Coming Fashion

With her long wavy hair, syrupy dark eyes and near-perfect complexion you'd be excused for thinking that Lara Bohinc herself should be gracing the pages of international glossy magazines. But it's the 33-year-old Slovenian designer's jewelry and accessories that have been making waves in the fashion world since she first exhibited at London Fashion Week eight years ago. Now, from her subterranean studio in London's hip Hoxton Square, Bohinc creates necklaces, rings, sunglasses and bejeweled leather handbags that are delicate to the touch but bold in their style. Having studied graphic and industrial design in Ljubljana before gaining an M.A. in jewelry and metalwork at London's Royal College of Art, Bohinc also does eclectic creations for Cartier and counts Kate Moss, Sarah Jessica Parker and Gwen Stefani among her fans.

What makes Bohinc notable is not just her designs but her roots: she is just one of the many designers coming out of Eastern Europe and Russia and winning plaudits in the international fashion press. "A few years back there was this wave of Eastern European models [you kept] hearing about, and now it's Eastern European designers," says Bohinc. Flip through the pages of any fashion magazine or pop into your favorite boutique and you'll see that the influences of Russia and Eastern Europe will be everywhere this autumn: peasant blouses, babushkas, embroidered jackets and Anna Karenina style long fitted black coats are on offer from high-end Western designers like Diane Von Furstenberg, Carolina Hererra and Jean Paul Gaultier as well as High Street stores like Topshop, which is selling Russian-style military jackets for 40 pounds. "Eastern Europe is the new cool in the same downbeat intellectual subculture way that Paris in the 1950s gave us existentialism and the black turtleneck, that kind of coffeehouse undercurrent that is the antithesis of the establishment," says David Wolfe, creative director of trend-forecasting company the Donegar Group.

The new rash of designers owe their moment in the spotlight to the 2004 expansion of the European Union, which allowed 10 new countries--eight of them formerly communist--into the exclusive club. That greatly increased the opportunities for designers to study and work in Western Europe's fashion industry, thanks to the ease of travel and the abundance of grants. Between 2001 and 2004, University of the Arts London saw a tenfold increase in the number of students coming from Europe's new member states to study fashion.

At the same time, Western fashion followers--ever on the prowl for the new cutting edge--are stepping out of their comfort zones in Milan, Paris and New York to learn more about designers from countries like Estonia, Hungary and the Czech Republic. They are discovering figures like Macedonian Marjan Pejoski, who dressed Bjork in that infamous swan dress for the 2001 Oscars; Poles Katarzyna Szczotarska, who is creating buzz on the European catwalks with chunky knit sweaters, ruffled shirts and inverted pleat skirts that show off quirky detailing, and Gosia Baczynska, who had models Lizzie Jagger and Alex Wek don her duds; and Josef Statkus from Lithuania, said to be a favorite of American Vogue's uber-influential Anna Wintour. "Fashion people are the ultimate neophiliacs--they want new, new, new," says Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. "We have been thrashing over so many of the same things that I think people are really hungry for new perspectives on the world, and that is what you are seeing from these emerging former communist countries."

The East European designers are drawing on the landscape, handicraft traditions and culture of their native countries. Polish-born Arkadius, who goes by only one name, has created collections drawing on his Catholic upbringing, incorporating dramatic crosses with an avant garde flair. Roksanda Ilincic says that while in the past her designs have reflected her native Serbian folklore and fairy tales, this season her collection--which consists of wide-sleeved dresses made from rich textured fabrics--is based on the communist shops, displaying rows of fabric wrapped around dummies, that she visited as a child in Belgrade. "For so long we were so completely cut off from the West that all our culture and way of thinking was seen as something bad," she says. "But now with borders not really existing, people are starting to discover Eastern Europe, finding things that are raw, fresh and different."

As their styles grow more urbane and sophisticated, Eastern European designers are becoming savvier about the commercial aspect of their business. But they have some tough traditions to overcome; their homegrown fashion industry--like so many others in the region--focused less on making a profit than on creative expression. "In Milan or Paris it's all about being competitive with big money behind what they do," says Arkadius. "But in Eastern Europe it is done on a much more artistic scale and they go into fashion because they love it. The immediate reason is not about selling." Ignoring market forces is not always a good thing. "At the moment, much of the design coming out is a bit too off the wall to be marketed on a mainstream level--but we would be crazy not to borrow a little bit of it," says Amanda Hallay, a fashion writer and European trend spotter for the Donegar Group.

Indeed, the West has long borrowed elements of communist style, generally evoking a cliched and romanticized vision of peasant life under military rule. Now, Eastern Europe's designers are reclaiming and expanding on their traditions. "Young designers have an alive mixture of their own heritage but they are not treating it preciously," says Steele. As Eastern Europe's new guard takes its place in the ranks of modern design, more and more established designers may well find themselves heading toward the steppes to keep up.