The most famous designer of the Moda Polska fashion house and probably the most charismatic fashion designer of the Polish People’s Republic.
Zbigniew Jerzy Antkowiak was born in Wolsztyn on 18th May, 1935, or, as he likes to stress – on the day of Józef Piłsudski’s funeral and Karol Wojtyła’s 15th birthday. His father was a notarial apprentice, while his mother owned a hat store. ‘Apparently I used to wander around that store, pick out veils for customers, but I only know that from stories. I remember a scene from a Corpus Christi procession, when I walked, dressed up in a blue suit and I saw girls pelting flowers. I liked it so much that I barged into the procession, took a basket from one of the girls and walked on, pelting the flowers. What a beating I got from my father for that! I think that was 1939, soon after that the war started – he said in an interview for Duży Format.
He spent the war in Mińsk Mazowiecki, occasionally visiting Warsaw. Then again Wolsztyn, but just with his father, as his mom emigrated. He thought about studying journalism and in the end chose Academy of Fine Arts in Wrocław – the Glass and Ceramics Faculty. And then the key thing happened. It was 1960. He was living in Komorów near Warsaw with his wife and searching for an occupation; once he attended a design exhibition at the Palace of Culture and this way he came across the Moda Polska show. Enchanted, he approached Jadwiga Grabowska and said that he would like to work for her ‘– And what exactly can you do, son? – I have always dreamt of designing fashion.’
Even back then, he was able to cover up the deception with his charm. After all, he had no clue about fashion design. ‘Bring me your drawings’ – he was told. Antkowiak sketched something at home, lightly crumpled the paper and stained it with coffee, so as to give an impression of long, laborious work, and brought them to the office in Warecka St. He was hired in February 1961.
He recalls that, for a long time, he was a small-time assistant, petty draughtsman, but designers who worked alongside him have no doubts: he immediately became Jadwiga Grabowska’s favourite. She had a great gift for fashion and none for drawing, so she commissioned her colleagues to do sketches. Apparently Antkowiak’s drawings are picked most often.
He designed his first auteur collection in secret from his boss. It was 1965. Together with Tula Popławska – the grey eminence of Moda Polska, he organised a carnival fashion show at the salon in Konopnicka Street. Short dresses: some were simple, resembling sleeveless tops, with chiffon or lace coats over them, while others – dartless, with cuts hidden underneath ornaments of pleats and piping, made of black or golden satin, with an obligatory open back, and finally long dresses made of soft, black, white, and golden-black velour, colourful silk, and embroidered satin. Even nowadays, they look modern.
Grabowska was furious, but she swallowed her anger. When soon afterwards she retired, Antkowiak took the charge of Moda Polska. Halina Kłobukowska was the official head, however Antkowiak held the strongest position. In 1979, he became the Deputy Director of Design. In an interview for Duży Format he said:
Suddenly I found myself in the world of conferences and meetings. Making a plan, opening new stores, adjusting wages for tailors, thousands of topics like this. The crisis was already underway, so we were looking for ways to make cuts. ‘Why do you need silk if there’s Crimplene, women love Crimplene’ – administrators and directors said, and all of this was laced with discontent that the pattern room exists at all. ‘I never go to your shows, it’s a waste of money’ – they bragged. Meanwhile, the pattern shop is ruled by chaos, the cat’s away and the girls play. During those times, when they delivered chicken to Nowy Świat Street, everyone from the pattern room went and queued up. I didn’t blame them, I knew they did what they had to do. But then at the conferences, people would complain that workers sit there after hours, waste electricity, and god knows what they’re sewing there. I told them that it is me who sits and ponders. Anyway, by the time I made it from a meeting in Marszałkowska to Kubusia St, it often was indeed after hours. There were many temptations on the way. Piotruś bar in Nowy Świat, sometimes a glass of wine with Janusz Sobolewski at Nowy Świat Café. After that, I’d walk somewhat diagonally, and then there’s Dom Plastyka in Mazowiecka. But in the end I always made it to Kubusia.
At the time, Moda Polska was an empire. On one hand, it mainly produced special collections – as samples for the fashion industry, but it also had its own stores. There, one could buy retail collections, i.e. a compromise between the Parisian taste and trade of the Polish People’s Republic, as well as a lot of export product. Initially, Moda Polska stores were a rarity – besides Warsaw, they opened in other cities that held a similar level of prestige – Katowice and Gdynia. In mid 70s, when, following an administrative reform, forty nine cities became voivodeship capitals, every local party secretary wanted to see a Moda Polska store from their window. The pressure was therefore huge. However, Jerzy Antkowiak was more interested in moda (fashion) than in Polska (Poland).
Already at the end of 1960s, he proved that if socialism has to exist in Poland, so be it, but when it comes to ideas, he listens to Paris. It was 1968, the show was elegant as always, and all of the sudden there were naked breasts. One of the directors complained earlier that ‘socialism doesn’t have breasts, for God’s sake!’, but Antkowiak and Irena Biegańska created a collection in which the model Lucyna Witkowska wore black dress trousers and a chiffon semi-transparent blouse. In the autobiographical book Antkowiak. Niegrzeczny chłopiec polskiej mody, the designer confesses:
At the time, we were fascinated by the semi-nude costumes presented in Paris. (…) We decided that we will show a semi-transparent design on the Polish catwalk. We wanted to shock our Moda Polska audience. (…) The naked breasts appeared in our famous black collection.
Besides the chiffon blouse, the collection included dresses, ponchos, capes made from velour, velvet, lace, satin, and taffeta. In the 70s, Moda Polska walked in the footsteps of Yves Saint Laurent – Antkowiak’s major influence, while the showcased collections were up to date with the global trends. The shows featured excellent models – Małgorzata Niemen, Katarzyna Butowtt. Then, the paradise falls, first the crisis deepens, then the martial law is introduced, and there really is nothing more. Meanwhile, the trip to a fair in Leipzig is all planned out.
In 1982, Jerzy Antkowiak declared in Panorama:
I wouldn’t call this set a collection. I think it is better described as impressions on selected styles in current fashion. (…) The smaller number of dresses is a result of the lack of appropriate fabrics. Meanwhile, individual elements, such as skirts, trousers, etc. allow for various combinations and complementing one’s wardrobe.
This was a diplomatic way of putting it. In reality, he created a collection out of tent fabrics. All of the 80s consisted in struggle with textiles. In Kurier Polski in 1984, Antkowiak said:
I can’t vouch that a black blazer designed by us will not eventually turn out to be beet-coloured or orange due to difficulties with materials, low priority, and hundred other reasons.
In 1987, he explained his take on fashion in Sztandar Młodych:
There was a moment when we weren’t receiving magazines but we still created collections. It is only a question of how you approach this entire thing: on your knees and with solemnity – because that’s what it’s like in the journal, or do you use your own intuition and imagination. Journals are merely support material, which all experts in their respective fields receive. But let’s suppose we don’t have access to them. Then we wouldn’t know if Dior comes up with long or short length, but our ideas could converge, which often in fact happens. For instance, I read in the GAP catalogue that the most fashionable man of fall ‘87 wears a short jacket, pants with incredibly wide leg at the top, which narrows down below and falls on shoes. This is precisely a suit I designed many months ago, before this catalogue came out, before the men’s fashion fair in Paris. There simply are things that a fashion designer has intuition for.
This is how he created fashion – partially using catalogues and what he saw in Paris, and partially (to a larger extent) relying his intuition. Managers of the Moda Polska stores weren’t fans of that style, especially my coat dresses. I often told them that any time I saw the wife of Pompidou’s president, she always wore a beautiful, impeccable dress of this kind. In the summer, it was made of linen, while in winter – of taffeta, shantung, crêpe, or velour. I explained that this dress is an essential element of every classy woman’s wardrobe. I was just wasting my breath. Once I tried to have Irena Dziedzic wear a coat dress. Oh the beating I got – he recounted in the book Antkowiak. Niegrzeczny chłopiec polskiej mody.
He learned how much one can get bullied after the system overturn. First, Moda Polska stopped being relevant, then it lost its financial solvency, and in 1998 it collapsed. Jerzy Antkowiak said in an interview for Duży Format:
Do I have regrets? No. Moda Polska was exceptional. Even if it had survived, it would have lost its uniqueness, it would become old news. We would look like Liberace after a face lift.
Later, Jerzy Antkowiak tried to work independently – under his own name or in collaboration with sheepskin coat producers from Kurów. He eventually chose the fate of a legend, which he pursues with a splendour similar to that accompanying him while he designed Moda Polska fashion.
Author: Aleksandra Boćkowska, November 2017