Dressing the Stars: An Interview With Gosia Baczyńska
#lifestyle & opinion
default, Gosia Baczyńska, photo: Zuza Krajewska, center, Gosia Baczyńska, fot. Zuza Krajewska
Gosia Baczyńska, the celebrated Polish fashion designer, has dressed celebrities, royalty and even politicians. Baczyńska has gone from sewing in a workshop seven days a week to presenting at Paris Fashion Week, all thanks to her attention to craft, construction and quality. These defining traits and the ability to speak her mind are what keep her work at the forefront of everyone's mind, as we found out in person.
Natalia Vitvitskaya: What was the beginning like?
Gosia Baczyńska: I was born at a time when there was nothing in the stores. I wanted to dress nice, so I taught myself to sew. And I started messing around. But before anything else I’m an artist, I’ve always created, always built a world around myself. Different forms of art have fascinated me since I was a child. Painting, sculpting, singing, furniture design and interior design. I drew, read, painted and sang. I attended an arts high school in a big city. I was interested in art, but at the same time I was defining myself, expressing my freedom and otherness, manifesting life the way young people do, seeking out my other needs, the need for something greater, the need to create myself as well. The whole time I was involved in fashion, but I mostly sewed for myself. Later, for my family, sister, mother.
I had a boundless imagination, so I could imagine many things. I learned through trial and error, and also trying out different sewing patterns from Burda Style magazine – which was another method of trial and error. Some things worked, some didn’t. I got angry, because I didn’t know certain rules, that one line doesn’t always have to match the other, but these were tailoring tricks I didn’t know about, so I would get angry that the patterns were wrong.
After high school, I got into the Academy of Fine Arts, and, at the same time, worked as a costume designer for the theatre and film industries. At the beginning of the 1990s, in my second or third year of university, I worked with a British production company. They filmed Frankenstein: The True Story here in Poland. The film was full of stars, Oscar winners. It was a giant British production. I worked as a costumer’s assistant. On the last night, after the wrap party, I thought to myself: ‘Gosh, I have money, I had to communicate with the British crew without speaking English, so I’ll go out to London for three months to a language school and learn English’. I was on dean’s leave at the time. So I left. And that was really a time when nobody went abroad. And I didn’t really know what London was, I didn’t know anyone there. I just took a shot in the dark. I went by bus, because I couldn’t afford the plane. I didn’t know what stop to get off at, I didn’t know anything.
The first weeks were complicated, but the trip taught me a lot, made me tougher. Through a miracle I found the language school, attended by mostly Brazilians, a few Poles, one Italian, one Irishman. A few Polish women worked there. They knew I could sew and they brought me an advertisement seeking someone with sewing abilities. I was already out of money and had nothing to live off of. So I ended up at a small workshop run by a Polish woman, where British designers sewed small collections, just a few pieces of each. They were sold at places like Harrods or Liberty. I learned a lot there, although it was very hard work, I earned little and worked a lot – seven days a week. In that same workshop Alexander McQueen – still as a student, most likely – sewed one of his first jackets, although we missed each other.
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NW: How did you survive that?
GB: It was like an imperative. Of course I didn’t have to keep suffering there, I could return to Poland at any moment, but at the same time I knew I had three more months, because I had extended my dean’s leave. I was there close to two years. It was very, very hard, because I wasn’t a qualified seamstress. I knew how to sew, but I was slower than the rest. I simply knew that I had to use this time as best as I could. But I also knew that when I returned to Poland I had to complete my studies first, earn some diplomas. I already knew I would work in fashion, but I didn’t want it to be my hobby. After defending my master’s thesis, I registered a firm, renting a basement near my house without touring it. I knew it had to be near my house because I work at night. And those were my beginnings.
NW: How do you combine your artistic work, fashion design, art with more earthly concerns, like running a fashion house?
GB: I have to deal with it. It leaves very little time for creativity.
NW: How did you create your sense of style and taste? Did your stay in London affect it?
GB: Definitely. My aesthetic tastes changed a lot while I was there. But I’m not talking about just fashion. The first time I came to London I dressed up to the nines. I remember writing in my diary – which I wrote in for all of two days – everything that shocked me: I noticed that everyone wears black boots. I won’t even mention that I came there in October, in a coat with a fur collar, and everyone there had bare legs, shorts, short sleeves. I had to teach myself the necessary distance from fashion, that nonchalance. We were from the part of Europe that could only recently look at the rest of the world. So I had to learn everything by watching. I learned the most in the last two or three months.
It was difficult and I reached a point where I couldn’t take it. I was so happy that I’d managed to sew ten dresses so quickly, only to find out I had sewn one side on backwards. My misfortunes had reached their peak, I decided I’m returning to Poland, I can’t hack it anymore, even though I had three or four months left of my leave. My mom was waiting for me, cooking up a meal, pancakes frying. And the placement agency had a big problem. I received a proposition from them which was maybe the best thing that could have happened. I called my mom: ‘I’m not coming’. For four months I cleaned. And that was the best fashion lesson I received.
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I cleaned these beautiful multi-floor British houses, along the Thames. Like in the film The Hours. I learned about a materialist culture that didn’t exist in our post-communist countries. In our country, all old things were rubbish, worthless – communism weeded them out. Of course some homes tended their traditions, but most Poles lived in small flats with wall units. Everything old seemed unattractive. And I worked in these homes where hundred year olds rugs lay on the floor, with old curtains coming unravelled, old crystals, two-hundred-year-old tables. It was like entering into Queen Victoria’s world. That was a real awakening for me. In one home, a priceless Japanese kimono lay in the cabinet. I liked to sweep by that cabinet. I wouldn’t have the ability to see these kinds of things [in Poland], not during that time anyway. Besides, I didn’t have the proper awareness. Many years have passed since ’92, but you can imagine – just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A new world! I ate up that culture.
NW: You returned to Poland a changed woman. What did you look like?
GB: Completely different. I was no longer dressed up and made up. Simply jeans, a shirt and a sweater. I remember when I returned to school I looked great; I lost a lot of weight. Cleaning was like an intensive exercise. I returned to school without a drop of makeup – and I looked fresh and great.
NW: Do you remember your first clothing collection?
GB: I don’t like talking about my first collections. I can talk about my first show I put on. It took me a long time to make it to Warsaw, because I lived in Wrocław. I read the magazines and thought: ‘Gosh, I have to get there somehow’. I tried different methods, but we don’t have enough time to go through my whole life. In any case, I made it somehow. The first season, the second, and then my clothes started showing up in the media, I was invited to shows promoting different brands. I remember one of the first shows. It was between 1999 and 2000 for Moët & Chandon in Łazienki Park at the Old Orangery – A Woman on the Brink of a New Age. Three or four designers took part with a few pieces of clothing each.
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I also took part in shows in Warsaw. I would even make the drive up to three times a week. I began to wonder if I had to move here, but I rebelled against the idea, wondering why everything had to happen in Warsaw. It was difficult and took a lot of courage to move to the capitol. But fate helped me along. I felt that I had to put on my own show. I knew if I didn’t do it I would go crazy. So I did it, in Wrocław, in the Market Square, under the patronage of the city. My friend helped me, I received some money from my family. It went great, and was re-played nonstop on FashionTV – those were the times, when FashionTV still meant something.
Then I moved to Warsaw, and in 2002 put on a show here. It was sponsored by someone who unfortunately died many years ago. The founder of one of the first private banks in Poland. He was from Wrocław. If I hadn’t put on the show in Wrocław, none of this would have happened. He found out about it and proposed a collaboration. Sometimes craziness exists for a reason. It was the kind of show that had never been seen before. Before, these kinds of shows would advertise shampoo and there would be commentators. And for my show, people came just for the clothes. I put it on in an incredible space – an abandoned tenement building. That hadn’t happened in Poland before. And that’s how it started, and people were whispering about it around Warsaw, that it was simply ‘wow’. A few of us created a new level – we were pioneers. We made all of this from our dreams, from our heart’s desires, completely not understanding the fashion world. Now there are plenty of designers who know how it’s done.
NW: How do you deal with fame? Did you immediately understand that you were successful?
GB: I never think of myself that way. Of course sometimes I think that I have achieved something, but it’s never: ‘OK, now I’m a successful woman’. Because you have to keep moving. Before, I dreamed of moving to Warsaw – and I achieved that, I organised my first show, received all these awards, but I keep moving, finding new dreams, new challenges.
NW: Like what?
GB: Like becoming the first – and currently only – Polish woman presenting at Fashion Week in Paris, surrounded by the world’s most important names. Those kinds of things you can’t dream about, they’re incredible achievements.
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NW: Among these successes, were there any failures?
GB: Of course. Honestly, until recently everything came out the way I wanted it to. Because it’s a question of incredible strength, determination and adrenaline. I imagined a place for myself – and I have it. I built it myself. There was nothing here but concrete. No walls, no outlets, nothing. So for one woman, this is an incredible achievement. I was even the construction manager.
But there have been things that didn’t work out. I wasn’t able to turn this into a business. Probably because I missed certain things sometimes. There was a show but no sales, or sales but no show. But it’s monstrously difficult, because it’s a question of stopping this kind of [creative] work and entering commerce, which isn’t easy. To create cheap clothing you need lots of distribution. Of course I could, I’m good at it. I’m good at something and I want to keep being good at it. But I’ll keep working in this world a while longer and we’ll see if I surprise anyone. Every business reaches a point where it needs a financial jolt and some reorganisation. I don’t know if I’d call that a failure, or maybe a new age. You can stay where you are, but there are questions you need to answer. I’ve been trying to answer them for some time.
And success? Dressing Duchess Kate was definitely a success. There were a few along the way.
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NW: How did it go with Duchess Kate?
GB: It was interesting, because on Sunday – because I normally check my emails on Sunday – I just checked my mail, sifting through it, and see the title: Cambridge. I receive all kinds of emails, sometimes inviting me to Fashion Week in Cambridge, which doesn’t interest me at all, or there are Cambridge diets, so I didn’t react, and kept looking at other emails. But at three in the morning I returned to the email and read ‘Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’. I didn’t fully understand so I googled it and found a hundred thousand photos of Kate and William. I couldn’t believe it! It turned out I’d gotten an email from their shared secretary – secretary of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry in Kensington Palace. She wrote asking for a lookbook.
Really they had already picked something out, it must have caught her eye somewhere, because I’d dressed a few Hollywood stars and that look had also made it onto the British market. In any case, I sent out the lookbooks, but I felt I had something better to offer. I had an intuitive sense that there was something. So I wrote and asked for two more days. And it came to me! I had two things and from the two I made one – the top of a dress and a skirt. I put the two together on a mannequin, took a photo, and that was that. I sent two other things as well, but of course she picked the white dress, which was sewn specially for her. People ask if I had any measurements. It hadn’t even occured to me to ask for her measurements. In all honesty, I’m surprised it fit perfectly. And then we met, because I hadn’t even been sure if she would wear my dress and it didn’t seem my place to ask, so I found out only at the party, that she’d shown up in my dress. That went around the world.
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NW: Do you have anyone you look up to?
GB: If I had to list someone, I feel a kinship with Alber Elbaz, who was the creative director of Lanvin. I love his work and respect him. We even have a photo together. There are certainly more people, but let’s stop with one name. He kept Madame Lanvin’s traditions, but he also updated her vision. It was wonderful, and I was always impressed.
NW: What is at the forefront of your style?
GB: I like double meanings, hidden depths, a story, rebellions. Classics, but everything with a touch of rebellion.
NW: While creating your collections, do you imagine what your future clients are like?
NW: Why did you choose Praga district as the spot for your fashion house?
GB: Where was I supposed to go? The city centre? Between a pharmacy and a Żabka [convenience store]? This is a place with class, it’s unassuming, which begs the question – why here? Because it’s a beautiful street with a unique feeling. Besides that, I though that the best boutiques in New York are in the meatpacking district, the port district where they used to haul meat. And in those buildings and halls, boutiques appeared. McQueen had a boutique there, next to Stella McCartney, next to a great restaurant with a quirky air. Maybe I wanted to form my own meatpacking district here. Besides this isn’t a place you just walk past; you don’t catch a tram and stop by on your way home to see what’s happening. It’s a so-called destiny point, you come here for a reason.
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NW: What is the source of your inspiration?
GB: It’s never fashion. It’s usually memories, literature, sometimes paintings. It’s always different. For example, when I was making my most recent collection – it was Eastern Europe Goes Wild, Wild West – elements of traditional Polish attire blended with the Wild West. Later it turned out I was a part of the trends. I designed another collection, this one I showed in Paris. I named it Black Spring and it was inspired by Henry Miller’s works. Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments. And his works, these eleven commandments, were on the clothes. I even corresponded with Miller’s daughter, though she’s getting older. Every collection is about something.
NW: How many collections do you create per year?
GB: One or two.
NW: Does every collection have a fashion show?
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GB: It doesn’t need one, especially lately. It used to be that I would create one collection in a year. Then when I started showing in Paris, it was two collections. Then I stopped going to Paris, only showrooms. So there were still two collections, but later in Poland I made one show from the two collections. It doesn’t make a difference, nowadays you don’t have to take part in shows. Although, for me, a fashion show is a way of expressing myself. It’s a spectacle.
NW: Are you the sole source of the ideas?
GB: Yes. Of course, I collaborate with wonderful people, musicians, but I come up with the ideas, I know how and where to do it, how to style it, what the space should look like. I’m the creator from the beginning to the end.
I used to make costumers for the opera, I would put on shows at the Grande Theatre in Warsaw.
NW: What does you collaboration with theatrical companies involve?
GB: It wasn’t simply a theatrical collaboration, it was a great opera, Traviata. A few hundred costumes – by myself. Later, I invited a friend to work with me, because I wouldn’t have managed alone. It had a toll on my health. Interesting work, but difficult and with a very demanding director – Mariusz Treliński, who [in 2018] was recognised as the best operatic director.
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NW: Are there days you don’t think about work?
GB: I doubt it. I don’t remember any. It’s very hard to unplug, there’s always something to think about.
NW: What do you do to relax?
GB: I don’t know how to relax.
NW: How has Polish fashion and the Polish woman changed?
GB: I don’t know how to answer that question. I don’t have enough distance, I don’t know. There’s more streetwear, times are changing, but that is also a result of technology, not just lifestyle.
NW: What is important to you in life, other than work?
GB: I can’t remove my work from the equation, but what’s important to me is equality. Fairness to yourself, to my plans, to people who I work with. Fairness, no other word comes to mind. It encompasses many things.
Interview originally conducted in Polish and written up in Russian by Natalia Vitvitskaya, 7 March 2019; translated from the original transcript by Alicja Zapalska, Dec 2019