Nostalgia always tints one’s memory with a golden hue, and that’s what comes to mind when walking around the city center of Sofia. On the second floor of one of these lost architectural jewels of the Bulgarian capital is the atelier, office, showroom and the whole universe of Mila Ateva and Vasil Poleganov, owners of the brand Sassa Björg. It’s women’s apparel that you can always identify on the streets of Sofia by their beautiful silhouettes, colorful natural fabrics and unique twists.
Once you are in the showroom, you know that this is a place where people have been enjoying themselves and will continue to do so. You can feel it around the place; it’s almost like back in the days when tailors and custom-made orders felt like a holy ritual, a connection between you and your clothes. Somehow along the way, this experience has disappeared from the affordable market because of fast fashion and its politics. That is why Sassa Björg’s house feels like a cozy bastion of handcrafted design, attention to detail and quality before quantity, surviving in a small struggling market — and not only surviving but thriving.
Mila, how did you start the brand? You have a background in fashion design, but for a 23-year-old person it takes a lot of courage.
M: I was a designer for a bigger, ready-to-wear clothing brand, and I never thought I could have my own. But my mom encouraged me to do it, and she and my dad backed me up financially with a bank loan. The truth is that when you are young, you are more eager and more likely to jump into the unknown, without hesitation or being afraid.
Your relationship started as a couple. Vasil, how did you become the other protagonist of Sassa Björg?
V: Mila had the brand already for a year but was struggling with the financial management and other affairs that weren’t connected to the clothes making part of the process. In this situation, you either hire a person to take care of these things for you, or you can team up with someone that you can trust. In our case, we decided to go for the latter. I saw the potential of this business, so I proposed that we would apply for a credit and start restructuring. I suggested a cooperation, mainly because I saw my place there — someone had to take care of the things she was not interested in or the things that weren’t her strong suit.
M: He came at a very dark period, just when I thought I was going to fail. I couldn’t hold it together any longer. My intention going into this was to make clothes, not to manage a business. With his help, Sassa continued on its way and grew to what it is today. When I started it, I picked out the name Björg, which comes from the Norwegian name for help, save and rescue, because I’ve always been helped, first by my family, then my friends and later on by my partner.
How did you hold the ground at a moment when the crisis hit and the small businesses were suffering the most?
V: The only ‘formula’ was that each of us took responsibility for what each was good at. The crises haven’t passed at all, but I think that at the face of big business taking over, more and more people have a growing appreciation for smaller but sustainable concepts — concepts that are not mainly profit-oriented.
The other ‘formula’ is financial discipline, which is of paramount importance. This is something that we implemented slowly but is now a fact. Also, I believe in the idea that if you work hard towards something, you will achieve it, and if you aren’t there yet, then you need to put in some more effort.
What did you learn in the design approach these five years as Sassa Björg?
M: At the beginning, I thought that the design comes first — the originality, the distorted and unique approach to silhouettes, the irregular look. With time, I realized that women come here to look better. In particular, most of our Bulgarian clients come to us for our twist but in a more sexy and feminine way. I like minimalistic ‘baggy’ silhouettes, but I also love to work with colors and shapes, so there is a sort of creative paradox living in me. And our clients seem to appreciate it.
V: You can tell that Sassa Björg is a Bulgarian brand by the waist fitted silhouette. That’s kind of a must. Women here appreciate it; I suppose that man do, too.
How do you find inspiration for your designs — do you know what you are looking for, or do you prefer to get lost in the process?
M: The fabrics instantly ‘speak out’ to me. I would look at and touch the textile and it would give me the necessary information. Sometimes I would let it mature for a while, but eventually, it comes to me. I’m not influenced by trends too much, and I aim to shape the silhouette and concentrate on the details. From then on, everything is a question of how far you would go with your fantasy.
Mila, you graduated from New Bulgarian University with a degree in fashion design. How does that help you and is it a solid background?
M: I learnt the basics of the craft that are so important to start with. Nowadays, there are many self-made apparel brands, but before you go wild with your designs, you should know how to bring out the detail, how to build a concept, where to start when creating a piece. That kind of knowledge is really useful, but nothing can prepare you like the actual work and practice, trial and error.
The house of Sassa Björg looks like an important step for your growth. How did you get to this point?
V: After moving out of the initial small studio that we occupied, we used another bigger apartment as a stepping stone for a year until we were ready for this move. We started looking for houses in the central area, but we had something very particular already in our imagination. Sometimes we would ask neighbors to find some contacts of houses that look empty and are not on the rental market. That’s how we found this one; it looked like a bomb shelter, an old beautiful house that was totally abandoned for many years, but we saw the potential in it.
M: It sounds funny, but this is how we found one of our valued staff members — she was a client. We made her wedding dress, and shortly after, she came to us and said that she really wanted to work with us. So we told her to come the next day at the remodeling process and she jumped in straight away; she wasn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty. We would like to think that people work here with enjoyment, and this house is somehow their house as well. And this spirit translates into the clothes that we make.
Interview by Elena Sergova