Roma designer brings color and cultural flair to the runway
Ironically, the fashion industry likes homogeneity. It thrives in conditions where all of the players are known and can be easily identified, manipulated and pigeonholed. And the Czech Republic’s world of haute couture – which, like the society itself, is overwhelmingly Caucasian – is no different. So how, then, did a young Roma couturier make it to one of the largest and most prestigious platforms for up-and-coming designers, Shooting Fashion Stars 2013, in a country known around the world for its anti-Roma prejudice?
One way, certainly, is with talent, which 27-year-old Pavel Berky possesses in abundance. The Slovak designer proved that by winning both the Top Style Designer 2012 and the Fashion Design Studio awards at the Styl-Kabo International Trade Fair in Brno early last year.
Nevertheless, it is notoriously difficult for an ambitious Roma to succeed in the Czech Republic or Slovakia, because the obstacles are immense. Both countries place large numbers of Roma children in de facto segregated “special” schools on the now disproved pretext that they are best suited for children from a socially challenged background.
According to Amnesty International, “Romani children in Slovakia are being denied the right to a proper education by a system that routinely discriminates against them. … Romani children often receive a second-rate education and have a very limited chance of progressing beyond compulsory schooling.”
And a recent report by the United Nations Development Program found that nearly two of three Roma Slovak children attend ethnically segregated special schools.
“Of course, of course, there are problems,” says Berky, visibly controlling his emotions. “I know a lot or Romani people living in the Czech Republic, and the problems are huge. But, for me personally, I really don’t recognize these problems a lot because I don’t look like your [stereotypical] ethnic Roma.”
Berky’s parents, descendants of the Sinti ethnic group of Roma people, raised their children to speak Slovak and, as he says, they provided a secure and loving home for him and his sister, Renata.
But it is clear Berky does not enjoy speaking about the subject and prefers to make his statements not with words but with silks, intricate weaves and eye-popping color.
Berky’s schooling began at the design and arts high school in Trenčín, Slovakia, where he studied French, which he speaks fluently, and acquired skills that led him to be accepted by the Academy of Arts, Architecture, and Design (VŠUP) in Prague. Berky soon scored his first success, designing African brocades for Veba, a highly respected textile manufacturer. Then came his double triumph at the Styl-Kabo fair with his androgynous collection “XY.”
As a result, Berky became more confident – and therefore more forthcoming – in his work, and was given a prestigious stage by the foundation Shooting Fashion Stars, produced by Stars Communications and Sara Events. He used the opportunity to unveil both a new collection and more of himself.
The title of the collection he presented April 11, at the Masarykovo train station, was “Coming Out,” which, he says, was intended to celebrate “my Romani culture and where I am from … and my [sexual] orientation that is different from other people.”
Berky says he had planned on marrying European modernity with Roma details to create a melting pot of stunning visual pieces.
“[I wanted people to see] that my culture is very rich and can give to other people,” he explains with such passionate conviction that he leaves the impression that he is on a mission to change the perceived stereotype of an entire ethnic population.
As in all other contexts, it is best to leave one’s own stereotypical assumptions by the wayside when regarding Berky’s designs – in other words, don’t expect brightly colored maxi-skirts with Lurex threads, embroidered peasant tops or flamboyant scarves.
“Typical Romani dress [is composed of] things that you would not, or could not, connect together, and sometimes it’s a lot of [different] materials and patterns,” Berky explains. “So I wanted to try to connect them so that you would think, ‘This is something different.’ “
Berky’s collection presented an explosion of fuchsia, pinks, navy and sultry lipstick reds in linen, silk organza, wool/silk blends and fine crepe wools. Playing with fabrics, he reversed a red wool/silk-blended blazer so that the lapels sparkled on the runway. Interior linings of jackets, coats, and blouses in bright floral patterns recalled traditional Roma folk costumes found throughout Eastern Europe.
His favorite design in the collection was one that is perhaps the most sentimental. “I love this piece because of my mom,” Berky says of a beautifully constructed mock-turtleneck, sleeveless dress knitted by hand by his mother, Eva. “I was trying [to sew it] it but it never worked, and that’s why my mom stepped in,” he laughs.
As with much of Roma culture, Berky’s Shooting Fashion Stars debut was a family affair. His sister, who is majoring in Roma studies at Charles University, and the designer’s partner were also on hand for moral support.
“It was the first time that [my sister] had seen the collection and she was very moved,” he says. “She even cried.”
He says, with evident pleasure, that his parents are proud of both their children. “My sister and I are the first to go to university,” he says, smiling – a smile that leaves as much of an impression as his delightful collection.
A few of Berky’s piece:
*This article first appeared in The Prague Post on Wednesday, April 15, 2013 *