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Hungarian designed takeover

Hungary has no shortage of designers, but so far only those hired by large firms have made it abroad. Now Showroom Budapest, a project to show off Hungarian design flair in the U.S., has put the limelight on a sector that is yet untapped abroad: Hungarian fashion.

People passing by gGalery in California on February 2 were probably surprised by what they saw. Paintings had been removed from the walls and had been replaced by racks hung on a tangled net installation. Attached to the ceiling, undressed dummies were swimming freestyle in the air, stretching their arms ahead of them as if waving hello to their peers displayed on the floor. Nothing about the gallery, now shining in a golden glimmer, resembled its original look.

gGalery, located in the heart of Santa Monica in a busy shopping area near the sea, has given way a new form of art. The products of 12 Hungarian designers, from fashion to jewelry to furniture occupies the place for the next 10 days, during which time it has been rechristened Showroom Budapest. Gallery owner Gábor Csupó, who moved to the United States in the ’60s and is an Emmy-award winning animation artist for the Simpsons, does not seem to mind. Indeed, it was he who offered his exhibition area to the curators, who have been keen to display examples of Hungarian fashion overseas.

The idea of Showroom Budapest is the brainchild of Mariann Jankovics, a young photographer and stylist. Jankovics had done a series of photo shoots for various fashion outlets with her company Arian Illusion. At one of these shoots she met the designer of Sarolt Jewelry, a Hungarian brand known for its grandiose pieces made of leather and precious metal. Jankovics saw uniqueness and potential in Sarolt. She took some photos and the two even created a new gloves line, Yessus.

A few months later, Jankovics traveled to Los Angeles with jewelry, gloves and portfolios and called in at a few luxurious L.A. fashion stores. “On second thoughts, it was quite a brave move,” she recalls. “These shops don’t care to receive people from the streets, let alone without fixed appointments.” Still, she succeeded. “One of the shop owners asked when I could ship from the collection on the photos. It was then that it occurred to me, this could work on a large scale.”

Why L.A.? “Because it’s very far away and I love challenges,” she laughs. “Los Angeles is the perfect location. People here love fashion, they are open and don’t hesitate to ask you what you are wearing if they like it.”

Preparations for Showroom Budapest kicked off officially when Jankovics returned to Hungary and teamed up with fashion designer Anne Amelié. In selecting other designers they applied a very strict filter. Despite her young age, Jankovics is extremely professional and takes no half-measures. Showroom Budapest looked for designers who created “clearly-defined goods of high artistic value”. Even business cards and display had to look professional.

The results of the official opening, mainly attended by local investors, celebrities and journalists, are promising. “We hope that the offers we received are made as seriously as they seem,” Jankovics summarized.

Taking Hungarian fashion abroad has become more popular only recently. The Orbán government, keen to forge business alliances across borders, has embraced design as well. The rationale behind this should not be that surprising. National design is easily distinguished and, if well packaged or tailored to regional needs, can be an excellent export product. Hungary has no shortage of designers, but so far only those hired by multinational firms such automakers Daimler-Benz or Kia have made it abroad. Designers simply lack the funds to be discovered outside of the country: paying the fees of a stand at an international fair is usually well beyond their means. And even if they can afford it, they often return empty handed: it is not sure that prospective buyers will attend such events.

Sensing the impasse, the Hungarian International Trade Agency, a government body tasked with boosting investment and exports, stepped in last year. To help designers, HITA either held its own networking events or rented stands at designer fairs in London, Vienna and Paris. The costs of the stand, its installation, and support in finding prospective partners prior to the events are all taken on by HITA. At TENT London, an invitation-only event, eight people (glass designer Péter Borkovics, product designers Sára Kele, Gábor Kodolányi, Daniella Koós, and László Tompa, porcelain designer Zoltán Lublóy, and textile designers Réka Molnár and Zsuzsanna Sárossy) had the chance to cast light on various aspects of Hungarian design. Four of them did so literally, having designed lamps of all kinds.

This year, the agency will give a chance to the winner of Gombold újra to participate at a foreign event. The annual contest for designers in Hungary (from this year opened up to designers from the other Visegrád Four countries: Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia), is another state-subsidized event for designers to show off their flair. “It was Gombold újra that prompted HITA to support designers more; design is truly a segment of the Hungarian market/industry where we can excel,” said Erzsébet Dobos, director of HITA. “These people are creative, and offer goods at reasonable prices, yet no one has really cared about them at international levels.”

HITA plans to appear again at TENT London, Blickfang (in Vienna), and Who’s Next (Paris) plus a few more events in Prague and Germany. Yet the success rate, or rather the ROI, of such events is hard to estimate. The trade agency does try to follow-up and often gets feedback from designers, but it is still hard to calculate. Sales is a better indicator to gauge effectiveness and to map out local taste. That’s also a reason why the creators of Showroom Budapest hope to extend their presence and open shops abroad.