Style / Lessons from emperors and clothes

Aproning, cuffed sleeves, pleating, and cuffs by Gosia Baczynska

Photos provided


I rode the school bus with the Telaak and the Stromecki kids. A company called Wierzba Meats sponsored my softball team. Where I grew up, Polish jokes were never the rage. Making a dumb blonde remark was suicidal. Lech Walesa lived thousands of miles away, but we thought of him as a local Cold War hero. Yes, I grew up around Polish folks and Polish politics, but I never heard about the warshipVasa until I moved to Sweden. Nowadays, it’s a lesson taught at business school, and it goes something like this:


About the time the Dutch and the English and the Pilgrims were all coming to America saying, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” the powers around the Baltic Sea were busy with their own geographical elbowing. The Baltic region is part of my new neighborhood. In a way, it is like a scrunched-up combination of Lakes Huron, Erie, and Ontario—a European version of the Great Lakes. Then I pretend that Sweden is Michigan. Finland is southern Ontario. Russia looms large, just like the rest of Ontario and Quebec. The countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are like the Niagara, Erie, and Chautauqua counties of Western New York. Meanwhile, Poland is like Pennsylvania, Germany like Ohio, and Denmark—practically Chicago. It isn’t a perfect comparison, I know, but it helps me remember. It also helps me understand the politics behind the Vasa


Imagine it is the 1600s, and Michigan is a cold, poor, underpopulated, and dreadfully disorganized place with a brand new king facing security threats from Illinois, Ohio, and Quebec. Imagine if this king had an annoying cousin in Pennsylvania who kept threatening to take over Detroit. This brand new king would see all this potential for trouble in his homeland and say to himself, “I can’t be a wimp.” Then he would turn to his fellow Michiganders and say, “Listen up. I’m going to draft you all into battle. I’ll make our field cannons a little lighter so we can move faster and kill more. In time, we can take over all the lands around the coasts, and control the trade routes. Controlling trade routes is good. OK, got it? Great. Let’s get going.” And imagine that they did get going and had a very successful start to this expansion campaign, as if Michigan swooped into Southern Ontario, came to control Western New York, and for a while, took over parts of Pennsylvania. There Michigan would be, a superpower on the verge of laying claim to Ohio and Chicago and more. To close the deal, the Michigan king would come up with another grand plan. “Battleships,” he would order. “Build me battleships.”


This is essentially what Sweden did. It controlled Finland and the lands that would become Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. And it had already swung down around the coast and taken over part of present day Poland. In fact, the Swedish king, Gustav II of the House of Vasa, was actually on the ground fighting in Poland. He was a walk-the-walk kind of king, whom many came to fear and respect because his ideas seemed to work. As he was planning to further expand his empire, he sent a dispatch back to Stockholm with another idea: “I want a new weapon.” Rather than have ships with just enough cannons to disable enemy boats so the sailors could board and take over, the king wanted a ship that could blow hostile vessels to smithereens. “Build me big boats,” he said, “big boats with lots of cannons.” 


And the engineers began to build. “Like this?” his engineers asked.


“No bigger,” he ordered. 


“But we don’t know…”


“Just do it,” Gustav II insisted, and, because he was respected and feared, his ship builders tried. They made it tall and gorgeous, with a heavy deck for a row of cannons. “No, no, no. I want two decks with cannons,” Gustav II insisted, “and lots of ornate carvings on the sides to prove our greatness. And add living quarters for the sailors and their wives and children.” But rather than admitting they did not know how to build such a battleworthy cruise ship, the designers began cutting windows into what I think of as the basement area of the boat. Rather than use this basement area of the boat for storing extra balance-helpful ballast, they put in another deck of cannons for firing out of those basement windows. They went to the Dutch for engineering help. They also turned to a few Poles. “This isn’t going to work,” the Dutch said. “This will be just fine,” the Polish engineers may have encouraged. No one had the nerve—or perhaps the interest—in telling Gustav II the truth. 


“I’m tired of w-a-i-t-i-n-g,” this king said from his campsite in Poland. “I want my boat now!” So, the shipbuilders, fond of having their heads attached to their necks, did as they were told. They put the massive stunner of a vessel into the water at Stockholm and christened it Vasa. Yes, it was a glorious day for the launch, and the Swedes gathered along the piers to wave her farewell. They were still waving their handkerchiefs when a light gust of wind filled up the sails and tipped the boat over. Water rushed in through all those open basement windows, and the Vasa, along with a lot of Sweden’s hopes for control of the Baltic, sank quickly into the harbor. 


The Swedes learned a lesson about the need to encourage project transparency and product testing in design innovation. Perhaps that is how they ended up with the Volvo. But my takeaway from the Vasa is a bit different. My takeaway is more basic: don’t mess with Poland. The Germans would come to understand this. So would the Russians and the Soviets after them. The Poles are a people who survive. And this is true of their style markers and resources, whether ethnic or urban, and regardless of socio-economic stressors. Reacting to the way Polish women maintained very personal fashion senses during the stark Soviet-ruled period, magazine editor Janina Ipohorska said, “Fashion is a discipline of art in which everybody can be an artist.” The fashion-consuming public in Poland and their designers have, for centuries now, been inspired by ribbonry and wreaths, sashes and fitted bodices, blocked shawls over poof (remnants of the trendsetting polonaise), floral prints and plaids, and swing. Fur trim and leather booting continue—in seaming and lines, if not the actual material—reflecting the historical realities of climate. For men and women, there is plenty of white wool and black wool and hats—lots of hats. 


Non is a brand that uses local merino wool to create a touchable, strong black silhouette. Natasha Pavluchenko gives style credits to Warsaw by showing in Paris and Rome, and offering bespoke options along with her ready-made collections. Two Warsaw sisters, Kasia and Julia Skorzynska, design under the brand name Kaaskas, blending aesthetics from home, Brazil, China, and Japan. The look is labeled “international,” but you will recognize the contributions from each design gene pool. An Ania Kuczynska outfit could find a home in any Christoffel Lubienietzky painting (or one of his 1600s Dutch contemporaries, like Vermeer). Robert Kupisz, whose label looks something like QTTW, creates pieces that could be at home in the highlands of Poland as readily as on the beaches of Long Island. They are young, fresh, and alive. For a menswear collection that seems most likely to be nominated for an Oscar, go online and explore the collections from Konrad Parol. 


Business schools use the Vasa to preach the tenets of corroboration. I am thankful for Vasa’s story because it reminds me to look toward the east—to look east of New York, Paris, and London for fashion inspiration. It also reminds me to look to the past. The designers who are lifting Warsaw to runway heights know how to blend new ideas and other-nation design traditions with Polish custom, Polish practicality, and Polish resolve. It’s good to know who you are, and these designers know how to create a signature look that feels like it has always been around, and, somehow, always will be.          


Catherine Berlin is a longtime style writer for Spree.


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