Fashion icon Coco Chanel once quipped, “In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.” It’s a mantra 29-year-old Edmonton fashion designer Natasha Lazarovic has taken to heart.
Under her label, Temna Fialka (“dark violet” in Ukrainian), Lazarovic’s innovative, daring and fantastical designs are met with equal parts bewilderment and fascination. “I don’t mind if people are talking about me. It means I’m doing something right.”
Lazarovic’s Slavic roots provide rich inspiration — as do the artistic achievements of her father’s family, who emigrated from a small village in the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe. Her use of texture, colour and unorthodox materials makes Lazarovic’s designs unmistakable on the runway and difficult to categorize — couture-esque gowns often punctuated with her signature, ornately tailored headdresses; bright, flowing silks intermingled with chic leatherwork, the whimsy of feathers and the softness of recycled raccoon or fox tails.
“She’s certainly not mainstream, by any regard,” says friend and mentor, Cheri Grimwood, a Vancouver-based fashion agent with whom Lazarovic has worked for the past 10 years. “If she went for a more pedestrian look with her designs, she’d get bored.”
Besides, being mainstream would go entirely against Lazarovic’s philosophy of life. “It’s so generic. It’s so bread-and-butter. Millions of people are doing it — why copy?” It comes as no surprise that Lazarovic counts similarly flamboyant artists such as Frida Kahlo, Alexander McQueen and Jean Paul Gaultier as inspiration, admiring them for their artistry, originality and courage. “They put it all out there, and so do I,” she says.
With a personality as audacious as her designs, Lazarovic says the course of her own life has provided more inspiration than anything else.
Born and raised in Edmonton, she learned to sew at seven. At age 10, she made leopard print bedsheets into crudely stitched miniskirts for school friends. “I was definitely an oddball,” she says. As the “weird girl” in high school, she had a neon-pink mohawk and jeans made of patches. She had the air of an eccentric who never compromised herself despite adolescent pressures to fit in with the popular prepster crowd.
Her wild persona at school mirrored a turbulent life at home. Lazarovic’s mother was in and out of her life for years before finally divorcing her father when she was 16. A troubled kid searching for a sense of direction amid her familial chaos, she ran away from home.
For three months, she preferred the freedom of pitching a tent in the park to living at home with her father and siblings. Soon, however, she found herself embroiled in a world of teenaged carelessness, apathy and defiance, of hard partying and negative influences. It didn’t take long for her to realize that life on the streets was not for her. She returned home and began to focus on her art, specifically fashion.
In her early 20s, Lazarovic took a job working at Rowena, which was then a Celtic-themed fashion boutique on Whyte Avenue. There, she had the opportunity to learn the retailing side of fashion, as well as a chance to sell some of her own creations on the store’s racks.
Ever restless, she went in circles for several years, fine-tuning her craft — trying to define herself as a designer and a businesswoman. She took mundane side jobs in corporate environments in an attempt to prove that the school of experience was more valuable than formal post-secondary studies. “I was putting far too much energy into ordinary jobs and trying to ignore my obvious and colourful differences.”
Tired of fighting her own creativity, Lazarovic resolved to let her imagination run wild and lead her in her professional life. Her Zirka collection reflected her love of urban gypsy chic, combining the sensuality of vintage satin and lace into modern feminine apparel and bohemian-inspired pieces. The Journey to Cirque collection marked another artistic experimentation, as Lazarovic showcased her flair for the theatrical — gauzy dresses and outfits reminiscent of Turkish belly dancers juxtaposed with the hard edge of intricate leatherwork and fur accents. She became even gutsier with her designs in the Ortega Collection, which bore a line of imaginative, whimsical, almost Peter Pan-esque pieces that Lazarovic counts as her favourite project to date. “That whole line was to be perceived through the mind of a child. If I were that child, what would I read, what colours would I see? So it was all feather headdresses and animal tails and colour.” Lazarovic, already pegged as a “costume” designer by fashion insiders, knew the line was risky in terms of wearability but refused to limit her own creativity. “I realized I needed to go hard in this, and if I fail, I fail, and if I don’t, I don’t.”
Lazarovic continues to build fearlessly on her repertoire of unconventional designs but admits one of her challenges is finding a way to follow her creative instincts without being pigeonholed as a costumer. Her Chimera collection, which showed last fall at Western Canada Fashion Week, was still as bold, colourful and elaborate as ever, though it was a slightly toned-down, more off-the-rack take on her usually offbeat style.
For her spring line — due out in March of 2011 — Lazarovic says to keep things fresh, she’ll reinvent herself again to some degree. “I want to do all antlers and incorporate that into a very chic, turn-of-the-century, Carpathian Mountain-, Slavic-couture ball gown … but not quite.” She jokes, “Obviously this passion of mine is still evolving.”
While she works on her next collection, Lazarovic is also sharing her creative passion, as fashion coordinator with the iHuman Youth Society, a non-profit outreach organization in Edmonton. She revels in the opportunity to share her enthusiasm for fashion with kids feeling just as lost as she once did. “My life has been such a roller-coaster, so I can relate to them. I’m not just teaching them sewing skills; I’m giving them hope that there’s a possibility for something else. It also gives them some self-esteem, and that does a lot.” Recently, Lazarovic has been working with iHuman graduate, Tay Belcourt, a 25-year-old aspiring designer whose own fashions have won local competitions and been shown at Western Canada Fashion Week.
“Just knowing that Natasha’s gotten to where she is all on her own, despite what she’s been through, is so inspiring,” Belcourt says. “She’s a really great role model for me, and she’s taught me to just go for it, no matter what other people might think.”
It has been a difficult journey and a lot of hard work, but Lazarovic says she is already fulfilled and humbled by her young career. “Even though I’m completely eccentric, I love and trust myself. And I’m so grateful for who I am, despite my hardships. It took me so many years to figure that out, but it’s helped me to truly love what I do and who I am.”