The Czech „Coco Chanel“ - her rise to fame and fall from stardom
In a world still ruled by men, Hana Podolská –later dubbed the Czech “Coco Chanel” –fulfilled her childhood dream – she married a man who loved her passionately and built up a family fashion empire. Her clothes and fashion advice was sought after by the film stars of the First Republic, the wives of rich entrepreneurs and the country’s first ladies. But the communist take-over robbed her of everything she had worked hard to achieve and she died abandoned and forgotten in the harsh normalization years following the crushing of the Prague Spring.
Suffering from pricked fingers and tired after helping her mother with various chores at the shop she day-dreamed about becoming a fashion designer. For years its seemed that her dream was out of reach, but her life changed for the better when in 1907 she fell in love with and married a man who adored her and who was ready to help her realize her ambitions. Nada Dubcová, who wrote a biographical novel about Hana Podolská, says that at the time this was exceptional.
“Hana knew from the outset that he was not a man who would want to keep her at home, tending to the children. He realized how talented she was and wanted to help her achieve her goals. Unlike others he did not think himself superior as a man.”
“After the birth of an independent Czechoslovakia she was a bit worried about legislation and how it might affect her business. But after the war there was a feeling of euphoria, people were glad to be alive, they had gained independence and wanted to enjoy life. There was a boom in all trades and her own business prospered.”
The fashionable new address and Johana’s talent and charm opened doors effortlessly and Johana – now known as Hana Podolská – made use of every opportunity that presented itself. She designed dresses hats and fur coats for the bright lights of Prague society and the wives of influential businessmen- Marie Batová ,the wife of shoe mogul Tomáš Bata, film stars such as Natasha Gollová and Lida Baarová and even wife of President Edvard Beneš – Hana Benešová. She was also asked to produce models for films since there was no one to rival her on the Czech fashion scene.
“Hana was extremely talented – not just in designing clothes and as a seamstress but as a businesswoman as well. She had a great deal of common sense, she knew what needed to be done for her business to prosper and had the drive needed to accomplish her goals.”
By then her salon was employing several dozen seamstresses, both her sons and their wives. And she was organizing fashion shows for the public, the first designer to do so in Czechoslovakia. Hana was living out her dream. She had managed to keep the business running through two world wars and thought nothing could threaten her position. But clouds were fast gathering on the horizon. The communist take-over in 1948 shook the society in its foundations and turned Hana’s life upside down.
“The Hana Podolská salon was one of the first family businesses to be nationalized and renamed. Hana was allowed to stay on as an employee and one of her own employees – a man loyal to the communist party -was made director. Some time later he sacked her from her own salon.”
Leaving the salon she had established was a bad blow for Hana, but there was worse to come. Her younger son tried to flee the country and join his wife and child in London. He was arrested and spent several months in a labour camp. In 1952 in the midst of planning a second attempt to leave the country he was arrested, charged with espionage and sentenced to 13 years in jail. He was released seven years later after agreeing to collaborate with the communist secret police – which included spying on his own mother.
Viktor was beset by guilt and repeatedly tried to flee the country. In 1968 during the Prague Spring he finally managed to leave Czechoslovakia and urged his mother to come with him, but she refused feeling that this was her home. Nada Dubcová says she decided so despite the fact that she was frequently harassed by the communist secret police.
“Hana often suffered interrogations and raids of her home by the communist secret police. They were rude and took pleasure in humiliating her. At one point they even stole some money she had at home. But she was a strong and proud woman. She never bowed her head and you can see in the papers they made her sign after these interrogations that her hand was as firm and steady as ever.”
In her last years Hana faced her misfortunes alone. Her husband had died in a tragic accident in 1926, her elder son was paralyzed and her younger son was now living in the US. They were never to see each other again. The woman who was once the toast of Prague society and whose dresses every woman craved – died abandoned and forgotten in 1972, leaving the little she had to her caregiver. Her salon, now renamed and unrecognizable, survived her by 19 years – closing its doors in 1991.