A fashion studio in Hungary challenges age-old stereotypes facing the country’s Roma minority and claims a place at the high culture table for the historically marginalized group.
Founded by sisters Erika and Helena Varga in 2010, the fashion studio Romani Design has a declared mission to use fashion and the applied arts to enhance the socio-cultural prestige of the Roma community and reestablish Roma culture in a modern context.
âWe were one of the first brands to really give the answer on how to rebuild (Roma) traditions in a contemporary and modern way,â said Erika Varga, co-founder of Romani Design.
The Roma are the largest minority in Hungary and represent up to 10% of the population of this central European country. Like their counterparts across Europe, Roma in Hungary are often subject to social and economic exclusion and face discrimination, segregation and poverty.
Present in Hungary since the 15th century, many Roma traditions are deeply rooted in Hungarian culture at large. Yet many of their unique customs and occupations – as well as their language, Romani – are slowly disappearing after centuries of formal and informal marginalization.
Before launching Romani Design, the Varga sisters worked as jewelry designers. But seeing that the social acceptance long sought by their community had remained elusive, they feared that precious Roma traditions would be lost and excluded from conceptions of what constitutes high culture.
âWe wanted to educate the social majority, including the social elite,â Erika said. âIt was important because it’s the social elite that dictates who has value and what position they can occupy in the social hierarchy. â¦ We also wanted to communicate messages to our own community that we don’t have to give up our traditional values.
Reusing floral designs, colorful fabrics and depictions of the Virgin Mary prevalent in traditional Roma clothing and folklore, Romani Design creates modern clothing, jewelry and accessories that place Roma cultural traditions in a contemporary context.
Helena, the younger of the sisters who oversees their product design, said most of the dresses and accessories are reflections on the lived experiences she had growing up as a Roma in Hungary.
âWhen I design I absolutely live my own gypsy identity and my roots are absolutely there in my heart and soul,â said Helena, using a term for Roma considered derogatory in some places but commonly used by Roma in Hungary . âI saw how (Roma communities) live, what they wear, the types of houses they live in and what the interior decoration looks likeâ¦ These memories and experiences are completely ingrained in my mind when I design something. .
While some advocacy groups in Hungary advocate for Roma equality and social inclusion by representing elements of Roma culture like folk music and dance, the Varga sisters claim that fashion is one of the most important ways powerful to bridge the gap between their culture and the rest of society. .
âThe fashion, the way we dress, the clothes we wear on our body can send a message so fast and so intense that it reaches its target audience very, very quickly,â Helena said. âIt’s very effective.
In the world of designer fashion, choosing to shop at Romani Design represents a conscious statement of values, Helena said, and their customers typically purchase their products with the intention of expressing their perspective on inclusion.
Most of the studio’s clients are “people who want more fashion,” Erika said.
âThey want to be able to express their personality as much as possible, shape their immediate environment and at the same time represent important values ââin their personal and community life, such as the values ââof multiculturalism,â she said.
Six dresses by Romani Design are currently on display at an exhibition at the Museum of Applied Arts in the Hungarian capital, Budapest.
The rotating exhibition, âIn Circulationâ, invites artists to choose objects from the museum’s permanent collection and to create their own works inspired by them. After being exhibited, new contemporary works become part of the museum’s collection, securing them for posterity to be reflected on by generations to come.
Judit Horvath, head of the museum’s contemporary design department, said it was the museum’s mission to âthematize social issues,â and that Romani Design’s appearance in the exhibition had done so successfully.
âIn the context of this exhibit, it was clear what the social issue we want to thematize is,â Horvath said. “What is this problem?” The conflict, fear, discord and anger that often exist between Roma and non-Roma communitiesâ¦ things we wish we didn’t exist.
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