Here on Vaci Utca, where the city's most glitzy boutiques line the cobblestone street, a designer shop named Luan stands alone, a vision of haute couture for a nation raised on proletariat pret-a-porter.
Where most Budapest shops feature cluttered displays of frilly and feminine fashions, Luan is icily minimalist--all granite floors and track lighting with a small selection of elegantly stitched and finished wool, silk and cotton garments. Their aggressive lines, set off by whimsical, even fantastic touches--such as Valkyrie-like breast plates--announce the presence of a designer with bold new ideas.
Her name is Lucia Hegyi. She is a 30-year-old, self-taught designer of Russian-Hungarian parents who spent her early childhood in Prague. And she is determined to bring sophisticated glamour back to Hungary after 42 years of drab Communist rule.
It has been an uphill struggle. The capital cities of Eastern Europe once flourished as sophisticated hubs of fashion and culture--often imported from Paris--but that era ended with the beginning of World War II. Today, would-be clothing designers in Eastern Europe are stymied by poor-quality fabrics, supply shortages, shoddy workmanship and their customers' inability to pay for expensive goods.
"Making clothes is not an isolated thing. It is connected with the production of fabric, dyeing, the paper needed to print catalogues," Hegyi says. "Because of the problems here in Hungary, we spend most of our time dealing with things that aren't our profession, so things go slowly."
For instance, for 40 years after World War II, it was impossible to find silk in Hungary. In desperation, Luan decided to import the material directly from China.
Hegyi also found that skills long taken for granted in the West had disappeared from Budapest, which had blossomed as a cultural center at the century's turn.
"We had to get reacquainted with how to prepare woolens after weaving and how to dye silk," said Andor Kovacs, Hegyi's partner. "These technologies were forgotten in Hungary after the war. They disappeared, and the old people who knew about them had already died."
The Hungarian government, which has permitted limited forms of private ownership since 1968, did not prove an impediment. It even allowed Hegyi to take fact-finding missions abroad, touring Italian factories and talking to clothing manufacturers to glean new ideas. When she returned to Hungary, she taught her employees the skills--dyeing, weaving, sewing--she had learned abroad.
At the beginning, "We didn't know anything about international fashion life," Hegyi confesses.
But Hegyi and Kovacs, who designed the boutique's quasi-Stone-Age look and contributed his extensive knowledge of weaving and dying fabric, soon learned and began to evolve a unique Hungarian look. Hegyi terms it "not only a business, but a sort of art enterprise."
"We have ideas about fabric, models, design and architecture," Kovacs adds, "and we want to create a look. It's an aesthetic that is still evolving."
Today, Luan has 15 employees, a small boutique in Munich and a showroom in Zurich. Its owners attribute their success in part to their focus on customer service, a commodity in short supply throughout Eastern Europe.
Once clients have settled on a style, a shop assistant takes measurements and produces a variety of color swatches from which to choose. The order is then custom made.
"If Hegyi doesn't like something on someone, she tells them they shouldn't wear it," a Luan associate says.
And indeed Hegyi's designs, with their spare but striking architectural lines, aren't for everyone. "I would like to emphasize that you are a woman, but an aggressive woman. I don't like soft things," says the designer, who one recent spring day sported a black turtle neck that set off her short, styled blond hair; a black and white leopard-spotted mini skirt with black fringe trim; black tights, and turned-down ankle boots. A black riding jacket, with a diagonally cut flap that swept across the front and was anchored by ornate silver buttons, completed the look.
Her aim, Hegyi says, is to challenge and provoke. One need only look at the boutique window for confirmation. In the display, two manikins lean forward in assertive, almost menacing poses, their heads swathed in layers of fabric.
"Fashion terrorism," Hegyi explains with a laugh.
Her designs are somehow feminine and androgynous at the same time. Consider a double-breasted smoking jacket in black and white, with a dramatically low-cut, violin-shaped collar. Paired with pants and a blouse, the jacket is all elegance. But the jacket can be worn alone, with hosiery and high heels as a seductive dress that ends suddenly at mid thigh.
A sweater with three-quarter-length sleeves has a gathered peplum waist and a soft, wool jersey breast plate that adds a Rheingold maiden effect.
The prices, while steep by Hungarian standards, are quite reasonable for the West, considering the exquisite tailoring and innovative design.
Luan offers a spring/summer as well as a fall/winter collection and prices run from 4,600 forints (about $71) for a black, textured wool skirt that folds over in front with a longer, diagonally cut flap of material, to 5,600 forints (about $86) for a kimono-style silk blouse. Dramatically structured leather jackets, with oversize padded shoulders and cinched waists, run 40,000 forints (about $610).
One of the most fanciful designs recently on display was a luxurious black wool hooded cape for 21,000 forints (about $340) with flouncing fabric--a Little Red Riding Hood look.
Unlike many garments made in state-owned factories, Luan's precision workmanship is the result of strict supervision and quality control, Hegyi says.
"I want to have the best quality in the world, but it's hard because there's no history of that here in Hungary," she says with a sigh.
Another problem, Hegyi says, is a lack of ways to showcase her wares.
"In Hungary, there are no good models and no choreographers, so you can't make a super fashion show. Everything is very amateurish," says Hegyi, who prefers to show her designs at Offline, a Vienna show that often features avant-garde fashions.
Lastly, the partners must pay in hard currency for materials from abroad even though they sell the finished product in forints, Hungary's soft, or non-convertible, currency.
While few Magyars have enough spare forints to splurge on Luan's custom-made clothes--inflation is 25% and the standard of living keeps dropping--Luan does brisk business among Western tourists, especially American businesswomen and people involved in the arts, Hegyi says. Wealthy Hungarians, who have made forint fortunes in the free market economy, are beginning to trickle into the shop. Luan also sells through a mail order catalogue published twice a year.
"It's very hard to work here because everything is a bit run down," Hegyi says. "But I'm trying to create something new. I hope I can help turn Budapest into the heart of the Eastern European fashion world."