French designer puts ethnic Romania on catwalk

Isabelle Wesselingh

Sheepskin skirts and delicate bead embroidery shone on a Bucharest catwalk in a one-of-a-kind ethnic fashion show blending the skills of a French designer and centuries-old Romanian handicraft. The vibrant display was meant to counter some of the negative labels sticking to this country, often dismissed as a drab post-Communist outback, but in fact a rich melting pot of Latin, Balkan, Hungarian, Slav and Roma influences. Entitled "Prejudice", the women's clothing line created by Philippe Guilet, who previously worked with Karl Lagerfeld, Thierry Mugler and Jean-Paul Gaultier, is to be shown in Paris early next year. High heels were inspired by Romanian-born sculptor Constantin Brancusi's iconic work the "Endless Column", under delicate lace dresses or multicoloured woven skirts that recalled the traditional women's costumes of northern Romania. "Romania is often derided, but actually this country is quite the opposite of what people might think," said Guilet, who has spent the past four years here. The former research director for Jean-Paul Gaultier has launched a cultural project called "100%.RO" that aims to reinterpret Romanian's heritage. Far from the grey, downtrodden cliches, he chanced upon the ornate embroidery of artisans like Virginia Linul of the northern region Bistrita Nasaud, who have been handing down their skills from generation to generation, adorning clothes, belts or necklaces. "The beads we use for our traditional embroideries resemble a field full of flowers in springtime," Ana Bodescu, one of the women who worked on this collection, told AFP. In place of their traditional costumes, the women of the remote village of Salva this time embroidered a toreador-style vest, a long organdy black dress or a tweed-like suit with strings of beaded lace. Some of the items took many months and kilograms (pounds) of beads to create. Guilet's encounters with handcraftsmen and -women in their rural environment, where people still use 16th-century woodworking tools and bone needles for embroidering sheepskin, have inspired 34 creations, each carrying a Romanian woman's name. Some fifty local artisans contributed to the show, set against the elegant backdrop of the French embassy in Bucharest, decorated for the occasion with barren trees and haystacks as if caught in a snow storm. Many of the items bore the imprint of Constantin Juravle, an artisan in his 60s from Straja, a remote village in the northern Bucovina region, whose family has been working sheepskin for generations, following a technique jealously guarded secret. A glittery metal-laced dress created by a family of Roma goldsmiths whose metalworking traditions go back 300 years was a highlight of the collection. The project "is a combination of modernity and ancestral work," said Guilet, who made the point that Romania still boasts skills and know-how that designers now struggle to find in France. To illustrate this coming together of two worlds the artisans, most of whom have seldom left their home village, stepped out on the catwalk next to the models and some of Romania's best known designers at the end of the show. "Philippe has come from afar and appreciated the value of our skills. It is extraordinary that he has showcased our work," said Virginia Linul. "Nobody has done this for us before. Now people can see Romania's real image, one that you don't generally see and which is quite beautiful."