Macedonia is one of those little Eastern-European countries that conjure up vague images of rural mountains and quaint medieval villages. But a fashion hot spot? Hardly. Yet, some of the world’s most beautifully made high fashion garments are produced in a family-run factory in the small town of Ohrid, population 47, 000, in Macedonia. At the Bimbilibimbil factory, rigorously modern garments and avant-garde knits are carefully crafted by local matriarchs, who learned to knit and sew as toddlers. The collection is signed Risto Bimbiloski, a rising fashion designer who trained in Paris, where he also lives, and shows his label on the runway in New York.
Risto, who was born and raised in Ohrid, is known for his unique aesthetic that mixes his Eastern European heritage with hi-tech and futuristic influences, such as his Spring collection 2011 collection, which was inspired by images of the moon seen through a telescope. He also produces highly acclaimed and innovative knitwear (he is the former creative director of knitwear for Louis Vuitton), which pushes both technical and style boundaries with chunky and irregular stitches, unorthodox mixes of techniques and material.
The design concepts may be all Risto, but the execution is a collaboration between the designer and his small army of grandmother artisans (35 fulltime employees and 65-100 contracted knitters). “We fulfill each other”, says Risto, “They know all the different techniques and I come from a more radical design point of view. I’m a very basic knitter but I understand how the system works and how to manipulate the grid. And they find that exciting.”
The factory is located in a fairytale-like bucolic setting, on the shore of the large Lake Ohrid with neighboring pine forests and rolling hills. It started as a small atelier in 2007, and has since expanded into a 6000 sq. feet space. Risto’s mother runs operations while his cousins are in charge of shipping. The reasons for founding the business were threefold, explains Risto’s brother Alek Bimbiloski, who is the label’s sales agent and distributor. One was to have full control of quality and production, another was to preserve the region’s textile heritage and a third was to boost the economic climate in the area and provide well-paid, fair and responsible employment. “Manufacturing in Yugoslavia [which Macedonia used to be part of before the Balkan war in the early ‘90s] used to be very highly regarded in the clothing industry,” says Alek, “After the country fell apart, all these high-end professionals were stuck either without a job or in huge assembly lines, which was a total waste of talent. We imagined a sort of custom made factory where everybody thinks before they sew.”
Which is exactly what they created. Besides the Risto line, the Bimbilibimbil factory also manufactures three other high-end fashion collections and are currently in talks with the Gucci group to take over some of the production for Alexander McQueen. “We really have selected the best of the best from seamstresses to knitters to pattern makers,” says Alek, “ We usually pay 30% more than everybody else in the region, and we also pay regularly which is unusual over there. We hear stories of some factories not paying for up to 4-5 months. So word of mouth has spread that the conditions at Bimbilibimbil are great.”
But what makes the products really unique is the workers’ craft heritage. Says Risto: “Macedonia is a matriarchal society full of strong women who are proud of their heritage and traditions. It is customary that the technique of knitting and handcrafting is learned from an early age to execute to perfection.” As lucky owners of much loved Risto sweaters we can only agree.
Curated by Fashion PR agency owner Corinna Springer who says that Risto sets an example by creating a business model that is based on merging his strong design point of view with helping people.