Fashion designer, the first art director of Moda Polska, co-architect of the enterprise’s success. Jadwiga Grabowska was born in Warsaw in 1898, died in her hometown in 1988. She has always been interested in fashion, and engaged in it professionally out of necessity.
In her last interview, released posthumously in January 1989, Grabowska told Elżbieta Stępkowska for Kurier Polski:
I never thought I would need to make money. Things turned out differently – after the war, I had no means of subsistence and I had to support myself and my parents. I graduated from studies in journalism, but at the time a journalist had to pursue a chosen policy. I didn’t have political views. However I wondered how I can sell my skills. I knew five languages, thanks to my mom, who was always very elegant and has always instilled the sense of fashion in my sister and me. After the war, Warsaw was very destroyed, and women were left behind. Someone had to think about them. This is why I chose to work as a fashion designer.
Before the war, she was promising to become a lady of the manor. She was born in a wealthy family of Seydenbeutels. Her mother, Paulina Eber, was a sister of Edward Eber, an important pre-war architect, designer of luxurious tenement houses, the now non-existent Napoleon cinema in Three Crosses Square in Warsaw, and of the building which hosted the famous Adria restaurant. He worked on the latter together with Edward Seydenbeutel (better known as Sułkowski), Jadwiga’s brother, who specialised in interior design. Jadwiga’s father, Stanisław, was a wealthy estate developer. They lived at 63 Marszałkowska St in the Pod Syrenami house, which belonged to the family. As Jadwiga recalled in an interview, when she was little, next to her bedroom she had a ‘special walk-in closet with four large areas with perfect capacity.’ When she grew up, she worked as a translator (for instance of Galsworthy), she wrote articles for Kobieta w Świecie i w Domu, a Bluszcz supplement. She used to visit Paris. In an interview for Życie Warszawy in 1978, she recalled:
In 1924, I stayed in Paris for a little longer and I completed fashion design courses, however without the intention of taking it to the professional level.
She talked about this with a reporter from the Silesia-based Panorama in 1984:
Coco Chanel was the only fashion revolutionary of our century. We met on multiple occasions, I admired her talent and imagination, but most of all her courage to propose completely new ideas which at the end of the day are still relevant.
In the 20s, the type of a woman in a skirt suit which she promoted, freed from the corset, was a real revelation, but also a shock. When my mother first saw me in a Chanel outfit and a boyish haircut, she was terrified! At the time, it really was fashion of the future.
And then the war came. Seydenbeutels were sent to the ghetto, in 1942 they crossed to the Aryan side. They settled in Walecznych St under the names Apolonia and Stanisław. Jadwiga and her husband Tadeusz Grabowski probably still lived in Dąbrówki St (only fragments of this story survived after the war).
In 1945, Jadwiga Grabowska opened the Feniks boutique. She said in Panorama:
Warsaw was destroyed and at the time everything was opening for the first time. And everything had to be built anew. So I decided to help [a Polish woman] regain the position she used to have – and Polish women have always been considered well dressed and graceful. I thought that it was extremely important for Polish mental renaissance to develop a belief that despite all the atrocities that happened and everything that still felt difficult, we needed to live normally, to live life in its entirety, which also included fashion and beauty. So I opened a little store in Marszałkowska, which back then was still lined with one-story houses, right by the crossing with Koszykowa. These days we would call it a boutique. Initially, I had hardly anything in stock – just a few of my own dresses. But soon people started bringing things shipped from abroad, textiles dug out from closets, some buttons, shawls, scarves, bags, whatever they had. There were things to choose from. And I found pleasure in assisting people. Soon, it turned out that there was a demand not just for finished clothing. My customers started inquiring about making clothes to order and alterations. So I also opened a workshop and hired the best seamstresses I knew before the war and that I managed to track down. I called that workshop Feniks, as it came back to life in that poor, ash ridden, burnt down Warsaw.
Feniks becomes popular for leather cigarette cases with the inscription WARSAW LIVES AGAIN. It is widely popular, so in 1947, it falls victim of the so called battle over trade, in the process of which private business owners had their property taken away. Jadwiga Grabowska lost her store, but instead she was hired as an art director of Moda Damska – Cepelia’s predecessor. When Cepelia opened, she organised fashion shows and designed a collection for the International Fair in Leipzig. She became successful there, and later managed the Department of Fashion Shows, which with time (in 1957) was named EWA (‘eleganckie, wytworne, atrakcyjne’ which stands for ‘elegant, sophisticated, attractive’) and transformed into a posh store. In 1958, EWA merged with the Gallux-Hurt company, and so Moda Polska was born. Jadwiga Grabowska became the art director of the company.
Moda Polska was a superpower. It released special sample collections, which, following Parisian inspirations, showcased models trending in a given season. In theory, the idea was to enable producers to use quality samples. In reality, the purpose was to give the Polish People’s Republic something to be proud of. Moda Polska’s collections were presented at the Polish Days in Paris, during the opening of the flight connection between Warsaw and Cairo, they were sent on tours in the Soviet Union, and to the congresses of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, shown in Polish embassies during visits of the officials. They are the biggest attraction at the annual fair in Leipzig. Meanwhile, Jadwiga Grabowska becomes a legend. Teresa Kuczyńska wrote in Ty i Ja magazine in August 1968:
This is a person who became a legend. She has as many friends as she has enemies. (…) A woman of exceptional energy and élan, who dominates everything that surrounds her. I remember a return from researching collections in Paris: over the course of five days, she looked through a dozen collections, updated herself on the latest trends in leather and textiles in the leading boutiques, purchased several sewing patterns from Dior and others, and finally fabrics and accessories for Moda Polska. Having accomplished all of that (everything must be documented carefully in papers approved by the embassy in Paris), she boarded the plane and landed in Okęcie – full of energy. Even before leaving Paris, she sent a message to her husband to await her in Okęcie in an evening dress and with flowers, because they will be going straight from the airport to a friend’s name day party; of course everything went according to the plan.
Apart from traveling to Paris every season, she gathered a team of designers at Moda Polska (it included, among others, Kalina Paroll, Irena Biegańska, Magda Ignar, and Jerzy Antkowiak) and models (Moda Polska’s shows featured for instance Małgorzata Wróblewska-Blikle, Małgorzata Krzeszowska, Teresa Tuszyńska, Ewa Fichner, Elżbieta Grabacz, and Beata Opoczyńska). But most of all, while operating in the heart of the system, Moda Polska fell under the ministry, forming an institution which supposedly promoted the system, but at the same time it was a vent, if not of freedom, then at least of global trends. She forced the council clerks (and apparently, as a last resort, she throws an ashtray) to give her money for her trips to Paris, buying materials there, and for spectacular shows.
Moda Polska’s fashion shows were big events – they took place at the Palace of Culture, the Primate’s Palace – in other words, at prestigious locations and the elites compete for invitations. After all, it was the only opportunity to see how the world dressed – perhaps Moda Polska’s collections did not copy, but at the very least interpreted Parisian trends. The sample collections that it released are not made available for sale, but only served as templates.
Even though Grabowska was mainly a fan of Chanel and youth fashion of the 60s was not to her taste, she agreed to promoting modern designs. She was impressed by Pierre Cardin and André Courrèges, however apparently – and the reports of her collaborators are mixed on this – she couldn’t stand Yves Saint Laurent and his suits for women. In the summer of 1966, she spent a few weeks in London and came back impressed with the youth fashion. She said in Ty i Ja:
Foreigners are stunned when they discover the new England, which is a teen and is extremely liberated. The young do what they want and they are allowed to do anything. Boys wear curls, ruffles, make-up, while girls dress in mini-jupes and don’t put make up on. It is a beautiful sight.
She admired Mary Quant – a designer who invented mini dresses before the haute couture designers started to promote them on catwalks.
This is not a revolution against traditions, but simply doing away with old habits. The establishment tradition remains untouched. It is an outdated belief that a dress needs to be fitted, no, it doesn’t, it can be a short, it is also outdated to have contempt for artificial fabrics and think that they are worse than leather or cotton. They elevate plastic to an equal level, they like plastic jewellery and instinctively reject kitsch because artificial jewellery is tacky if it pretends to be something it isn’t. This is very typical. Against the lie.
Moda Polska’s collections from mid 60s looked like they were straight from Paris.
After a show in November 1966 which presented trends for spring and summer 1967, she was made retired and became substituted by Halina Kłobukowska.
In later years, she collaborated with, among others, Cora, Modny Strój, Ambasador, but without the same dedication she had for Moda Polska. She continued to follow the fashion and occasionally gave interviews. In them, she usually complained that ever since Coco Chanel and the invention of zip-fasteners shortly before, nothing new happens in fashion.
Nowadays, when agender is one of the leading trends in fashion, it can be safely assumed that Jadwiga Grabowska was ahead of her times. At least with her ideas. The times didn’t allow to put them into action.
In 2015, the W.A.B. publishing house released Jadwiga Grabowska’s biography Caryca polskiej mody, święci i grzesznicy (The Emperess of Polish Fashion, the Saints, and the Sinners) written by Marta Sztokfisz.
Author: Aleksandra Boćkowska, November 2017, transl. AM, December 2017