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Interview 05 May 17

Bosnian Savours Success on Europe's Catwalks

Some of the clothing displayed at top fashion shows in Milan, London and Stockholm and worn by the likes of Madonna comes from Halida Susa’s humble home in a remote suburb of Sarajevo.

Igor Spaic
Halida Susa. Photo/BIRN

Talent can be found everywhere, as well as success stories. Take a pair of luxury shoes on sale in New York. They may have been designed in Barcelona, but the shoes’ upscale buyers probably have no idea they were made in the remote Sarajevo suburb of Ilijas, a place so poor that many of the houses have no facade.

One stands out for its beauty. Inside, its owner, Halida Susa, a modest woman in her late fifties, has turned a small room into a workshop where big fashion hits are produced.

This is where she creates footwear, stockings, accessories and scarfs worn by celebrities like Madonna and praised by fashion giants like Roberto Cavalli.

For as long as she can remember, Susa, who describes herself as a perfectionist, has loved to create. As a child, she used to draw a good deal and make dolls out of mud.

But at the age of 10, she discovered her true passion - embroidery. “I would always look for something new, new ideas, new patterns,” she told BIRN at her Ilijas home.

Over a cup of traditional Bosnian coffee, Susa recalls how her success came about gradually and by word of mouth.

Her creations first became known in her small community and then word spread to the Bosnian capital. “People would say, ‘Just take this material to Halida, she will know what to do with it,’” she said.

Then, about ten years ago, Lamija Suljevic – then a design student from Foca who studied in Sweden – approached her.

“I am not sure how she found me, but she suggested I make stockings for her, according to her design. She also let me add some of my own ideas, but the main design was hers,” Susa recalled.

Suljevic was happy with how the stockings turned out and presented them at a fashion show in Stockholm.

Madonna was there – and loved them. The superstar ordered 100 pairs of the tights and Susa was not scared of the big order. “It was a lot of work, but I took a mannequin leg, and I started to create,” she said.

“It was not because of Madonna, or any kind of fame, that was not what I was interested in,” she said. “What I really wanted is to enable my children to finish school,” she explained.

This is how it all started. Since then, Susa has worked with some of the world’s biggest names in fashion.

For a while, Roberto Cavalli combined some of his designs with slippers crafted by Susa in her Ilijas workshop. She said she made thousands of those slippers, each pair unique.

Soon, the Sarajevo-based fashion company, Granoff, discovered her as well. For a few years, she made suits and scarves for them.

Social media has been a great help in promoting her work. Two years ago, a cousin of hers took a picture of two dolls dressed in traditional female and male Bosnian attire, which she had created. He uploaded the image onto social media, where they quickly became a hit.

She said she never wanted to be famous, but TV crews as well as newspaper reporters were soon hunting for her in her Donja Luka neighborhood. “I never even dreamed of this,” Susa said, laughingly.

“Sometimes I see these reality shows on television. There is nothing people will not do to become famous. Dear God, what these women are doing - only so they can be on TV!” she added.

But Susa admits she has grown fond of people greeting her on the street. “I never liked to emphasize this success. Nevertheless, somewhere deeply within, I am very flattered that someone recognizes it,” she said.

What makes her especially happy is when people from the fashion world, who know about the subject, also laud her work.

“They call me from Italy and praise my work. I cannot really understand everything they say as I don't speak their language, but I get that they like it, and it makes me happy,” she said.

She never wanted to start a company and loves working from her home. But the quality of the work she produces and the quantity of orders has at times forced her to ask several women to help her.

“There were even some men helping out – some of them even proved to be better than women,” she said with another laugh.

Susa has now built up a good life for herself, despite only finishing primary school.

Her story is an exception in unemployment-ridden Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“One order could come to me from some foreign country and it could pay off [the bills] for a whole year,” she noted.

Unlike her, her grown-up son and daughter are both college educated. “I always told my children that school should come first,” she said.

Her recipe for success – hard work. “Just keep working. Do what you love, and give all of yourself to it. It will all pay off,” she concluded.

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