[November 1 2017]
I moved to Kosovo in the winter, when the capital, Prishtina, is drenched in a fog so thick I once attempted to wipe it away like I would a clouded mirror. It was on a foggy night when I first spotted Krenare “Kiki” Rugova’s warmly lit second floor atelier from the street. Three garments were hanging on display by a literal thread in a gigantic window. I entered Kiki’s studio, and she offered me tea and introduced her seamstress and a few girlfriends lounging on couches. Her son was seated beneath a row of orange and indigo dresses playing on an iPhone. Kiki told me stories about how she started out in fashion. She talked about her love of architecture, cinematography, and indigo blue, and how each of these passions influences her designs.
I became enthralled not only by Kiki’s designs—her use of bold colors, geometric patterns and contrasting fabrics—but also her story. Never so persistently have I convinced someone to collaborate with me on a photo project.
I photographed Kiki’s Fall/Winter 2016 collection at the Grand Hotel Prishtina, a socialist-era landmark unchanged by time and history. Dating back to the Former Yugoslavia, the Grand Hotel’s brutalist structure sits at the capital’s city center. Over the years, the hotel has been publicly owned, then occupied by the military, and finally privatized. It once boasted a bowling alley, catered to international politicians and housed journalists. Underneath the rust and dust, its 1970s interior remains mostly intact. In this way, the Grand Hotel is a reflection of Kosovo itself—a place eager to move forward but in many ways still stuck in the past.
While styling the models at the photo shoot, Kiki talked about growing up in a patriarchal society riddled with corruption, unemployment, antiquated education, and nearly impossible freedom of movement throughout the European Union (Kosovars need visas to travel to almost all EU countries). Despite these hurdles, Kiki studied fashion at Parsons School of Design in New York City and Paris before returning to Kosovo to contribute to her country’s post-war development. At 22 years old she opened her first atelier. And today Kiki is part of a wave of young, ambitious women leading Kosovo’s arts and culture scene.
“You don’t just see clothes in these photos, you see an entire culture—an entire city,” said Kiki. The four models are everyday Kosovar women—an actress, a fashion blogger, a project manager, and a costume design student. In order to overcome boredom and frustration with societal limitations (the female unemployment rate in Kosovo is a staggering 56.9%), they take refuge in fashion. “Their clothes are how they unify against isolationism and speak with the rest of the world. It is their retaliation,” Kiki pointed out.
In discussing the inspiration behind the garments, Kiki highlighted her use of hand-loomed textiles. She explained that, during the war in the 1990’s, her neighbors would often bury textiles to protect them. After these heirlooms were dug up, “they smelled of earth and war,” she said. Not unlike Hussein Chalayan’s use of previously buried fabrics for his 1993 collection The Tangent Flows. Kiki designed pieces using unearthed textiles. It was around this time that Kiki began to source (and co-design) hand-loomed fabric from a local woman—a third-generation loomer—to incorporate into modern fashion. And thus her Fall/Winter 2016 collection was born.
“If you use authentic, loomed textiles, it doesn’t mean that that your clothes will look ‘folkloric’,” Kiki explained. The fabric is comfortable, durable, and can withstand the test of time. Kiki is adamant that it is the perfect canvas, even if it is a challenge working with fabric measuring only 35cm wide because of the loom’s width (the average sized fabric used in the fashion industry typically measures around 140cm). Instead of retreating from this challenge, Kiki embraces it by applying pleating and paneling techniques.
Sourcing locally is a crucial aspect to Krenare Rugova’s brand, and her upcoming designs will not disappoint. Kiki is currently working on a Spring/Summer 2018 capsule collection and finalizing her Fall/Winter 2018 collection, for which she has commissioned a local artisan who produces traditional Kosovar bed comforters made of satin, wool and cotton. Kiki is transforming these comforters into winter coats. She once told me, “when you buy something from me, you buy a little piece of me.” Winter 2018 cannot come soon enough.
Photo and text by Brigitte Hamadey