A new sensibility has recently been sweeping over the fashion industry, making its way up from street style blogs to lifestyle glossies, the accounts of Instagram influencers, and the runways of New York, London, and Paris.
Fashion designers hailing from Eastern Europe have been making a name for themselves while bringing a new sense of femininity to women’s wear. Labels such as Nanushka, Vika Gazinskaya, Magda Butrym, and Petar Petrov have slowly been establishing themselves as successful independent brands that meld artisanal traditions with the type of hard-edged femininity that is best envisioned and crafted East of Paris.
But rather than landing overnight sensations, building up gradually seems to be the way to go for many eastern European designers. Hungarian-born Sandra Sandor launched her brand Nanushka back in 2005. Now a popular label carried by e-commerce giants and high-end multi-brand stores, Nanushka’s humble beginnings were with dedicated local clients in Budapest, where the label still has its flagship store (the other one is in New York City.) Only after a successful ten-year run in Hungary did Sandor begin to devise a global strategy. In 2018, she joined New York Fashion Week’s schedule, winning critical acclaim and commercial success for her soft yet smart silhouettes, crafty details, and chic accessories. “I think the way and place I grew up [in] has greatly influenced my style and my journey as a designer,” she told Harper’s BAZAAR in 2018. “I try to create pieces that are effortless and can become wardrobe staples without being fussy.”
Born in Ukraine and raised in Bulgaria, Petar Petrov founded his namesake women’s wear brand in Vienna in 2009, after graduating from the University of Applied Arts Vienna, where he studied under Viktor & Rolf and Raf Simons. He funnels this formative blend of European cultural references into collections that offer effortless luxury through immaculately-tailored pieces in sumptuous wools and silks. But only after marking his label’s 10th anniversary did Petrov make his first foray onto the international stage with a runway show at London Fashion Week in February 2020. Wearing Petrov’s designs can feel empowering; the refined proportions, colors, and expressive details have a timeless elegance that’s rarely available in women’s wear. “My primary inspiration is, and has always been, real women,” he told British Vogue on the heels of his London debut.
Indeed, Eastern European designers’ heightened attention to form over frou-frou appears to have struck a chord with fashion-conscious women. As new markets opened up to the mid- and higher-end segments of the fashion industry in post-Soviet countries, sophisticated clients were eager to support local designers and move beyond the logo-ed sameness of mainstream luxury brands. Soon enough, international markets also followed suit. Moscow-based Vika Gazinskaya founded her eponymous label in 2006, after working for several years as a stylist and becoming a well-recognized street style icon. Her brand is associated with voluminous, joyful designs and whimsical prints and patterns, and is often praised by fashion editors for its uncompromisingly unique vision. Gazinskaya’s creations can be described as “demi-couture” for her use of luxurious materials and elaborate hand-worked details. She’s been showing her collections at Paris Fashion week since 2013, and her designs are fur-free and ethically produced.
A similar clarity of vision resonates throughout the collections of Warsaw-based designer Magda Butrym. In her namesake brand she infuses crisp, tailored pieces with more decorative elements, such as ruffles, pleats, and embroidery—all handcrafted by skilled Polish artisans. Founded in 2014, this comparatively young label enjoys an international following, and has recently added more footwear and accessories to its offerings. “I wanted to make every Monday morning a special occasion,” Butrym said of her approach to elevating wardrobe staples. And judging from the label’s celebrity fans, Butrym’s mix of elegance and refinement is filling a gap in the market.
It seems that it’s been up to Eastern European designers to show the fashion industry something they didn’t know they were missing. And it’s something that’s slowly being picked up by a global industry, as well. Despite the challenges of the pandemic restrictions, London’s Koibird concept store recently presented its “Eastern Bloc” edit. And that may just be the beginning.
Hili Perlson is an art critic, fashion writer and lecturer. Formerly an editor at artnet News, her writing also appeared in Artforum, The Financial Times, The New York Times, Vogue.com, Zoo Magazine and other publications.