Lithuanian designers fight for good taste

  • 2006-07-12
  • By Christian Lindner

GENIUSES AT WORK: Simanaviciute and Pogrebnojus are developing their own sense of Lithuanian fashion.

VILNIUS - Surrounded by swirling mosquitoes, ten flamboyantly dressed models are huddling together in a tent pitched in the middle of the woods. "Don't walk too fast! Try to appear natural!" says Alexandras Pogrebnojus before a brass band finally introduces what probably will be the world's first fashion show on an underwater catwalk.

Pogrebnojus, 38, and his colleague Vida Simanaviciute, 46, have prepared a special setting to premiere their autumn collection.In rubber boots, the models have to make their way down a woody path to reach the flooded catwalk stretching over the shallow Vilnia River. On the other side of the river, the audience is hanging out in Belmontas Park, not far from downtown Vilnius.
"With this fashion show we are toying with the contrast between wilderness and civilization," explains Pogrebnojus. "It reflects the style of our clothes: Elegance with a wild touch."

The two designers combine traditional Lithuanian elements with metropolitan chic, always adding a touch of humor: "Lithuania is poised somewhere between traditional rural life and urban modernity," the designer says. Models wear a clumsy riding hat or a waistcoat that looks like an over-sized bathrobe.

In Lithuania's fashion world, Pogrebnojus and his colleague Simanaviciute are known for their wild approach. Many Lithuanians see their work as "horrible and highly provocative," he says. "The people here are not used to our unconventional style."
The designer duo, working together under the label A&V, is always looking abroad. "We already have shops in Moscow, Paris, Almaty and Tokyo," Pogrebnojus says. It's hard to find more places in Lithuania. "We have to look for new shores."

Pogrebnojus thinks Lithuanian fashion is still in its infancy. "In general, people in this country dress very badly," he says. "Not even once a month do I meet a person on the streets who really has an individualistic and appealing style."
He finds the style of the new Lithuanian middle class particularly awful. "These people have money. But they have not yet found a good dressing style. They only buy expensive clothes that represent high social status, like Dolce & Cabana.
"Young Lithuanians look like bad copies of MTV."

He talks about the "fifas," a popular term for a special kind of Lithuanian woman: "Fifas are blond and sweet. They are dressed like puppets and excessively made up. But they are neither innovative nor emancipated."
Pogrebnojus and Simanaviciute consider themselves quite avant-garde. "We are on a mission: In this climate of Lithuanian mainstream, we are the partisans of good taste," Pogrebnojus proclaims. Don't fault him for lacking ambition.

This is the kind of attitude that has earned the designers some ire. Many have called them arrogant and self-righteous.
"Sometimes, I feel like a stranger in my own country. When I am in Paris or London, I feel more at home than in Lithuania," Pogrebnojus says.

The clothes from A&V are attractive only for a small minority of Lithuanians, mostly Lithuanian and Russian intellectuals, most of whom live in Vilnius, says Pogrebnojus. "They enjoy the freedom of our time and want to dress accordingly."
Though they don't sell as much clothes as many of their Western European colleagues, the duo cares a little more about being able to "do what we want."

Soviet beginnings
Pogrebnojus is old enough to remember the Soviet-era when uniformity governed day-to-day life.
In 1993, Pogrebnojus, then 25, abandoned his study of theater at the Vilnius Conservatoire to focus on fashion. "One day, I met Vida on the street and we had the idea to work together on a collection for men. First it was like a game. We wanted to try and prove our designing skills," he says.

"Vida introduced me into this scene," says Pogrebnojus about his colleague who studied design in Kaunas.
Eventually they switched to women's fashion. "In general, Lithuanian men are not really interested in fashion. The most important thing for them is to look strong," says Pogrebnojus. Women are more open to "innovations."
The autumn collection does include a few pieces for men. The three men in the show, all in their mid-twenties, have a strikingly unprofessional manner in comparison to the women. "The guys don't have experience. I picked them on the streets because they looked interesting," the designer says. Obviously, professional male models are a hard thing to find in Lithuania.

Dima, one of the three models, is performing on the catwalk for the first time tonight. "Actually, I'm working in New Jersey as a programmer for Hewlett Packard," he says. He got acquainted with Pogrebnojus through a friend.
Dressed in a black overcoat, Dima carries a beautiful model in red stilettos on his shoulders across the flooded catwalk. The audience loves it. "It was an amazing experience," he says. "I would always do it again."