In an Emerging Fashion Capital, Romanian Designers Bring Their Heritage Home

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Henri Matisse’s La Blouse Roumaine at Paris’ Centre Pompidou – courtesy of the
Romanian Embassy in Paris

When Henri Matisse painted “La Blouse Roumaine” in 1940, he could not have known that it would become the impetus of a fashion revolution. Originally inspired by the Romanian luminaries in the artist’s circle, the painting continues to foster global connections. The billowing form and bold brushstrokes in Matisse’s iteration of the traditional Romanian garment caught the eye of the legendary Yves Saint Laurent and went on to take the fashion world by storm. Yet, while the blouse’s international rise to fame initially sprung from Parisian origins, an ascendant generation of Romanian designers is now reclaiming its heritage.

The ie (pronounced ee-eh) blouse is heavily steeped in Romanian tradition. It is reserved for women and girls, and each element of the garment holds cultural significance. The embroidered motifs depict flora and fauna from the wearer’s region or the craftsman. Younger girls wear brightly coloured versions with floral patterns, while women switch a muted monochrome palette after having children. Although it was once ubiquitous for centuries, the ie no longer holds the place it once did. Today, the Romanian diaspora celebrates the ie and other age-old Romanian traditions on a single holiday each year.

Thanks to Saint Laurent’s discovery of Matisse’s masterpiece, the ie has made its way back into the global vernacular. His 1981 Autumn/Winter show featured his take on the blouse and a version of the Romanian fota skirt across what became known as his Romanian collection. Saint Laurent’s appropriation of the ie, since hailed as one of his most iconic creations, has inspired a host of international big label designers. The likes of Tom Ford, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Pucci have taken to incorporating elements of Romanian folk culture for a touch of exoticism over the years. But although Romania’s bohemian folk aesthetic may fall in and out of favour with the whimsical, cyclical nature of contemporary fashion trends, the authenticity of its origins have seen a new wave of Romanian designers wearing their country’s cultural references very much on their sleeves.

One of Romania’s recent stars is Valentina Vidrascu, who was born in Transnistria and has a boutique in Bucharest. Vidrascu launched her label in 1999, and her vivid and tactile creations have won over fans across the world. For Vidrascu, reinterpreting traditional Romanian garments goes beyond the aesthetic appeal. When Romania was transitioning to capitalism during the late 20th century, folk culture was targeted by communist propaganda, and many Romanians broke that connection with the past. “I’ve always considered myself a Romanian and taking inspiration from Romanian folk was my way to show resistance and be independent,” Vidrascu explains. “My challenge was to re-contextualize folk art in a contemporary way. It took some time for people to understand what I was doing but my work became more visible and valued when I opened a showroom in Bucharest.” And it seems to be working. The “Queen Mary” ie blouse, named after the 20th-century monarch who championed traditional Romanian costume on overseas trips, has proven to be one of the designer’s most popular pieces.

Valentina Vidrascu’s latest collection

At her small studio in Chișinău in the Moldavian Republic, her team use high-end fabrics and digital prints in conjunction with traditional techniques. “The main cuts respect the traditional patterns, but we always introduce modern elements that are catchy for today’s consumer,” says Vidrascu. “Romania is generally known through lots of clichés—Transylvania, poverty, Ceaușescu’s building in Bucharest—but this country has just as many layers of deep culture as any other. Romanian folk is complex, and includes ceramics, wooden sculpture, and inspirational music.”

Vidrascu is one of a coterie of Romanian designers asserting the country’s fashion credentials overseas. Across the spectrum from heritage to high-fashion, the country has seen its stock soar with global online retailers allowing consumers access to Romania’s rich pool of vibrant fashion talent, centred in Bucharest. Among some of the city’s most famous names are Maria Lucia Hohan, who creates feminine sculptural dresses and sells her celebrity-endorsed collections via Matches Fashion and Farfetch, Adrian Oianu, who incorporates elements of contemporary art to create his outward-looking work, and Andreea Constantin, a rising star who just presented at Paris Fashion Week.

Their growing statuses have bolstered Bucharest’s moves towards repositioning itself as a fashion capital. The city hosts a fashion week that has grown year on year and acts as a platform for Romania’s burgeoning talent. Sleek streets in central Bucharest, including Calea Victoriei and Calea Dorobantilor, boast all the big-hitting global brands of a major city, but the Romanian capital also excels when it comes to high-end concept stores. Entrance launched in 2009 to capture a growing appetite for avant-garde fashion, and among the many international brands stocked there are a healthy selection of local labels. Molecule F goes one step further by offering a curation of Romanian designers in an edit-store format that has breathed new life into the city’s fashion scene.

According to Rhea Costa founder Andreea Constantin, “I think the fashion industry has gained in diversity and quality in recent years, and I trust that it is only the beginning.” Vidrascu agrees, pointing to a “creative effervescence” among the city’s young designers whose successful small businesses and studios point to a promising future. Although it may lie far from the established fashion capitals, Romania has an aesthetic all of its own when it comes to contemporary style. A re-connection with its roots has helped give the country an identity that hits the right note with both traditionalists and trend-watchers who view Bucharest as an emerging fashion capital. Matisse’s interpretation of Romanian folk culture may have helped draw attention to the nation’s rich heritage, but it’s the current crop of talented designers who look set to write the next chapter of Romania’s fashion renaissance.

Further your knowledge of the Romanian fashion scene with a behind-the-scenes view of Dan Coma & Doina Levintza’s fabulous atelier with InterContinental Bucharest’s Insider Experience.

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