In National Gallery, young fashion designers send message: “We’re Next”

Fashion design Béla Juttner, photo: archive of We’re Next

Fashion initiative We’re Next held their third annual event in Prague on Thursday evening, featuring designs by students from Prague’s Academy of Arts, or Umprum, and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. I attended the show to see the collections and to speak with the young talents who brought them to life.

Fashion design Béla Juttner,  photo: archive of We’re Next
Twenty-five student designers from four continents sent collections down the runway at Prague’s Veletržní palác, in an unclassifiable mix of influences and approaches to contemporary couture. We’re Next was founded by Czech designer Lukáš Spilka, who continues to direct the shows with his partner, the model Simona Mikulová. I sat down with Mikulová outside the gallery doors to hear about the many hats she wears in the organization and how We’re Next has evolved into the grand production it is today.

“Basically, at the beginning, it was my boyfriend Lukáš who created this whole event, and at the beginning I thought I [just] was going to help him with it, but then I think I started to manage many different things. So now I do the casting, I work with models, and I also do the whole backstage and fittings, and I also participate in media stuff and everything. So it's many things.”

Tell me about this history of the project.

“The history of the project is, this year it's happening for the third time. So we basically did it twice in the past two years, but the thing is that the venue's changed because the first two years we did it in La Fabrika, in the theatre space. And now it's changed. Basically the whole concept is because Lukáš, he studied in Umprum, in Prague, and he also studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, so he's basically like the good connection. And he created this whole event just because in the past he participated in platforms in Prague such as Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week or Designblok, and after all this he wanted to create his own show. But then in fact he realized that he has many friends who would like to join him, so then at the end of the first year, the final amount of designers was 26.”

And it's completely independent, now, of both academies?

“Yep, yep, yep.”

But you're sticking to these two schools?

Fashion design Brent,  photo: archive of We’re Next
“Yep. We are, and I think it's good that Lukáš created it like this. Because basically the people from Umprum and the Royal Academy are all his classmates. So, yeah, we like this idea that we know these people in person. And I think once you know them, once you're friends with them, it's easier to work with them.”

While a couple of last night’s designers showed ready-to-wear clothing, the vast majority of the garments looked less like commercial fashion and more like sculpted museum pieces. Mikulová told me that she and Spilka wanted the show to pay tribute to its venue in a way that was accessible to their audience.

“What we wanted to change in Prague is that usually the people who come to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, they usually are people who are invited …I mean, if you want to enter it and you are not really invited, you need to buy a pass, which is like 200 Euros, which I find very ridiculous for Prague. So we wanted to make this open to basically everyone. And if you want to come and see it, you can buy a ticket for like 260 Crowns, which is like ten Euros, so for us it's like going to the cinema. And I think it's very worth it because we present many people.

“But then on the other side, people who we invite, it's very limited, because we wanted to squeeze it into [just] the most important people. So we have the teachers from the academy here. We also always invite the teachers from the academy in Antwerp. This year we also have people from the Belgian embassy, we have the Belgian attaché in Prague, and also his assistant. And then…if you see this huge metal door [to Veletržní palác], they are made by Michal Gabriel, the Czech sculptor, so we invited him, and he also took his family... So we wanted to invite people who are not really into fashion, but into art in general.”

And this is the first time in Veletržní palác. That must be a big deal, especially for a lot of these young designers, to be in a space like this…what does it mean to you guys to be here?

“For us it was kind of a surprise because this is the first time we are doing it here, but we really wanted it because we really like the venue, but also the fact that something like this is happening in the National Gallery. For me, I wanted to bring it in this direction of being not very commercial. Because once you see the garments, especially from people who study in Antwerp, it's something very specific, and I think it's's more arty, and it's not commercial at all. So we wanted to make this combination of what we present, where we present it, which kind of people we invite, and do something very—how do you say? Not really arty, but we don't want to make it commercial.”

One the designers Mikulová said was receiving quite a bit of buzz is Frederica Di Leo, a young Italian woman who recently graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Di Leo’s work is marked by an eclectic mix of graphic prints, all of which she designs herself. The models in her We’re Next collection wore dark glasses on top of tight fabric head coverings that obscured most of their faces. I asked her about her inspiration for the collection.

Shoe design Di Du,  photo: archive of We’re Next
“It's about Rita Atria, who is a Sicilian girl. I'm from Sicily, from Palermo. And the girl was a witness of justice, and in the 90s, she fought against the mafia. She came from a mafia family, and she fought against it. So she went to the judge and said everything she'd seen, and stuff like this. So then they decided to put her in another city with a different name. She was just 17, and she was forced to live in Rome with a different identity, she didn't know who she was, her family didn't want to talk to her anymore, and she was just hiding in the house, always scared that these people were gonna find her and kill her and stuff.

"Because that's what happens when you are a witness of justice in Sicily. I mean, people cannot know what you name is or where you live, otherwise they'll find you. And you have to be protected by your judge in the state. But then...her second father got killed by the mafia, so after that she was sure they were going to find her, so she decided to kill herself, because that means [there would have been no proof of what had really happened]. Instead, if they would have found her, then they would have forced her to take everything back. Like, 'Okay, what I said is not true. These people are not mafiosa people, they're not criminals.' So to avoid that, she decided to kill herself. And because of her there was a huge process and a huge trial, and like a hundred people went to jail.

“And I was so angry because I'm from Palermo, and no one really talks about her. And I'm like, ‘Why don't people talk about this girl? She was so important!’ So the collection is about this lady hiding in the house, losing her identity, and coming from a city where you have to fight so hard to get justice. But when you look at the collection, it's really colorful and it looks kind of happy [at first glance]. You have to look [more closely] at the prints and the things written to understand what's behind. Because at the end, I mean, we are doing fashion, so I don't want it to look really heavy and sad. And it also represents the duality of Sicily, because it's such a happy country, everyone wants to go there on holidays, and it's this beautiful place where everyone wants to be in summer and spend a great time, but at the same time, a lot of dark things are going on and were going on. So it's just both of the things. And there's a print that I keep using: there is a carduus flower. It's really colorful, it's fuchsia and purple, but then it's full of spikes, and for me it represents a bit what Sicily is for me.”

Tell me about the face…

“...the covering. The hood is more about her loss of identity when she's hiding in the house, and she doesn't know what her name is because she's forced to change names every time she changes apartment. And the sunglasses on top, they're like binoculars. Because she feels that she's spied on all the time because people are looking for her, and she's hiding in this house behind curtains, so of course she's totally covered because she doesn't want people to see her and discover where she is, otherwise they would kill her. These sunglasses are actually 3D printed, and I worked with a company in Belgium to make them. It's about this hiding.”

Tell me about how you got involved in We're Next.

Photo: archive of We’re Next
“Because I was in class with Lukáš. We did school in Antwerp all together, and we started together like five years ago. We were good friends and we respect each other as designers as well, and not just as people. And when he started two years ago I was also part of We're Next, and then I took a year off from school and couldn't participate because I didn't have a collection because I was working, and now this year I did my Master's. So that's my Master's collection from Antwerp [on the runway tonight].”

I asked Di Leo about her plans now that she’s graduated from the university in Antwerp. She told me that work found her, rather than the other way around, thanks to her experience working for a prominent Italian textile manufacturer.

“Actually I didn't start applying for anyone because already after school in July, I got a call from Prada. Because I worked with them last year in Milan. I was working for Marzotto [Group], for Ratti. Ratti's a group that belongs to Marzotto, and they do prints. And Prada was my client. So I met these guys and they were really nice, and now they've just asked me to work with them, because we worked together really well before, and now they've asked me to go and work for them, so that's what I'm doing. So I moved to Milan, I found an apartment the day before coming to Prague, so tomorrow I'm going back there. And I have a house! A house—a flat.”

This is a crazy time of life for you!

“Yeah. I went to Antwerp, I did all my moving in a week, and then I found an apartment in Milan in a week, now I'm here, and I'm going to go back and start in two weeks working.”

The last thing I want to ask is: What is it like to be part of this group of people? Do you all get to know each other in the process of putting this show together?

“Of course when you have to prepare things you are a bit on your own, but then you realize even if you don't know all the people who are involved—because there are many designers also from Prague, the ones from Antwerp all know each other, but the ones from Prague you don't know—it's so nice when you are inside [the group]. You suddenly help each other, even if you don't know each other then you just help each other, and it feels nice. It feels like one group.”