26 Jun 15

The Romanian City That Can Only Export Luxury

Laura Stefanut

The old lady sitting on a street bench had the elegance of a grandmother dressed for church. She looked intrigued and somewhat amused by my question. After pausing to see whether I was joking, she replied: "You won't find a shopping mall in this city. No famous brands. People could never afford them."

Florica, the owner of a clothes shop in Calafat

Photo: Laura Stefanut

I was in Calafat, a small Romanian city on the Danube. People here may not be able to afford clothes by famous brands but they make them for others. The local economy revolves around a garment factory owned by an Italian investor. It's the only industry in the area and it keeps the unemployment rate from exploding.

I am working on a story about the clothing industry and I wondered: what kind of clothes are worn by women who sew luxury garments for Western brands? So I went shopping in Calafat.

"Come on in, we have more colours in that style," said Florica, 49, when she saw me looking at the mannequins outside the clothes shop she owns and runs. The city-centre boutique is the size of a pantry, with clothes piled up and hanging high on the walls.

Florica surrounded by the clothes in her store

Photo: Laura Stefanut

Florica's business is flourishing but she has had to struggle hard to get here. With no university degree, she started as a textile worker in communist times, in the local state-owned factory. She stayed for 13 years. After the fall of communism, and the collapse of state industries, she went to work for a local clothes shop. When the Italian investor bought the textile factory, Florica, like many other women from the city, felt it would be the start of a more prosperous life. The Romanian dream was finally coming true, after so many years of misery.

For Florica, the dream wore off after a month. She does not want to talk about her time in the factory but she quit her job and returned to the shop. No famous brands there. But who needed them anyway? Ugly and expensive clothes for strange, rich, foreigners! If she had received those garments for free, she would probably never have worn them. No attitude in those clothes.

But Florica has a strong desire to succeed. "I was even thinner than you because I had so much ambition," she told me. She wanted to start her own business. She earned money in Spain by working as a strawberry picker, as many poor Romanians do. With her husband and son in work and her daughter living in Britain, Florica was able to use the money she made to launch her business. She began with a stall selling clothes in the local market.

Every two weeks, she travelled to Bucharest to buy clothes from wholesalers. She believes she was successful not just because of her ambition, but also because of her heart. People liked her friendly nature. She raised more money and rented this space in the city centre.

"Let women do as they choose," says the slogan on the green T-shirt in Florica's store

Photo: Laura Stefanut

It is still not big enough to display all her clothes, and has an improvised changing room - with a curtain that conceals a mirror, although not the entire person gazing at it. But clothes are affordable. Trousers start at two euros, a T-shirt is five euros, a fancy blouse costs 12 euros. Dresses can be too expensive for normal shoppers - only the rich can afford them at about 40 euros per piece, said Florica.

Florica helps, entertains and persuades her clients. In the hour I spent with her, more than a dozen shoppers came into the store. When her friendliness is not enough to make a sale, she finds other solutions. Once, clients weren't buying a particular pair of trousers because they thought the fabric was too transparent. Florica started wearing the trousers herself, walking around the city to show people they were wrong. In the following days, the trousers sold like hot cakes, she says.

Florica managed to sell me a cream blouse that I initially thought was too loose. "Look, it's made in Italy," she said, smiling as she showed me the tag.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, women were sewing clothes to be sold in Italy - with a tag that says Made in Romania.

 

An improvised changing area in another clothes store in Calafat

Photo: Laura Stefanut

 

Laura Stefanut is a freelance journalist based in Romania. She is working on a story about the clothing industry in southeastern Europe for the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence.

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