/ 22 March 2019

The Week of the Festival: Zagreb, Croatia

Through the Looking Glass: What Did We Find There?

(Economic) Transition of the Croatian Fashion and Textile Industry

Children yet, the tale to hear,

Eager eye and willing ear,

Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,

Dreaming as the days go by,

Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream – 

Lingering in the golden gleam –

Life, what is it but a dream?

Lewis Carroll

At the moment, there is an exhibition about 60s fashion in Zagreb. For me, the standout piece is a black and white photograph of a beautiful young woman; she's smiling in front of a rosebush. I know this photograph from before, I saw it in a book about fashion photography, and it was always, in my mind, a symbol of pure beauty, youth – the untethered spirit full of opportunities. It's an image from a somewhat magical world, far, far away, somewhere in a magnificent past. I've heard about this world, it was ‘a time when everything was better’, as people often recall. But, I know the story behind this image: The woman in the photograph is an immigrant, in a foreign country, far from her family, and even though she is dressed in a custom-made clothes from the finest materials of the best fashion salons in Zagreb, and her hair is perfect, with a smile like she is having the best time of her life, she is, in fact, filled with sadness and fear, living in a dark period, through days that will scar her and her family, for life. 

I know this because the woman in this photograph is my mother. 

Knowing the whole story, I have to admit – I also idealised this photo. She is simply so beautiful. Like a dream.

A beautiful image can be a window into an imagined world, and we can pretend that maybe things back then were different. Often, when we do believe in a distorted image of the past, we reverse the logic and sacrifice our common sense. Especially if we create a story that makes us long for something that is lost in time, or never existed at all.

One of those stories, as portrayed in my mother's photograph, is a saga about the Croatian fashion and textile industry. It's a saga wrapped in two narratives and four phases. The narratives are two transitions – a local one, from consumer socialism to capitalism, and a global one, the globalisation and a shift in manufacture (factories moving from the West to the East). The textile industry, it's important to know or remember, is called the most globalised industry in the world. Phases of our saga are four stages of Croatian fashion and textile industry – beginning of textile industry in Croatia in the late 19th century, until 1935; growth after 1935; economic stagnation in the mid-20th century and transition into the 21st century. Interwoven with these narratives and phases is a deep crisis and instability of (national) identity. Just like when Alice found herself on the other side of the looking-glass and was trying to sculpt herself by the image (and craziness) of the creatures she met, we also tried to mould ourselves and figure out who we are. Now that we are here, not fully grown and grasped in the new century, as a part of Europe, we are still not quite sure who we are. Within the crisis a line between ‘then’ and ‘now’ – the other side of the looking-glass and our reality; our youth and adulthood – became ‘soft like gauze’ – and we like to go through it, a lot. On the other side, we found a story about that time long, long ago, when everything was better, people were happier, united, and our industry was blooming. It doesn't help that these memories are wrapped in sentiment, like looking at a faded picture, not sure if it's real or just a distant dream. In this story, where things are painted in black and white, that fine line between ‘now’ and ‘then’ became a dark, bitter place of no return. Growing up in this mentality, I was also skipping from one side to another, idealising the past, being resentful about the transition, and fully disappointed and unoptimistic in the present. On top of that, questioning everything and not fully believing in anything. 

That fragile line between the two worlds was enhanced in the last decade, when a ‘before’ image of the Croatian fashion and textile industry became idealised and celebrated by many artists, explorers and authors as a prosperous kingdom of gold, and today's industry was pushed into the pages of crime news and the obituaries. There was something wrong with this perspective, I learned. The past was neither shiny, nor was present filled with darkness. Things are, as always, much more complicated. 

The truth is, the peak of the Croatian textile industry was in 1935, long before the roaring 60s, when it was the number one industry and Zagreb had the highest number of textile workers and the biggest textile factories in Yugoslavia. This expansion and growth of textile industry in Croatia came after 1925, and the main reason was the introduction of protective tariffs. Most factories were working with raw materials from Croatia and there were only four garment factories (for comparison, there were 460 textile factories). Then, another big switch happened – the textile industry became a women's industry and the majority of the workers were women. These golden years, as well, looked good only from a distance. For instance, in 1936 there was a big strike in a textile factory in North Croatia that lasted 40 days and with women workers in the front lines; it is known as the biggest strike in this region – ever. In the following years, strikes became a norm and textile workers were very involved, active and vocal about their existence problems and the industry's issues. There was, also, a lot of doubt among the workers – do we need an industry that is exploitative toward its workers, and on top of that, is protected by the state and the tariffs? 

The mid-century came with new frames and a slow preparation for transition in the last quarter of the 20th century – it brought us consumerist socialism and the birth of fashion. By the 50s, Zagreb was the fashion centre of Yugoslavia, with gigantic garment and fashion factories. The 60s took it a bit further, we opened even more to the West – elements of consumerist society were taking over, and fashion had a big influence. If you look at my mother's photograph, you would have to guess twice – was this picture taken in Zagreb, in socialist Yugoslavia, or somewhere in Europe or the United States? It shows no signs of socialism, especially the kind of imaginary socialism people from the West have. It was altogether a thoughtfully-organised picture of a perfect society and industry with emancipated modern women. Up until 1989, this image held together and bloomed, especially in our collective memory, and now we often find ourselves, as I said, looking at a backward image. Trouble started much sooner than 1989, simply because we were, in fact, affected by the West, not only by its consumerist influence, but in a much more direct way. The 70s brought the beginning of a major global shift, the birth of fast fashion, and the textile industry was slowly moving from the West to the East, first from the US and Great Britain (from 1971), West Germany (1972) and France (1973), to name a few, to Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Romania, all the way to India and the Soviet Union – to the new textile and fashion industry epicentres. That shift brought the biggest impact on the Croatian garment and fashion industry – by the 1975, it increased by 150 percent. Behind those glorious numbers was a big trap – those businesses were mostly ‘lohn; production with lower added value. Croatian clothing industry slowly, but firmly, became dependant on lohn and the West. Croatia is not an isolated example, lohn production (for fast fashion) is a big economic, ecologic and moral issue of the whole fashion industry, most recently in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Ethiopia, North Africa and Southeast Asia. 

In Croatia, nevertheless, we could have found a proper balance with lohn, but what happened after 1989 made it almost impossible. Transition, war and privatisation in the 90s are a whole separate subject, which brought the Croatian textile industry to its knees with organised crime and destruction. With the beginning of the new century, those factories that remained switched altogether to lohn production. The next big problem was that the primary production disappeared and the whole industry became dependent on imported materials. By 2005 China took over European market and production was set in the East. Then came the financial crisis of 2007–2008. 

In the last decade, the European textile industry has changed radically; technical textiles took over European market (they hold one-third of all textile production), industry is looking for innovation, flexibility in manufacturing processes and sustainability came into focus. For the Croatian textile industry, the biggest changes and challenges are branding, marketing, investments in new technologies, innovations and specialisation. Some factories did recognise the new global direction, especially in the North Croatia, and those that survived until now – they have a place in the market. Especially because 2016 brought some more good news, as textile manufacture slowly began to move back to Europe. In this new wave, I surely hope Croatia learned a lesson from its past and is not completely lost in a crooked image of what it once were. 

Yes, it's easier to make a vague picture of the days of glory, followed by the story of the fall, than to paint it in real colours – some parts are not easy to look at, some are unclear, some are just a dream, and some give us hope. The textile industry can serve as a looking-glass through which we can understand what happened in the first wave of privatisation in Croatia and how the industry and its workers are valued today – it can also be a symbol of our (identity) crisis, the same as for the global textile and fashion industry crisis, even though fashion and its celebration of youth and coolness can serve as a distorted mirror of its own. It is important to understand the complexity of the textile industry and its history, with its many shades, and not get stuck with one story about the kingdom of the dark and the light. 

I also had to make up my mind; how do I want to see it, what will I believe? While thinking about it and looking at my mother's photograph, I understood – I do want the photograph on display, for everyone to see it and admire it, as maybe we can try to recreate it, maybe it can inspire, even though it never happened, at least in a way we see it. As Alice said on the other side to a Tiger-lily, ‘I wish you could talk’! and to her surprise Tiger-lily responded: ‘We can talk, when there is anybody worth talking to’. An image can also tell a story, if we want to listen. In the end, it's not important if an image was a dream, and ‘which dreamed it?’, a simple ‘we don't know’ will due, but what we do with the dream, that's what matters in the end.

By Ivana Biočina

Article was edited and commissioned by Versopolis' guest editor Marko Pogačar.