A fashion company in Hungary wants to challenge centuries-old ideas about the country’s Roma minority. Another goal of the company, Romani Design, is to make a place in the world of high fashion for this historically marginalized group.
In 2010 when Erika and Helena Varga established Romani Design, they were clear about their goals. They want to use fashion and other arts to build social and cultural standing of the Roma community. They also want to re-establish Roma culture in modern terms.
The two sisters spoke with the Associated Press in Hungary.
“We were one of the first brands that actually gave the answer to how to rebuild (Roma) traditions in a contemporary, modern way,” said Erika Varga, co-founder of Romani Design.
The Roma are Hungary’s largest minority. They represent as much as 10 percent of the population in the Central European country. Like other Roma throughout Europe, Hungary’s Roma often do not have the same social and economic opportunities as others. They also face discrimination, segregation, and poverty.
Present in Hungary since the 15th century, many Roma traditions run deep in the larger Hungarian culture. Yet many of their customs, occupations, and language have been slowly dying due to centuries of official and unofficial marginalization.
Before starting Romani Design, the Varga sisters worked as jewelry makers and designers. But they said they still did not feel accepted into the larger society. Their work was not being accepted in the world of high culture. They also worried that valuable Roma traditions were being lost.
Erika Varga said they want the social majority to get used to Roma as being part of the community and part of high culture. She said this was important because those of high social ranking in Hungary often decide, in her words, “who is valuable and what position they can occupy in the social” structure.
Erika added: “We also wanted to communicate messages to our own community that we don’t have to give up our traditional values.”
Romani Design creates clothing, jewelry, and accessories that show Roma culture in a modern way. They use many flowers and colors. And images of the Virgin Mary are common in traditional Roma clothing and old stories.
Helena Varga oversees the design of their products. She said many of the dresses and accessories — like jewelry, bags, and belts – show their lived experiences growing up Roma in Hungary.
“When I design, I absolutely live my own Gypsy identity, and my roots are absolutely here in my heart and soul,” she said.
The term “Gypsy” for the Roma is seen as an insult in some places. However, it is commonly used by Roma in Hungary as well as Roma living in other places.
“I’ve seen how (Roma communities) live, what they wear, what kinds of houses they live in…” Helena thinks of these memories and experiences when she designs something.
Some human rights groups in Hungary push for the acceptance of Roma music and dance. However, the Varga sisters say that fashion is one of the most powerful means of changing the relationship 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,” Helena said. “It’s very effective.”
Most of the people who buy from Romani Designs are “people who want more from fashion,” Erika said. She explained they want to “represent values that are important in their personal lives and communities, such as the values of multiculturalism.”
Six dresses by Romani Design are on display at an exhibition in the Museum of Applied Arts in Hungary’s capital, Budapest. After being displayed, the new contemporary works will become part of the museum’s permanent collection. This will secure their place for others to see and consider for generations to come.
Judit Horvath is the head of the museum’s contemporary design department. She says it is the mission of the museum to give shape and form to social problems. The Romani Design’s appearance in the exhibition, she said, has done so successfully.
Horvath said that in the exhibit the social problems that the museum wants to show are clear. ”What is this problem? The conflict, fear, discord and anger that often exists between Roma and non-Roma communities,” she said, “…things that we wish were not there.”
I’m Caty Weaver.
Justin Spike reported this story for the Associated Press. Anna Matteo adapted it for VOA Learning English. Susan Shand was the editor.
Words in This Story
challenge – v. to say or show that (something) may not be true, correct, or legal
marginalize – v. to put or keep (someone) in a powerless or unimportant position within a society or group
brand – n. a category of products that are all made by a particular company and all have a particular name
contemporary – adj. living or occurring at the same period of time
segregation – n. the practice or policy of separating a race, class, or group from the rest of society
accessory – n. an object or device not necessary in itself but adding to the beauty or usefulness of something else
exhibition – n. an event at which objects (such as works of art) are put out in a public space for people to look at : a public show of something