Contemporary fashion inspired by tradition
Weaving and embroidery as parts of a unique and authentic history and culture of Mt.Manjača, etched to Aleksandra Ivanković’s memory when she was a little girl.
Exploring art and culture, travelling and getting to know the richness of different cultures in the West and East, inspired the 34-year-old architect and designer to transform her creativity and knowledge into Imaginarium studio which offers modern clothes, jewellery, accessories and toys.
Led by a strong feeling to turn her creative hobbies into a job and to focus her energy on creating a brand, in July 2017 she started a small business. In the past five years, she faced many risks, ups and downs, and found support which helped her business survive and grow her ideas.
As a participant of the BizUp project, which is being implemented by Foundation 787 and UN Women and financed by the government of the United Kindgom, she currently works on the promotion of her brand and on expanding to painting techniques of a design on her clothing items where she combines traditional ethnic elements of the area of Zmijanje from Manjača with a unique and modern look.
„Significance needs to be given to heritage. I am interested in heritage and in general in anything that has to do with history and traditional ornamentals,” Aleksandra says.
Zmijanje is an area in north-west Bosnia, between towns of Banja Luka, Mrkonjić Grad, Sanski Most and Ključ, which existed as an administrative-territorial unit until the end of the 13th century and which later changed its borders and definitions. Culture and tradition of Zmijanje were kept for generations and they are nowadays present with the Orthodox Christian population in this region. The recognisable Zmijanje embroidery is on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity since 2014.
As a graduate architect, Aleksandra worked for several years in an architecture bureau in Banja Luka, as a furniture constructor and lighting designer. In 2011, she was working as a teaching assistant on architecture studies in Thailand, and the people and culture of this far away country showed her the richness they carry and the specifics of this cultural heritage they needed to go back to in the tradition of their own families. When she got back home to Banja Luka, she started looking for a way to do the same as her Thai work colleagues – give her own specific culture a modern face. Out of her personal interest and as a hobby, she started working on the digitalisation of the Zmijanje embroidery.
Later when she started Imaginarium, through a mentoring programme with the Japanese development agency, she worked with business advisers and designers who helped her focus the work.
„I started very broadly with my work. Everything I was doing up until then, I started doing at the same time: ceramics, furniture, clothing, toys, all sorts of things. And then, as I was starting to do the digitalisation of the Zmijanje embroidery, they said to me: ‘Well, why don’t you do this?’. It was then when I started with all these clothing items with a contemporary expression.”
Seeing great value and potential for her design with traditional ornaments to be presented globally, Aleksandra started working on this nowadays recognisable brand in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
She made a wooden stamp which makes the Zmijanje embroidery shapes and by stamping it on textile, Aleksandra creates a unique look of her clothing, which includes dresses of adjustable width, elegant kimonos and blouses.
Financing a small business
Two years ago, due to lack of finances, Aleksandra faced a choice of either closing down the business or finding a way to fund it. As she did not find a bank which would approve her a loan based on her small business, she was forced to take a loan from a microcredit organisation with an extremely high return rate. She took it.
„I could not get a loan, because I could not prove an income. Then I took a loan from a microcredit organisation with a 27 percent return rate. The following six months were very stressful – buying materials, paying the workers, and mostly acquiring equipment. I bought a computer, a 3D printer, a sewing machine, tools like a tailor’s mannequin and larger amounts of raw material,” she explains, adding that a great support to her was the project Challenge to Change which was financed by Sweden and which refunded more than a third of what she invested.
Recalling all the challenges related to the inability of getting a bank loan, Aleksandra says that her business was not recognised enough and that she felt like she did not have enough understanding as a woman in entrepreneurship.
„It’s a huge problem being a woman. It may sound like a washed-out phrase, but the fact is that half the people don’t want to talk to you, and those who do want are mostly those who aren’t the decision makers.“
Importance of mentorship
She was lucky, Aleksandra says, that the buyers were mostly ordering by recommendation, and the business started off well during the pandemic when internet trade was on the rise. Through the project BizUp she is now working with mentors on the promotion of her business and her brand in the digital media.
„Mentors are important because they practically go with you through everything you need. To me, for example, a weak spot was marketing and promotion. My mentor goes through everything with me, including articles, how to put them into the Facebook manager,“ she says, and adds: „Working one on one is extremely important, continuously and practically on a concrete thing. It is also great that I can communicate with other mentors if I recognise I have a problem with something.”
„I needed someone to tell me ‘These are your weak spots, focus on that, and do this’, someone who would give me the tools, show me the steps. I have a problem that when I start something I don’t know much about or when I face a problem, I start looking for information on all sides. Then everything mixes up and you can’t see a forest from a tree. It is great that people in BizUp are experts and that they can see things I perhaps can’t see and the financial help was just enough that you can go through the crisis“, she says, describing the project focused on the economic empowerment of women.
Through BizUp she managed to buy tools for screen printing which will allow her to develop her design. Although she has been working mostly alone for the past five years, including the last few months from home, Aleksandra says that with four small children of her own, the challenge is even bigger because she needs additional attention so that they don’t hurt themselves with her tools and paint, while playing. This is why she and several other Banja Luka creatives are considering starting a co-working space in the premises of her parents' house. Benefits of such work in a creative environment are mutual support and positive energy. She is also discussing a closer collaboration with an association of women who do Zmijanje embroidery with the aim to give it a contemporary use.
This article was created within the project “Women Economic Empowerment in Bosnia and Herzegovina – Rebuilding Better” which is implemented by UN Women in BiH with the financial support of government of the United Kingdom.