Meet the Former Ballet Dancer Creating Fashion in Fairytale Prague

© Jiri Kalfar
© Jiri Kalfar
Photo of India Doyle
21 March 2017

As part of our Behind the Seams series, Culture Trip catches up with the designer to talk about the transformative power of theatre, gender binaries, and fashion with a conscience.

While Prague might not be the first city one thinks of for fashion, it happens to be home to one of the industry’s rising stars. Jiri Kalfar is a Czech designer who had already experienced extensive success as a dancer before he turned his eye to design. Creating pieces that are romantic and gender fluid, Jiri embraces an ephemeral, pensive and striking aesthetic. Now coveted by an international set, and featured in the likes of Schön!, TANK and Harpers Bazaar, Kalfar is making his mark on the sartorial landscape too. At a time when all eyes are swivelling to Eastern Europe’s fashion scene (as much as its politics), Kalfar represents the new generation of designers speaking to an international audience and combating old narratives with an open creative vision.

CT: You originally trained as a ballet dancer, why did you turn your mind to fashion design?

JK: It was combination of things: injury, and the newly found freedom I experienced due to it. Ballet is very difficult. It’s not a job, it’s a passion and a lifestyle. You are a top athlete, an actor, a human and a performer … all in one person. I loved to dance and I was quite good at it too, but as I grew older I realised that is the only thing I know and probably the only thing I would have ever done. I was lucky that by the age of 21 I had worked with all the choreographers that I could have ever dreamt of working with – Pina Bausch, Wayne McGregor, Jiri Kylian or Jacopo Godani. And so I wanted to discover other things which interested me. I started as a model, which allowed me to travel and meet many interesting people; I lived in NYC, Milan, got jobs in South America. The travelling part was great but I didn’t enjoy it that much. I like to create and evolve; be responsible for my own action and destiny and I didn’t like the agent thing, or the waiting and insecurity. I think it was natural for me to move to design. Admittedly I didn’t know much at the beginning as I didn’t study fashion design. But I took lessons. I observed. I taught myself and found out that I actually really enjoyed it.

CT: Do you see fashion as performance?

JK: I see life as a performance. In the scale of things everything is so insignificant but yet we want to do the best with it. We all have roles to play, masks to wear, clothes to cover or enhance who we are…

CT: What strands of ballet do you feel are present in your design ethos, if any?

JK: I think there is a lot in my design that comes from my theatre background. I always try to tell a story with my collections, to have a storyline. I don’t like casual or minimalist design, I like when it leaves feeling, emotions. I think that is what is very similar to ballet.

Jiri Kalfar SS17 | © Jiri Kalfar

CT: How does the city of Prague influence your design? Is it an exciting city to work in, from a fashion perspective?

JK: I love Prague. I have lived and visited a lot of cities, but there is no city like Prague. It is a bit like a fairytale, old stories and legends are on every corner. It is almost magical. But new things are happening too, and that is exciting. While it’s an inspiring city, this doesn’t translate to the fashion. In that sense there is not much. However, I live in Prague because it inspires me and comforts me, and I consider myself a European. It doesn’t matter where I live, Europe is only small and it doesn’t really matter where you live, where you do business or where you go on vacation. It is all part of one continent which I am a citizen of. I showcase in Kiev and Milan, sell mainly in London and create in Prague.

CT: Increasingly the boundaries between men and women are being broken down, do you think gender still has a role to play in fashion?

JK: I think that for catwalk fashion, gender doesn’t matter anymore. You can be really masculine, feminine or gender neutral. It does not matter as long as you are your own person. It is a fantasy world. However the real world is different, and we still have a lot of prejudices about what is normal and what is acceptable. I think that’s OK. You need more time in the real world; you have to be accepting of others if you want others to accept you, it’s about compromise and requires more time.

Jiri Kalfar SS17 | © Jiri Kalfar

CT: What are your favourite materials to work with?

JK: I like to change. One season I am obsessed with silk, the next it is technical materials. I am trying to make our own materials too, from hand-woven fabrics to prints, and so on. I also love ‘bling bling’, so anything that shines and has an edge on it – sequins, metallic silk, lace. Anything gold! On the other hand I am very cautious about the environment too, and animal welfare. I would never work with fur or leather. I am trying to work only with wool when I know where it comes from too. I think we overproduce and over-make, so I even recycle materials. I am not ashamed to use material I have already used, if I have some left. I don’t like waste.

CT: What have been the biggest challenges of launching your own label?

JK: To trust myself. To go on my own way. Often when I felt something works artistically, the business was not doing really well. It is a struggle and permanent fight in your head. But as long as I know what my reason is for being in fashion and I stay true to it, then it takes me the right way. So it all comes down to honesty, as always and as in everything.

Jiri Kalfar SS17 | © Jiri Kalfar

CT: Looking at AW17, what were your main inspirations?

JK: I think the world finds itself in a difficult position at the moment. The mood has changed. I think we are on the brink of either repeating history or learning from it and doing it better this time around. I was inspired by stories of revolutions and protests from the past. I wanted to show that whatever your cause, it is worth fighting for, but not with guns or violence but with reason and belief: Start with yourself, help others, break the rules, break the system.

CT: Fashion is changing, what do you anticipate being the biggest challenges for the next few years?

JK: Fashion is always changing, yet still the same. It is the biggest paradox. The only challenge really is to be cautious. Not just in fashion. We all have to protect the planet. If each one of us does a little bit, less screaming and complaining on social media but actual action, the world can maybe survive .

Jiri Kalfar SS17 | © Jiri Kalfar
Jiri Kalfar SS17 | © Jiri Kalfar
Jiri Kalfar SS17 | © Jiri Kalfar
Jiri Kalfar SS17 | © Jiri Kalfar

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