‘I want to make stuff with a statement,’ says Andreja Bistričić, the fashion designer who forms one half of Zagreb label Dioralop. ‘You might not like it when you see it but you certainly won’t forget it. I’ve always been a bit of a provocateur.’
We are sitting outside Dioralop’s brazenly minimalist, post-industrial boutique in a historic courtyard just off Vlaška, one of Zagreb’s main streets. Dark-hued, severely tailored clothes are hanging from spindly metal racks. I tentatively suggest that a certain post-punk, new-wave aesthetic has always been an important part of the Zagreb look, and that Dioralop is a noble successor to this great tradition – although there’s noting low-fi about their couture. ‘I do miss the edginess of that whole period’ ventures Bistričić’s design partner Maja Merlić. ‘Now everything is far too polished and nice – it’s as if mainstream culture took over.’
One of the most exciting new kids on the block as far as Croatian fashion is concerned, Dioralop was formed by Central St Martins-trained fashion designer Bistričić, and architect and photographer Merlić. Famous for producing cool geometric clothes featuring prints based on woozy Polaroid images, they are one of the few Croatian brands to have a presence in the international fashion world. They have appeared for two years running in Fashion Scout, the showcase for innovative new designers that takes place in Somerset House during London Fashion Week. Their latest collection has been bought by Opening Ceremony, the highly influential designer-fashion showroom that has an HQ in New York and branches throughout the fashion-conscious world. ‘It’s everybody’s dream to sell in that shop’, says Andreja.
Dioralop came into being just under four years ago. Bistričić already had a reputation for producing coolly unorthodox clothes. Merlić was known for her irresistibly entitled Sex in Bauhaus pendants (‘Bauhaus as in the legendary German art school, not the home improvements superstore,’ she helpfully explains), a pastiche of the current craze for corporate identity tags which involved bleary Polaroid photographs hung on the end of lanyards. It was Merlić’s ongoing experiments with her Polaroid pictures, created by intentionally allowing chemicals to bleed and subjecting them to extreme temperatures, which provided the inspiration for Dioralop.
As Merlić herself explains, ‘I bought an old Polaroid camera at the flea market but something got messed up and the chemicals got spilled all over the place, producing abstract patterns that looked really organic. So I tried to create more of these images through experimentation. I soon realised that the possibilities were inexhaustible.’
Merlić’s patterns were digitally printed onto Bistričić’s fabrics, producing an attention-grabbing range of baggy clothes in woozy colours. Although their more recent collections have featured a lot more in the way of subdued blacks, greys and browns, the Polaroid prints remain a crucial ingredient.
Dioralop’s initial collection in early 2012 included women’s shorts and smocks, alongside robes and kaftans for the guys. The label picked up the best young designer accolade in Croatian Elle magazine’s Style Awards later the same year. However they always had international ambitions. As Andreja explains, ‘We wanted the whole cake’.
Bistričić’s experience of studying in London provided a crucial platform for Dioralop’s subsequent career. ‘I don’t think we would have got into Fashion Scout if I hadn’t had Central St Martins on my CV,’ Andreja admits. ‘And my internship with Alexander McQueen turned out to be very useful. After the first show in London Fashion Week things moved very quickly for us – the international press really liked us. People were into the technique we used and the story behind it.’
Dioralop is still very much a Croatian operation in the sense that this is where the clothes are made. There’s a strong tradition of quality textile work in the country even though the big clothes-making factories went to the wall during the years of transition. The duo admits that the Croatian fashion world still lacks a strong local market and a strong local media. Croatian fashion weeks do exist, but they tend to be treated as showbiz happenings rather than the business launchpads they are supposed to be. ‘When you do a catwalk show in Croatia there are no buyers sitting in the front row; only Croatian celebrities,’ Andreja says. ‘And we can’t make a living from celebrities!’
‘I always like to say that we don’t have fashion seasons in Croatia’ Maja adds, ‘we only have wedding seasons and high-school prom seasons. The only way to make money from fashion in Croatia is to make wedding dresses and prom gowns.’
Nevertheless a lot of people do buy Dioralop clothes, especially, as Maja Merlić reveals, her colleagues in the architecture world. ‘Maybe it’s because a lot of people see architectural elements in our clothes. Architects and fashion designers have a lot of similarities in the way they experiment with materials to get different textures, different feels.’
Their menswear collection shown in spring 2012 featured flowing robes and knee-length kilts, something of a first for conservative Croatia. It generated fantastic PR however, and cemented Dioralop’s reputation as local leaders in edgy-but-wearable couture. One of the first people to buy one of Dioralop’s man-skirts was popular alternative-rock musician Damir Urban, a man of decidedly masculine appearance who has always had a freewheeling attitude to attire.
Indeed a lot of Dioralop’s newer designs are specifically unisex, a frank recognition of the fact that androgyny is simply one of the ways we are nowadays. ‘We are trying to get away from the difference between genders’ Andreja enthuses. ‘Because it’s cheaper!’ jokes Maja. ‘Because it’s popular!’ Andreja chirps back.
Increased international recognition for Dioralop is coming at a time when Croatia itself is becoming an increasingly recognisable brand.
‘Perceptions of Croatia are really changing,’ says Maja. ‘A couple of years ago, nobody had any idea where we were from but nowadays everybody says ‘Croatia! Dubrovnik! Festivals!’ People used to listen to our accents and think that we were Russian. Especially in Paris.’
‘Now it’s so cool to be from Croatia!’ Andreja concurs. ‘Whereas before it was, like, ‘where are you from??!’’
Dioralop (Vlaška 13, dioralop.org). Open 4-8pm Mon-Fri; 11am-2pm Sat. There are plans to open a pop-up shop in Dubrovnik in summer 2015.