BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) – A fashion studio in Hungary is challenging the age-old stereotypes faced by the country’s Roma minority and asserting a place at the high culture table for the historically marginalized group.
Founded by sisters Erika and Helena Varga in 2010, the Romani Design fashion studio has the stated mission of using fashion and applied arts to build the socio-cultural prestige of the Roma community and re-establish Roma culture in a modern context.
“We were one of the first brands that actually gave the answer to how to reconstruct traditions (Rome) in a contemporary and modern way,” said Erika Varga, co-founder of Romani Design.
Roma are the largest minority in Hungary and represent up to 10% of the population in the central European country. Like their counterparts across Europe, Hungarian Roma are often subject to social and economic exclusion and face discrimination, segregation and poverty.
Present in Hungary since the 15th century, many of the Roma traditions are deeply rooted in the wider Hungarian culture. Yet many of their unique customs and occupations, as well as their language, Roma, are slowly dying out after centuries of official and unofficial marginalization.
Before starting Romani Design, the Varga sisters worked as jewelry creators and designers. But seeing that the social acceptance long sought by their community remained elusive, they worried that precious Roma traditions were lost and excluded from conceptions of what constitutes high culture.
“We wanted to raise awareness among the social majority, including the social elite,” said Erika. “This was important because it is the social elite that determines who is valuable and what position they can occupy in the social hierarchy. … We also wanted to communicate messages to our community that we must not give up our traditional values ”.
By reusing the floral motifs, 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 youngest of the sisters who oversees the design of their products, said many of the clothes and accessories are reflections on the lived experiences she had growing up Roma in Hungary.
“When I design, I absolutely live my gypsy identity and my roots are absolutely here in my heart and soul,” said Helena, using a term for Roma seen as pejorative in some places but commonly used by Roma in Hungary. “I’ve seen how they live (Roma communities), what they wear, what kind of houses they live in and what the interior design is like … These memories and experiences are completely ingrained in my mind when I design something.”
While some advocacy groups in Hungary push for Roma equality and social inclusion by representing elements of Roma culture such as folk music and dance, the Varga sisters say fashion is one of the most powerful means of bridging the gap between their culture and the rest of society.
“Fashion, the way we dress, the clothes we wear on our bodies can send a message so fast and so intense that it reaches its target audience very, very quickly,” said Helena. “It’s very effective.”
In the world of designer fashion, choosing to shop at Romani Design represents a conscious declaration of values, said Helena, and their customers usually buy their products with the intent of expressing their views on inclusion.
Most of the studio’s clients are “people who want more from fashion,” Erika said.
“They want to be able to express their personality as much as possible, shape their immediate environment and at the same time represent important values in their personal lives and in communities, such as the values of multiculturalism,” he said.
Six dresses by Romani Design are currently on display in an exhibition in the Museum of Applied Arts in the Hungarian capital, Budapest.
The rotating exhibition, “In Circulation”, allows artists to choose objects from the museum’s permanent collection and create their own works inspired by them. After being exhibited, the new contemporary works become part of the museum’s collection, ensuring that posterity can reflect on future generations.
Judit Horvath, the head of the museum’s contemporary design department, said the museum’s mission was to “thematize social problems” and that Romani Design’s appearance in the exhibition had done so successfully.
“In the context of this exhibition it was clear what social problem we want to thematize,” said Horvath. “What is this problem? The conflict, fear, discord and anger that often exist between Roma and non-Roma communities… things we wish there were not ”.