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November 29, 2014
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Sanja Grcic gives an interview in her studio. Source: elle.si.
Sanja Grcic FIRMA Slovenia NYC
FIRMA by Sanja Grcic. Source: facebook.com.

In a country obsessed with marketing terminology, defining the term "sustainable fashion" is tricky. Americans are regularly bombarded with the latest "green" products that are meant to make us feel that we're contributing to making the world a better place - or at least slightly easing our purchasing guilt.

What makes one product or label more sustainable than another is highly subjective, especially in an industry such as fashion which traditionally revolves around the idea of trends. Meeting Sanja Grcic, founder of the label FIRMA, provided a refreshing break. The Slovenian designer recently brought FIRMA's A/W 2013 Inside Straight collection to New York City and shows no pretense when it comes to her fashion line. She prefers to keep the story behind her work simple and personal.

Grcic has come a long way since starting FIRMA with two other people in early 2000. The highly conceptual label originally produced urban, street wear styles that prompted questions about the systems of control that we live under. For instance, the Goodbye Communism? collection played with the recycled memories of youth labour brigades, flags and the Berlin Wall. As the label evolved, Grcic's partners eventually moved to England and Barcelona, leaving her to run the company on her own.

...these [Kekec] hats, they are hand made. Some body made them from the wool. Everything is from the beginning. Probably [in America] you would call them ethical and sustainable but we just call them hats.

Grcic continues to offer social commentary through her work, although she has become more design-oriented. She loves to appropriate cultural objects with meanings that have changed over time and re-purposes them for her collections. For instance, during our meeting and shoot, Grcic chose a traditional hat to accessorise one of the outfits worn by a young Slovenian model. Inside Straight features a set of traditional Kekec hats named after the national folklore character, Kekec, who was popular in Slovenia the early 20th century. When handed the hat, the model smirked, knowing the story behind it. Originally white and a symbol of wealth for urban ladies in the 19th century, the hats took on a provincial and nationalist meaning with the breaking of the Eastern Block. Grcic brings the hats to the forefront in her latest collection, inviting contemporary society to re-examine their meaning.

It is narratives and folklore such as this that come to light through Grcic's collection rather than stories about the makers or materials. She explains, "We don't have such an industry to just sell materials somewhere and wait for dresses to come. Everything is made in small series. We don't have the same politics about ecological and sustainable as you have here. For example, these [Kekec] hats, they are hand made. Some body made them from the wool. Everything is from the beginning. Probably here you would call them ethical and sustainable but we just call them hats."

Unlike America, Slovenia has no formal fashion industry. Fashion expert Sasa J. Machtig expressed the problem, "[Young fashion designers] need to be supported, to supplement what they offer, with a knowledge of marketing, management, economics and entrepreneurial spirit. The sort of support that drove Spanish Zara, or the Norwegian Oleana to their different stories of success."

While the country hosts its own fashion week, Philips Fashion Week, media far outnumber buyers in the audience. Designers are left to their own devices to create the infrastructure to support their practice domestically, build relationships within a somewhat underground fashion community and reach out to potential markets abroad.

Sanja Grcic FIRMA Slovenia NYC
Sanja Grcic presents her NYC pop-up shop.
Photograph by Amanda Coen.

In an effort to create a collaborative, supportive community, Grcic and several other designers established the Society for Textile and Fashion Design (SOTO) in 2004. In 2005, they pooled 19 Slovenian fashion designers to present the travelling exhibition Any Sharp Objects? in Slovenia, the United States, Austria, Luxembourg and the Netherlands over the course of four years. Using the suitcase as the basis for a larger conversation, the exhibition explored the relationship between individuals and the items they chose to include in their suitcase, and what that selection might disclose about how personal ethics can be expressed through fashion. While each designer presented a unique set of fashion designs to display, a few common underlying themes emerged through their decisions - edginess, high added value, and hand and individual treatment in all phases of production.

Unlike Any Sharp Objects?, many marketing schemes use set terminology to create a pre-packaged relationship to products that is easily accessible to consumers and sometimes more powerful than the attraction to the product itself. In the exhibition, the opposite occurs. Each individual is asked to look at the objects they made by hand and to think about why it is important and what it means to them. Perhaps working in an environment with limited options and less emphasis on selling fashion allows room for other types of conversations to evolve.

Central and Eastern Europe celebrate a proud tradition of workmanship that still rings true. Designers don't have to go far to find skilled seamstresses, patternmakers and tailors to help realise their designs. Many are often personal acquaintances or neighbours with whom meals are shared and folklore is passed down from generation to generation.

For instance, food. For me, organic milk means that I know the cow. That I really know the cow. That I know her name. That's organic milk for us.

In a country such as Slovenia where local production is the norm and materials are limited to what can be found in Slovenia or Italy, there is no need to boast about one's work process or production methods. The process is an inherent result of the system and the accepted norm. There is no added value in spending time and resources to aggrandise a simple story to try to get an edge over others, at least not domestically.

Since arriving in New York in January, Grcic has been overwhelmed with questions about her collection. She was invited to occupy the RSPOP pop-up at the Roger Smith Hotel for the month of January and has recently finished a week-long stint showcasing her work at the Chelsea Market. As the American press grapple to categorise her work and explain her collection in more marketable terms, the question of how meaningful such categories are outside of context and across borders becomes evident.

Grcic talks of one such difference, "For instance, food. For me, organic milk means that I know the cow. That I really know the cow. That I know her name. That's organic milk for us. It's a completely different process." No need to muddle objects with unnecessary semantics. Instead, perhaps deeper meanings can be explored and evolve on their own over time.

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