An exceptional persona among Polish fashion designers, the first lady of minimalism. The first fashion designer after the system-wide transformation of 1989. At that time she was already distinct from what was happening on the market. This distinctness still defines her today.
In a 2015 interview with Karolina Sulej, author of the book Modni (editor’s translation: Fashionable), she said: ‘I was a dreamer, I wanted Poland to be like in Paris, like in Ann Demeulemeester’s, so that the women would float about in stylish clothes, nonchalant and strong’.
The beginning of the 1990s in fashion looked more or less like this: one by one, the workshops which had great impact under the communist regime – thanks to the export to the USSR and the so-called redoing, that is sewing for the Western companies – went broke; Moda Polska burns out – the company which was vital in the previous era when it comes to apparel; Hoffland is still there but it lost its shine. People get their clothes from the streets. Literally. Import from Turkey, small sewing rooms producing clothes for bazaar stands (the city streets were transforming into bazaars back then), ephemeral boutiques – what seemed appealing came from there. Because it was colourful, because it was exaggerated, because it had bouffant shoulders and golden buttons.
Under these circumstances, Joanna Klimas, at the time a 38-year-old psychologist, becomes the chairwoman of a sewing room in Targówek in Warsaw. It seemed like one of the many transformational stories: she practices in the Laboratory of Psycho-education among other places while her husband is doing business. The businesses flourish, so he leaves the sewing room to her. She is interested in fashion, after all they visited Paris and London together – she knows it is possible to dress well, what’s more – she looks uncommon herself. She dresses a bit like a man, she always wears male boots for example. In this sewing room, she begins to design clothes that appeal to her. The needlewomen go off work so that they can earn some extra money in sewing rooms while making clothes for the bazaars. The wage is higher and there are no weird ideas like the ones Klimas introduced: suit jackets without shoulder pads and decoration-less dresses for example. Still, she digs her heels in. She receives the first order from her friend: she wants dresses for the hostesses at Sonia Rykiel’s showcase. She likes it. A while after that the Polish edition of Elle magazine starts being published. She designs clothes for photo shoots and becomes recognizable.
She organises her first show in 1996 in the Tango club with model Agnieszka Maciąg as the star. The sets are a little shocking – she does present satin minis, but the suit jackets and blazers are clearly inspired by man’s tailoring and the models wear Doc Martens-style boots. The media pick it up and Klimas picks up momentum. One year later she prepares a collection catalogue together with the photographer Jacek Poremba – the model poses at a metro station or somewhere in Poland, in the open air. The showcases take on a whole new life. In 1997 Klimas designs the first mature collection, which she present in the Grand Theatre, Warsaw. It comprises of three elements: everyday clothing, the clothes of Joanna Klimas’ dreams, like out of Paris and evening gowns. One year later she organises the biggest show in the brand’s history – in the Culture Palace’s City Hall. Absolut is the sponsor. The dresses are silver and a bit transparent, the blazers are oversized, there are flowers and some ethno. In Sulej’s book Klimas says:
I can’t limit myself to a single style. I love minimalism, but I also like to create other things – I love kitsch, sometimes elements of ethno, but I can also simply sew pretty evening dresses.
Just to be clear – Joanna Klimas does not sew herself. She lays out the fabrics on mannequins and the needlewomen do the sewing. They have to be trustworthy and pick up her ideas on the fly.
She has to shut down the sewing room and moves production to the back of a boutique on Burakowska Street. For a short while she also runs a shop on Chmielna Street, but it will not last for long – the place’s owners have other business ideas. At the end of the 1990s, because of the galloping transformation, she has to think her ideas over as well.
Popularity in the media does not transfer well into sales. At that time there are not many clients ready to pay a monthly wage for a dress. She loses her contract with Polish Airlines LOT for which she dresses up the stewardesses. At the doorstep of a new millennium, around 2000, she shuts down her brand.
She begins to think of a comeback seven years later; in 2009 she organises a presentation of new clothes in a shop on Nowolipki Street, in Warsaw’s Muranów district. But the times are completely different. There is a plethora of Polish designers now – they mostly design evening creations for celebrities and rich women. For the media it is even better, because fashion is now what the celebrities wear. People dress in retail chains. In one of the interviews Klimas says: ‘I saw a chance for myself in the retail chains. They raised my future customers’. The difference was that you could buy a suit jacket for 130 zł in a retail chain and one made by her cost 1300 zł.
Joanna Klimas found a permanent place for herself between retail and evening wear. Fashion is a part of culture for her. In the shop on Nowolipki Street you can drink coffee and browse fashion magazines from the art and fashion field. She says:
To understand fashion one has to know culture. Meanwhile, in Poland, clothes are still a trifle, unworthy of intellectual reflection. It’s a pity!
She does not shut herself off in the fashion world. In 2011 she designs opera costumes – Mariusz Treliński’s Onegin with Borys Kudliczka’s scenography in the Grand Theatre is just one example. She is interested in modern art, reads fiction and a lot of philosophical works.
Miuccia Prada and Rei Kawabuko are intellectuals. I believe it’s not a coincidence that they are the ones who are able to tell a story about something more than just trends using their clothes. And even when they are focused only on clothes they make a revolution in fashion. They prove that designing can be a responsible and respectable profession.
In the 1990s, she was the one who brought about a revolution, now she does her own thing. She chose the etno (2010) collection as the starting point of her new stage. She says:
I worked on it for a long time, I was inspired by folk art – probably the single original Polish art. I wanted to make something Polish and not a catwalk copy-paste. I’m proud of this collection to this day.
As long as she had the willingness and money for big shows – she organised them. In 2012 in the Wilanów Palace gardens, for the inauguration of Grazia magazine, in 2013 in Sofitel Victoria hotel for the Contradiction collection and for Logo Game in the newly opened Plac Unii shopping mall. She presented a collection twice during the Łódź fashion week. Logo Game is her shift towards popular fashion. She ‘scattered about’ the logo designed by Marek Stańczyk in 1996 on T-shirts, dresses and bags.
Nowadays she is more low-key. She came to terms with the fact that celebrity fashion, especially the wedding variation, and what is called ‘T-shirt fashion’ is the most popular in Poland. She says: ‘Such is the market, this is what the clients want. It allows the designers to function’. Although she came through and appears at parties, photo walls and in breakfast TV studios, she runs with her own flow. It is still all about the good fabrics, minimalism done with smile and the dream of ‘women floating about in stylish clothes, nonchalant and strong.
Originally written in Polish by Aleksandra Boćkowska, Dec 2017, translated by Patryk Grabowski, Dec 2017