, came to see how they were able to put a fashion week together. Ilinčić showed some of her student collections from London’s Central Saint Martin’s at Belgrade Fashion Week, investing the proceeds she made from modelling back into her production.

The spring/summer show in 1999 was cancelled because of the NATO bombings of Belgrade. But ever since, the fashion weeks held in spring and autumn have continued uninterrupted. “During those years, nothing was happening in Belgrade,” said Ana Ljubinković, sitting in a small smoky Belgrade café a few blocks from her colourful atelier in the Belgrade Design District. “All the galleries were shut down and it was really depressing. So that fact that there was a fashion week was spectacular. It was really dynamic and gave me a reason to work.” In the early days, Belgrade Fashion Week would show spring/summer collections in the spring, “which was pointless,” said Katarina Mootich, a London-based Serbian shoe designer. But over the years it became more professional, with designers not only becoming more clued-in on how the fashion industry worked, but also with more and more brands from abroad coming on to the Serbian market, designers realised they had to be more competitive to survive.

Nowadays, Belgrade Fashion Week not only draws fashion designers from the countries of the former Yugoslavia, but from countries like Germany and Greece as well. “Greek designers are going into new markets like the Middle East, Russia and Serbia because of the stagnant market at home,” said Dimi Gaidatzi, a fashion journalist who has written for the Financial Times and the (now-defunct) Greek Vogue. “Due to the proximity and the special relations between the two countries, with both a shared history and shared Orthodoxy, Greeks designers are definitely looking to show in Serbia.”

Radujević said that there had been plans back in 2008 to have a Balkan Fashion Week held in Serbia, where designers from the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Greece would present their works in one fashion showcase. But the financial crisis took its toll and the project was never able to get off the ground. However, Radujević and his colleagues in Zagreb and Ljubljana recently started a project called Zona 45. Its name comes from the fact that Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia all have the 45th parallel running through their countries. The project showcases at each city’s fashion week some of the best designers from the former Yugoslavia. “So we have tried to make it a nice platform for designers from our area,” Radujević said. Experts say the fashion week and those behind it have contributed greatly to not only promoting the fashion industry inside Serbia but also highlighting Serbian designers during fashion events in places like London and Paris.

GEORGE-STYLER+-PHOTO-DAMIAN-TRAWICKIFor example, last year, George Styler (whose real name is Đorđe Tamburić), presented his collection along with two other Belgrade-based designers, Ana Ljubinković and Ivana Pilja, at the small Serbian fashion showcase L’Impossible during London Fashion Week. Impressed by his collection, Styler was invited back to London Fashion Week in February 2014 to show his new collection at the Ones to Watch show. Styler said that one of the biggest problems on the Serbian fashion scene is that there are not enough good fashion critics and journalists who have a broader view of fashion. “During my last fashion show, one of the editors of a famous licensed magazine in Serbia sat in the front row and typed on his mobile the whole time,” Styler said. “He left my show after a few minutes and went to the VIP room and laughed at my creations on social networks. But a few weeks later, the same collection [was] selected by British fashion experts and editors for the Ones to Watch showcase. So many fashion designers are better appreciated in the world than in their own country.”

Another positive step for the Belgrade fashion scene was the setting up of the Belgrade Design District in November 2010. Located in the Čumićevo sokače, the first shopping mall in Belgrade that fell on hard times after the war, the Design District houses several small fashion and jewellery boutiques. “Our aim is to develop the mall in all ways of design and art,” said Emilija Petrović, a fashion designer who is the president of the Belgrade Design District Association. “All designers believe that the Belgrade Design District is important because [Serbs] and foreigners who visit Belgrade can meet with the Serbian fashion scene all in one place.”

Though there are cracks in the pavement and it seems slightly remote despite its location off of one of the main thoroughfares in Belgrade, the indoor/outdoor mall is a bustling place, a hip hub in the city. Stefan Siegel, the founder of the online fashion website Not Just a Label (NJAL), visited Belgrade in 2012 and said he was impressed by the mall. “It is a more accessible market and maybe less expensive than a place like Supermarket,” Siegel said in a phone interview.  “It is such a great idea to give central retail space to emerging designers.”

While there are a lot of positive signs on the Belgrade fashion scene, there is also a host of issues that designers, stylists and fashion experts point to as seriously hampering the scene from growing. One of the biggest issues is that because Serbia is not a member, of the European Union yet, it is difficult to get access to textiles and fabrics. “I think one of the most difficult things is trying to do a collection in a specific colour,” said Ljubinković. “For example, if I wanted to do a whole collection in mint, so wool, silk, cotton and so on, it would be impossible because simply if you find one texture in mint, you are lucky. When I travel I always have one bag for fabrics. It is not really a solution though, because I end up with only fabric for five outfits and I need material for way more than that.”

That limited access to fabrics means that collections are often very small, bespoke and made-to-order. Unlike in other fashion capitals, where the collections that are shown on the catwalks are already being manufactured, Serbian designers often wait to see what pieces garner interest during showcases like Belgrade Fashion Week and then produce accordingly. “With the economic problems comes the difficulty to work as you really want to,” said Dejan Despotović, who moved to the United States a year ago to work as a creative consultant for a New York-based designer. “There is no way to find fabrics in big quantities, so that makes us do smaller collections.” Stefanović, who is also a theatrical costume designer and counts actresses like Branka Katić as part of her clientele, agreed that necessity is the mother of invention when it comes to Serbian fashion. “Maybe because of a lack of materials and finances, we had to make something without anything,” she said. “So we started using our imagination much more than if we had everything we needed in front of us. Maybe it is a good thing that happened.”

Another problem is that of exporting collections abroad. Though most Belgrade-based designers have websites, selling their pieces online can prove next-to-impossible. Serbia has the PayPal system, but it only works in one direction, meaning that Serbs can purchase items from abroad, but people abroad cannot use PayPal to purchase things in Serbia.“When PayPal came to Serbia, I thought, ‘Yes, this will solve my problems,’” Ljubinković said. “But it is more like you can pay out, but you cannot get money with PayPal. It’s exhausting and if it is not one problem, it is another.” Therefore, many designers have taken to having Serbian friends who live in European Union countries registering their companies there and getting European tax IDs. The designers then physically carry their collections with them, on flights or by cars, into the EU.

Until recently, jewellery designers also faced an additional problem of exporting metals abroad. “There was still an embargo from the 1990s that forbid the export of metal, which was strictly linked to the arms industry but it had an effect on the jewellery industry as well,” said Siegel. “There was a problem where they were creating massive heavy rings and they could not use DHL or UPS to get the pieces out of the country. So when I was there, we had a meeting with the trade minister and we found a small loophole. Now, these designers can export rings under a certain type of legislation. So step by step, designers are able to access other markets as well.”

Despite all the issues that the Belgrade fashion scene faces, there is a strong belief that, in the end, the quality and imagination of designers will continue to propel the scene forward. “We produce good quality clothes and I think that is one of the greatest things about designers here,” Stefanović said. “They invest in the way clothes are made and they are not pieces you would throw away after a year. We are not based on trends. I hope that we will be seen as having many talented designers and more people will be interested in what we have to show the world.”

 This piece was published in New Eastern Europe’s April/June journal

Photos: 1) from Ana Ljubinkovic collection 2) Of Roksanda Ilincic 3) from George Styler collection