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A New Fashion Hub? Eastern Europe

By Elizabeth Paton

Eszter Aron surrounded by her own label, at the Aeron showroom in Budapest, Hungary.
 
Akos Stiller
Eszter Aron surrounded by her own label, at the Aeron showroom in Budapest, Hungary.

In 2014, Magda Butrym, a young Warsaw-based stylist-turned-fashion designer, debuted a 35-piece collection of floral print dresses and blouses, finished with cutaway detailing and hints of leather and hand crochet.

“I had always wanted to launch a label that was distinctly and proudly Polish,” said the 32-year-old designer, who is largely self-taught. “I wanted to create clothes inspired by Polish craftsmanship, manufactured here in Poland, and to have my design studio here, too. But I also knew that was not going to be easy.”

She had worked in a number of small design businesses in Warsaw before starting the brand that bears her name. “There are no buyers here, there is no fashion week. No one is here to tell you how to do things, or where you need to get your foot in the door. I was taking a big risk.”

Historically, Poland, and other Eastern European countries like Hungary and Romania, have never been considered high fashion destinations. Behind the scenes, however, close ties with the industry have existed for decades, with factories across the region quietly producing garments and accessories for Western European luxury houses from Louis Vuitton to Hugo Boss.

Akos StillerArranged materials for Aeron, a fashion label created by Eszter Aron, seen at the brand's showroom in Budapest, Hungary.
Arranged materials for Aeron, a fashion label created by Eszter Aron, seen at the brand's showroom in Budapest, Hungary.

Over the last decade, some of that business has moved elsewhere as companies hunt for cheaper labor and lower production costs, leaving many skilled workers without jobs. Now, a new generation of homegrown luxury entrepreneurs is building businesses that take advantage of that craftsmanship.

In Hungary, the contemporary womenswear brand Aeron was founded in 2012 by Eszter Aron, its head designer, and three friends, with Vivien Laszloffy joining the business as chief executive in 2015. The label’s philosophy, Laszloffy said, is to be a brand “that people will recognise and know is from Budapest, in the same way people look at Acne and know it’s from Sweden.”

“People say it is against the odds to build a brand from here, rather than move to Paris or Milan, but actually we see it as an advantage,” she said. “Everyone has a vision in their minds of what a French or Italian brand looks like. But no one can imagine a brand from Budapest yet. And so we can seize that space and make it our own.”

As a privately owned company, sales figures are not released. But the two women said sales doubled annually in each of the last three years, with the majority of growth coming from an unexpected region: Asia.

After struggling to gain traction in the West, the pair looked eastward, where the brand’s minimalist aesthetic and techno-fabrics gained appreciation. More than 60 percent of its sales now come from the region: In Japan, Áeron is stocked in the major department store Isetan and in the fashion chain Tomorrowland, as well as in a string of boutiques across South Korea, mainland China and Hong Kong.

Akos StillerClothes from Aeron, a fashion label created by Eszter Aron, at the brand's showroom in Budapest.
Clothes from Aeron, a fashion label created by Eszter Aron, at the brand's showroom in Budapest.

Signing with Itochu, one of Japan’s largest trading companies, “catapulted us into a different league,” Laszloffy said. And the success abroad has boosted morale at home in four factories where the brand makes its leather, knitwear and ready-to-wear styles.

“The workers have always worked for foreign companies; now they are part of a Hungarian success story,” she said. “Furthermore, being able to drive an hour or two and see collections as they are produced and who produces them, rather than being a plane ride away, is a huge advantage to us as a small business. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Proximity to workshops and factories was what prompted Alexandru Adam, a Romanian footwear designer, to move to Bucharest after studying in London at Central St. Martins and the Royal College of Art and designing shoes for Vivienne Westwood. After introducing his own accessories and quality casual label, called Metis, in 2016, Adam initially intended to divide his time between the two cities. But after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, he was prompted to think again.

“The environment in the U.K. is becoming increasingly unstable and makes it hard to plan for the future,” Adam said from his atelier in Bucharest, where he is hiring craftsmen and women who once worked in factories that produced leather goods for Western luxury brands. He intends to adopt a see-now, buy-now approach to sales, taking orders that can be made and shipped from Romania in two to three weeks.

“Most of my fashion designer friends that have their own brands are considering alternative options for when the U.K. will be out of the EU,” he said. “Everyone produces outside of the U.K. and most of the materials come from the EU anyway, from suppliers in France, Belgium, Italy and Romania.

“Really, it just didn’t really makes financial sense for us to keep our company in London anymore,” he added.

Across the Black Sea from Romania lies Georgia, another former Soviet republic. The fashion and arts scene of Tbilisi, its capital city, has caught the fashion industry spotlight, in large part because of Demna Gvasalia, founder of the cult street-wear label Vetements and creative director of Balenciaga. Now emerging designers still based in the region are reaping the benefits, too.

N-Duo-Concept, the brainchild of Nina Tsilosani and Natuka Karkashadze, a former fashion writer for publications like Elle Ukraine and Harper’s Bazaar Kazakhstan, started life in 2014 as an e-commerce website championing lesser-known brands. A year later, they unveiled a clothing line under the same name and with a similarly offbeat aesthetic, produced in Tbilisi and now stocked in a number of foreign boutiques. They have a staff of 15 and are looking for outside investment.