Fashion designer Pavel Berky prevails with humility and talent over experiences of homophobia and racist assault
Pavel Berky is from a Romani family and spent his childhood in a village in southern Slovaka where non-Romani and Romani people were friends. His family then moved away from living with the rest of their relatives in order to work in the town of Rimavaská Sobota.
The move meant Pavel and his sister ended up in a new environment. Although they did not encounter bullying at school - according to Pavel, mainly because he and his sister were excellent students - he experienced many unpleasantnesses when going to and from school and once was even physically assaulted by two adult men while himself still a child.
The worst of it, according to him, usually happened on the bus traveling home from school where, despite the fact that the bus was full, with people standing in the aisles, nobody would take the empty seat next to him. "Either that, or they would not let me sit next to them. That was commonplace," he describes his childhood commute.
"I did my best to accept it, to get accustomed to it. One simply has to live with the awareness that while commuting to school, one might be assaulted. It's part of our lives," he says today.
He admits that for that reason, when growing up, he was ashamed of his Romani origins. Change did not come until he went to Trenčín to be trained in the clothing industry.
Pavel had sketched his first designs in a notebook back in primary school. He then was accepted to the prestigious UMPRUM (Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design) in Prague, but he did not complete his studies there because they ceased to be interesting.
"By then I already needed to do something, to build my brand," he explains. He had begun to succeed while in college.
His first collection immediately won the studio's prize and several professors at the school were buying his models. Ever since it seems that whatever Pavel touches, succeeds.
He has won every competition he has entered and fashion critics are speaking of him as the hope of the Czech fashion industry. It's not just because of his talent, but also because of a humility particular to him and his own modest appearance.
Paradoxically, however, he is still grappling with financing. Being at the top of the heap in the Czech Republic does not necessarily mean having a stable situation to fall back on.
"It's difficult, what can I tell you, sometimes I can't pay the rent," he admits. He continually invests the money he makes into his new collections.
For that reason, he and his boyfriend Matěj are now creating their designs in a shared Prague studio, working on more commercial models for the broader public. Both Pavel's family and those close to Matěj, with whom Pavel has been happily living for six years, have accepted their relationship very well.
Pavel said he himself was afraid because he sometimes had to deal with homophobic bullying. "I had even more of a problem with that at school than with the fact that I am Romani," he says.
Today his designs are represented in several Prague boutiques and Matěj, who originally worked as a dancer and singer, is now learning to handle fabric and to sew so he can aid his partner. Pavel, who comes from a Romani family of four, describes how he was born in the family home in the small village of Veľké Teriakovce in southern Slovakia.
"All our closest family members live there," he says. He estimates that about 20% of the inhabitants are Romani and lived dispersed throughout the village.
"Relations there are very good. My aunt and uncle, for example, are next-door neighbors to the mayor. It's not a settlement," he emphasizes.
Before the children enrolled into primary school his parents moved their nuclear family to the bigger town of Rimavaská Sobota. One reason, according to him, was better access to higher-quality education, another reason was the employment opportunities there.
Pavel's mother had worked her entire life in health care as nurse, and today she works at a hospital in the Czech Republic and also commutes to Germany to work as a caregiver. His father used to focus on the family business.
"Grandpa owned a key-making and umbrella repair stand," he says. After his grandfather died, his father took the stand over for a couple of years and then requalified as a health care assistant.
"Later he and Mom worked together in the same hospital in Rimavaská Sobota," he says. His father works as a health care assistant and orderly to this day.
It was not easy for Pavel to begin his life in the new town, even though it was not very far from their native village. "We were suddenly cut off from the rest of our loved ones and then my sister and I went to different schools for upper primary instruction," he recalls.
"We were the exotics in our schools, because there were not many Romani children at my school," he adds. He did not encounter any serious bullying from his fellow pupils, though.
"Children know how to be coarse and gross in general, so naturally they sometimes laughed at me. It wasn't to such a degree that I was depressed about it," he describes.
Pavel said he was always able to stand up to his fellow pupils and point them in the right direction. "My sister and I were lucky because we were actually good pupils. We brought home good grades with honors, in school we were the ones who led the way, so we did not have a problem with that," he says.
However, he does recall some strange happenings. On the one hand, he was always instructed to sit together on the same bench with the only other Romani pupil in the class, and once they had to explain their Romani nationality in front of the entire class.
"These people came into the class and Klaudie and I had to stand up and speak to them. That was really strange," he laughs.
"Otherwise I never had any problems," he adds - but then, after a moment's reflection, says: "Actually, that's not true. It was sometimes really harsh, if I think about it."
The broken umbrella
One day when he was in sixth grade, Pavel brought an umbrella with him to school, and as he walked along his usual route, two adult men whom he did not know grabbed it from him, broke it to pieces, and used the pieces to hit him. "That time I went home crying," he recalls.
Pavel admits he was ashamed of his Romani origins when growing up. The worst of the bullying, he says, usually happened on the bus home from school when nobody would sit next to him, preferring even to stand rather than sit near him.
"Or they wouldn't let me sit next to them. That was commonplace," he describes.
"I did my best to accept it, to get accustomed to it. One simply has to live with the awareness that while commuting to school, one might be assaulted," he explains today.
"It's part of our lives," Pavel says. According to him, he got over his problems with the outside world by succeeding at school, and he knew he was good, despite the way he was treated by total strangers.
At home his family never discussed such problems or how they looked different from those around them. "We had to solve it for ourselves somehow, inside ourselves," he says.
His home town was a source of solace for him, because he felt safe there. "Nobody would do anything to you there, not even the white people, because they knew you and they also knew your family," he explains.
Despite it frequently being expected of him today, Pavel does not speak Romanes, which he greatly regrets. His parents did not speak their mother tongue with the children, using it just to communicate among themselves whenever they didn't want their offspring to understand what was being said.
Pavel's sister Renata later studied Romanes at university in Prague, but Pavel just knows a few basic words. "[My parents] did not want, in my opinion, to emphasize our Romani-ness," he believes.
"We would have been even more visible in the everyday world if they had. When Romani people from elsewhere reach out to me on the street and are amazed that I don't speak Romanes, I feel really embarrassed," he admits.
Clothing designs in his notebooks
Pavel had always been creative, but nobody in his family was devoted to fashion - one of his aunts is a trained seamstress, but according to Pavel, it was never a subject of discussion. He has always enjoyed drawing, so he had notebooks already in primary school that were covered with drawings, including his first fashion designs.
Back then the fact that he could become a designer never even occurred to him. An art teacher awakened that interest in Pavel and then, after following his progress over the years, proposed that he attempt getting into the clothing industry training school in Trenčín.
Despite it being something that he enjoyed, he did not much want to enroll for training. At the time he felt embarrassed to let others know.
"To be, as a boy, a fashion designer. All the [stereotypes of] homosexuality around that," he explains his embarrassment.
Eventually, however, he decided to apply for the school and found support for his choice both at home and among his fellow pupils. "The children at school always supported me with that," he recalls.
"I used to draw tattoos on their hands for them. They admired my creativity," he recalls.
At the clothing industry training school in Trenčín he was one of just two Romani students, and he says he stood out everywhere - both with his design work and with his personal appearance whenever he dressed up extravagantly. The principal liked him and maximally supported him.
"I had very bad study results because I skipped school a lot. I probably had the worst attendance record in the history of the school," he laughs.
Theoretical subjects were not amusing to Pavel and he was exclusively oriented toward the artistic aspects of clothing design, and for that reason he caught on during the later years of training in particular. It was there that he decided he would like to continue in the field.
He was the first graduate from Trenčín ever accepted to UMPRUM, accepted on his second attempt. When he was not accepted that first year, he experienced enormous disappointment.
"I believed I was good, and that [rejection] was a blow to my self-confidence," he admits. In the interim he spent a year as a volunteer in France at a tourist center by the seaside and later worked in a factory on a conveyor belt.
After being accepted into his new, prestigious school, his initial enthusiasm wore off and he became bored and disillusioned after three years. "It just didn't amuse me anymore," Pavel says.
"It seemed too art-focused, and by then I already needed to do something, to build my brand," he explains. He decided to drop out.
Despite not finishing, he assesses those three years as having been exceptionally beneficial and pleasant. The academy was run with a family atmosphere and there were just five students in his incoming class.
"Today I regret not completing those last two years. If the opportunity to complete my studies arose, I would do it," he says.
"I wouldn't do it for the paper, but for the atmosphere," Pavel clarifies. He says he has never encountered any kind of limitations on his career because of not having a college degree.
The Berky package
Today it seems that everything Pavel touches is a success. That began at UMPRUM with his first-ever collection, XY, created during his studies.
The collection got such a good response that UMPRUM professors bought his pieces, he won the studio prize, and fashion magazines began to write about him and call him the new hope of Czech fashion. "Ever since it's never stopped. I have always received good reviews of my collections," he says.
Pavel is also breaking records in competitions. He has won every contest he ever entered.
Critics and experts frequently say he wins not just because of his originality and talent, but also because of his background, his humility, and his performance. "I'm an interesting package for them," he laughs.
Pavel admits that compared to his childhood and his teenage years, today his Romani origins are an advantage. They make him interesting and unique in his chosen field.
Today he is also a role model for Romani children and youth. They respond well to him.
Many young Roma see in his example the fact that despite difficulties it is possible to succeed and make it to the top. "I think that is despite the fact that they don't even like all that much some of the things I do," he laughs.
A couple of years ago he moved with his partner Matěj, who is a dancer and singer, to London, where they made a living passing out advertising fliers for different events. Their first year there was very difficult, but later they managed to work things out.
Pavel worked for a fashion studio preparing collections and sporadically worked on his own projects. After winning a fashion reality show, he decided to return to Prague.
He and Matěj have been back one year now, and Matěj is now Pavel's right-hand man. He arranges his brand's production and all of his promotion, including taking care of his much-followed social networking profile (on Instagram alone Pavel Berky has more than 40 000 fans) and recently has learned to work in the studio, where he would love to aid Pavel in the future with cutting and sewing the designs.
Love is love
Pavel realized he was gay as a child. "Then it's just about the transition to admitting it," he says.
That happened when he arrived in Prague, where the environment was relaxed and he comprehended that he could be himself. He first told his sister Renata, who was also studying in Prague, and then he introduced his partner to his parents.
"I was certain that if I told Renata, our parents would find out right away," he says ironically. However, he admits he was under great stress about it even though he knew his immediate family would never reject him because of it.
Same-sex partnerships are generally still a taboo in the Romani community today. However, Matěj is much-loved by Pavel's family, who have accepted him.
"Sometimes I have the impression they like him more than me!" Pavel says with a wink. Healso believes that in a certain respect his acceptance by his extended family is aided by the fact that he is successful personally and professionally.
Pavel had to wrestle with awareness of his sexual orientation above all at primary school, where he was mainly friends with girls, and some of his schoolmates laughed at him for behaving like a girl. "I had more problems with that at school that with being Romani," he believes.
At the top and out of cash
Being at the top, however, does not necessarily mean living a carefree, secure life, as many might imagine. "It's difficult, what can I say, sometimes there isn't enough money to pay the rent," he admits.
Pavel lives in a sublet in the Palmovka neighborhood of Prague and works in a shared studio with another designer. "We are all doing what we can, we work from morning to might and it's not always good," he says.
In the Czech Republic, according to Pavel, a clientele willing to financially appreciate quality fashion the way it is appreciated in New York, Paris, or other centers of fashion globally just does not exist. "The artsy fashion they taught us at school will probably never take off here. I myself have long worked on things that just never sell," he says.
Recently, therefore, he has begun to dedicate himself to commercial fashion. He is currently producing "urban" models of pieces such as everyday dresses, jackets and sweatshirts.
Thanks to this shift he has begun collaborating with some boutiques in Prague where his clothing is permanently available. "It's beginning to take off for us here, so we would certainly like to stay here awhile longer," he says in conclusion.
First published on news server HateFree.cz
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