ROCK AND ROLL UNDER THE SKIN
By Ivan Salečić
Photo Tomi Grgurević
One of the founders of the fashion brand, the store, and the concept that is ROBA, Branka Šćepanović, tells us of the innovations that this project used to shake up the entire domestic scene.
ROBA is one of the most interesting concepts, initiatives, projects, it is not easy to find the correct term - taking place within the Croatian fashion scene right now. The clothes, a multi-branded store, a fashion blog (roba.com.hr), a gallery, a party zone with tendencies to turning into a club, as well as an entire social consciousness that ‘reinforces’ one personal idea through presenting itself and promoting those alike… At the centre of it all, slowly but unmistakeably emerging, a completely new integration, ‘style 2.0’, something that is much more than just clothes to wear, places to be, music to listen to; it is a big multidimensional communication network.
Although we speak of a brand that is on the open market, and with a buzz surrounding it that would make the best of them jealous, ROBA combines the commercial with the unconventional. It is an alternative project in both fashion and lifestyle in that it aims to promote as well as define the values that it creates.
While listening to Branka Šćepanović (one of ROBA’s co-founders) telling me about it all, I feel the same philosophy probably stands behind ROBA’s business plans. Whilst most institutionalised brands define their values through their profits, it is perhaps this approach to growth ‘through conviction and confidence’ that makes for ROBA’s natural evolution. Expansion through the variety it offers, the number of collaborations, not only with designers but also bloggers, photographers and many others, is in this case a side-effect, a result that comes as a given. Wether you feel it is a paradox that such a strategy can clearly become a business model, it is definitely a paradox that should be encouraged.
How did ROBA become such a multi-levelled project?
It’s just how it was from the very beginning, and a lot to do with my life story. I came from Pula, a town well known for it’s very strong alternative scene, alternative clubs, theatres, film….as well as many festivals that bring together big groups of people with similar interests and taste, more than you would usually find. It is those moments that give that special power to the whole scene. In my case it started by creating clothes, with a brand, but I was never the designer. There was always an alternative moment, within the design itself and in combining the fashion with the music, that always played a great part in it all.
How did you become a part of the scene?
At the beginning I had a lot of help from my boyfriend, who has always been at the centre of happenings, organising music festivals as well as being a musician himself. He comes from Šibenik, but we first met in Pula, and finally got together in Zagreb where we both studied. That was in the early 90’s when clubs like ‘Močvara’ and ‘Attack’ had only just started to emerge. He used to run a stand there selling CD’s and LP’s during live music events, and he also toured Europe with his band.
And you tagged along saying ‘I’m with the band’?
(laughs) Yes, something like that. I used to be a goth at the time, that’s when I started sewing things like tops, punk-style utility belts, hooded waistcoats…and I used to sell them from his music stand in the summer during ‘Art and Music festival’ in Pula and the rest of the time in Zagreb.We never planned ahead at the beginning, it was all very improvised and spontaneous.
10 THOUSAND POUNDS
You managed to do a lot in your spontaneous and casual ways…
Yes, but considering it was always very casual and along the way I wasn’t really actively trying to move things along, to push my way through and get over the next hurdle, I did ,even then, have bigger plans and expectations. In fact, I never wanted to make just clothes. I wanted to create a brand, open a shop, run a fanzine… It did however take a while to realise all that, so long in fact that the fanzine was replaced with a blog. Our blog has been running for a year now, and is already pretty well established and easy to follow. But even now we are in the process of growing and changing in many aspects. At the moment we are working on the concept behind our shop window. You wouldn’t be able to work it out just yet but in a few months time the whole idea behind the way it progressively changes will make perfect sense, together with the message we want to get across.
Didn’t you at some point study in London, at the famous, if not infamous school of Central St. Martins?
No, I did a degree in Biology, here in Zagreb. St. Martins holds specialised summer courses so I took one of those just to see how things worked over there. My intention was to prepare for further studies, however, at that time one year on that particular degree course cost around 10 thousand pounds, and that didn’t even include the cost of living in London. The things I learnt during the short time I spent there left a big impression on me. It is an amazing university but simply too pricey for me.’
But London still remains an inspiration and a reference point, doesn’t it?
Absolutely, the whole London scene, the way of life, how it promotes the unconventional,…everything, really. I used to go to London with a friend of mine, we’d go to Camden market, a place that is a launch pad and the centre-point for all young and aspiring designers selling their creations. Seeing that made me realise that I wanted to do something like it, if not be amongst them myself. On the other hand, to be perfectly honest, the idea of studying Design in Croatia never seemed like a serious option. I ended up going to PMF (Faculty of Science) where I used to design outfits for the field classes in biology (laughs). Every location had 4 different outfit combinations, so I could wear a new one every day. My colleagues loved the idea, but at the time creating clothes still felt just like a hobby.
At the moment ROBA store features the creations by other designers as well as yours?
I always wanted to have a multi-branded store, so ROBA store along with my brand also sells creations by other compatible brands. Those brands are mostly from abroad, and of similar size and rank to ROBA, with small stores that have been in existence for a few years now, and with an alternative outlook on life. From our domestic talents ROBA store has a collection by Oh Tiger!, a brand developed by two female designers, one of whom, an architect, also helped us with the design of the shops interior. We don’t stop at selling just clothes. Now, for example, we have a perfume collection by a Belgian designer who works in Paris, we are holding a selling exhibition of photographs by Bruna Kazinoti, and we are also preparing something for our male followers..
How do your international collaborations work, do your fellow foreign designers sell ROBA in their stores?
We don’t work on the premise ‘ I’ll sell yours, if you sell mine’, we each choose to sell things we like. When it comes to choosing other brands to sell in my store , I go for those that I ‘click’ with instantly, rather then those I think would sell well.
LEATHER AND THE ‘TOTAL LOOK’
Do you mostly wear your own creations?
Yes, very often, but for a very practical reason, I reach out and pick up something lying around my flat, especially since I stopped working exclusively in leather. When I first started to work on the ‘Total Look’ collection, I started with designing T-shirts inspired by music from ‘Velvet Underground’. Again a collection for the ‘party people’. (laughs)
Why did you start off by using leather?
Because it’s great. I mean both in technical and design aspect, even in the marketing aspect. Other textiles are not always easily accessible. When you start off working with them, the design has to start from the fabric itself, and not from the design model. Designers nowadays often experiment with new textiles, use new ways to treat or process them, or at least update the existing materials….If your collection is created using ready materials, acquired who knows how, the collection automatically starts off as who knows what. Some designs you aim to create can not be always achieved using materials that are available at that time. On the other hand, if you have a possibility to create your own materials you have to have an exact idea of what your final garment will look like when finished. That method of creating can have it’s advantages but it also restricts your creative space. Not to mention how producing your own textiles is not available to just anyone – to do that one would have to start ordering materials a year in advance, and in quantities substantial enough to make it economically viable for the factory to produce it. This is the point when we finally get to the part about the leather being a great choice. Even with all the different ways it’s treated or dyed, the spectrum of possible interventions is far smaller comparing to other materials. Leather is leather, you can get better or poorer quality but it doesn’t have to be made out of nothing, as is the case with other textiles.
PETA, animal lovers… many are arguing against the use of animal fur. Considering you are a biologist, what are your views on using leather in fashion?
The two are not the same. Animals used for their fur are being bred or hunted and killed purely for their fur. With leather that is not the case. Leather is a side product from the meat industry, and if not utilised it would probably just be discarded. As opposed to fur, leather is already there. I am personally not a big meat eater, but a majority of people eat meat and don’t even realise how much is left behind after it’s processed. You can say I’m just ‘making sure nothing is wasted’ in that way my work is ecologically accepted because it’s a way of recycling what is left behind. I must admit I didn’t think about it that much when I decided to use leather in my work.
Who do you have in mind when designing your creations; your friends, teenage girls, yourself…?
I believe it wouldn’t be wrong to say that most designers, at least subconsciously design with themselves in mind. At the beginning we realised that there were a lot of our designs that could not be worn by everyone. Most of them, in fact could only be worn by tall, skinny girls like myself. By a process of trial and error, and with the experience we gained over the years, we learnt how to plan ahead, making our clothes more widely available and ensuring that when somebody actually chooses a piece they can fit into it. When I speak of it in this way, you can easily see that fashion design is not a field with existing standards, - in fact, it is very different to confections in the way that it does not have a standard at all.- some things cannot be planned in advance, but only learnt from by experience. I noticed that our designs are liked by people of very different profiles and ages. A high end leather piece can be too pricey for some younger buyers and too small for others, but I’m certain that there is always a desire and an interest. We often get mothers and their daughters coming to the store together, both hoping to buy something. The restrictions are not in the age, nor in the style, only in the mind.
Atmospheric and poetic polaroids featuring ROBA’s new ‘ultrachic’ leather creations captured by a team of young professionals from Milan lead by Mara Corsino. Styling by Luciano Parisi and Valentina Airoldi, make-up by Maura Cocco, hairstyling by Marco Braca, executive director of the photo-shoot: Andrea Buglione, model: Martine Lervik of ‘Elite Models Milano’ agency.