Custom painted sneakers, upcycled skateboards and Romanian designed streetwear… Duncan Rhodes calls in on the Sole & Shape expo and meets the cool kids on the cutting edge of Bucharest’s urban fashion.

Oh God those Romanian shots are strong, I lament, dragging myself with great difficulty from under the eider of my Intercontinental hotel room and onto my feet, some time around noon. Maybe I could write a blog post about sitting around in the hotel spa all day? I think to myself, fighting the urge to redecorate my bidet a lovely new shade of bile. No! I’ve got a plan. Somewhere, in an abandoned factory in the south of this sprawling city, there’s a major sneaker event going on and – as a passionate footwear freak – I’m not going to let a few too many nips of whatever I was drinking last night stop me from attending. Thirty minutes later, I get the hotel receptionist to scrawl an X on a poorly detailed freebie map and set off into the spring sunshine, in what seems like the right direction.

When I eventually arrive at the factory complex, I have a strange sense of deja vu… I’ve only been in Bucharest a few days, but this industrial yard in the middle of nowhere, ringed by dilapidated buildings, their windows all boarded or broken, seems uncannily familiar. In fact, if I turn left here won’t I find… yes, there it is! The Eleven Social Club, the very goddamn bar that I was drinking in last night. I guess the Romanian capital isn’t so big, bad and intimidating as I thought.

Deja vu at Pionierul Factory
I get a sense of deja vu at Pionierul
Fashion in the factory
Fashion in the factory
Put your best footwear forward
Put your best footwear forward

Buoyed by a sense of belonging, I follow the pasted up signs pointing me towards my final destination: the third edition of Sole & Shape, a sneaker and streetwear exhibition which is taking place on the second floor of the largest building in the old factory complex. The stripped out interior with grey slab floor and ugly square columns looks like a parking lot, whilst the peeling green and white paint job reminds me, appropriately enough, of a pair of Dunlop Green Flash. Along each wall crates and second hand furniture have been fixed into makeshift stands where various footwear, skate and streetwear brands – large and small – are exhibiting their wares. After checking out some of the stands, I make my way to the back to find Dorin Stanciu, the event organiser and also the owner of the Hello There Vintage store. He offers me a drink and a pastry, and we discuss the birth of the event.

…the peeling green and white paint job reminds me, appropriately enough, of a pair of Dunlop Green Flash.

“We didn’t have such a thing here. There aren’t so many vintage shops for example in Bucharest. There are a few streetwear shops, but there were no events where you could find all of them together. So that’s why I started this project: to bring together a selection of stores and brands from the whole market, so that the people can come here and see what’s new, and change their image, with the spring or the fall.”

romanian-sneakers
Dorin in front of his own Hello There Vintage stand
Rosprint...
Retro Rosprint trainers… they don’t make ’em like this any more

As a vintage shop owner, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the words “history” and “heritage” crop up repeatedly in conversation with Dorin. In fact the very reason he chose the Pionierul Factory for his event is that it was once the biggest footwear factory in Bucharest with 10,000 workers employed in the business of making shoes, trainers, sandals, football boots and more for Romanian and Soviet citizens. Five different Romanian brands were produced in these buildings, as well as international brands, like Adidas, throughout communism and right up to the late 90s, so it’s fitting that we’re standing on the very spot where soles were vulcanised, logos stitched and eyelets laced for so many years.

“There was a brand called Dracula, and these sneakers looked amazing, but I haven’t seen a pair for at least ten years,” says Dorin, wistfully.

Sadly however Romania‘s once rather rich sneaker heritage has all but disappeared, as the famous brands of the 60s, 70s and 80s, like Finca Dragasani, Tomis, Rostart and Rosprint are no longer in production and it’s hard to even find a pair on e-bay…

“There was a brand called Dracula, and these sneakers looked amazing, but I haven’t seen a pair for at least ten years,” says Dorin, wistfully.

Nonetheless he has managed to amass a fine collection of Romanian footwear of yesteryear, not least a mint condition white Rosprint basketball shoe with shinpad-style cushioned tongue, blood red logo and gold lettering. I would pay good money to add it to my own wardrobe, however (quite apart from that fact he only has one half of the pair) I think Dorin would most probably sell his own grandmother before parting with it…

Young creative talent
Meeting Bucharest’s young creative talent, Octavian and Teodora.
Custom painted
The Sneaker Pimps: custom painted for your pleasure

Whilst I may not be able to find a Romanian brand of sneakers for sale, I am positively surprised to find that I can buy international brands customised by a Romanian artist/designer. The man in question is 19-year-old Octavian.

“I bought my first pair of Vans shoes a couple of years ago, but after a while they got old and messy and I didn’t really like them. So I found some acrylic paint and I searched the internet for what I could do. I found a pair of Vans shoes that someone had custom painted. From that moment on I realised I could do something like that and I made a kind of ‘galaxy’ model with stars.”

Octavian’s friends agreed with him that they looked pretty stellar, and so he started to take requests. More recently he got acquainted with another young Romanian artist, Teodora, who paints original designs onto old T-shirts, and they started to collaborate to form the Bucurie brand.

“The whole point is that we try to show the world that if they have an old t-shirt or an old pair of shoes that they don’t really like any more they can come to us, tell us what they want and we can make it look almost brand new.”

“The whole point is that we try to show the world that if they have let’s say an old t-shirt or an old pair of shoes that they don’t really like any more – because it doesn’t look straight from the factory – they can come to us, tell us what they want and we can make it look almost brand new.”

And in doing so of course they also make your item of clothing 100% original…

“We try to make our clothes unique, and in fact they are unique because we can’t really make them exactly the same even if we tried. There is an element of luck.”

To prove his point Octavian shows me a pair of metallic green shoes that were originally intended to sport a woodland design before a change of plan saw them painted neon yellow, and then – after the neon paint ran out half way through – dark blue. A real mess by then, the youngster salvaged the situation by scraping off layers off paint giving them their current, cool metallic sheen. I have to admire his dedication to getting the job right, although at €20-25 for this sort of intense work it’s probably not a business model that would pass the Dragon’s Den’s cries for scaleability. Still Octavian is happy that the work he’s getting is supporting him through university and preventing him from having to get a bar job.

YumYum
Simona purveys unconventional clothing to Bucharest’s chic set
The funky leggings on the left now belong in my gf's wardrobe...
The funky leggings on the right now belong in my gf’s wardrobe…

The next person I speak to, Simona Mirea, has launched what must be Romania’s newest fashion brand YumYum this very weekend. Dressed in a winter coat (despite the spring sunshine outside it’s freezing inside the Factory!), she hands me a plastic cup of black tea and explains her concept:

“I collect blank, basic things and I give them to artists to put their designs on it, so I have several collaborations. For example at least half of this collection is made with a famous artist, her name is Laura Vargalui.” Palming through her clothes bracket Simona proceeds to pick out a whimsical robe for the benefit of my closer inspection. “Here you can see that we use gauze material and we use it unconventionally to make clothes. These are very comfortable in summer time because in Romania we reach temperatures of 40 degrees and you need something super light. These are handmade.”

It looks like a costume prop from Flash Gordon. The fact that it’s made from onyx and other precious stones gives it healing powers, says Simona with a touch of irony.

Next she demonstrates to me a highly bizarre bracelet, also designed by Vargalui, which has three more beaded strands (on top of the usual wrist band) running from the wrist in between the fingers. It looks like a costume prop from Flash Gordon. The fact that it’s made from onyx and other precious stones gives it healing powers, says Simona with a touch of irony. This accessory is definitely a bit too far out for my tastes, and I am more drawn to some funky coloured leggings on display.

“The story with these printed clothes is that I saw similar ones on an Australian website but they were 100 dollars – too expensive for the Romanian market. I wanted to do a similar thing but on a lower price so I bought a printing machine and I managed to lower the cost to a third as much.”

Romanian hospitality is such that I’ve barely spent a leu since my trip begun (the locals I’ve been hanging out with have insisted on paying for practically everything from beers and taxis, to tickets to Steaua Bucharest), so there’s still plenty left in the coffers for a present for my girlfriend: I select an outlandish pair of leggings with a pink and yellow projector design and feel proud to be supporting Romanian design.

Not just sneakers for sale...
Not just sneakers for sale…
Back on a street near you soon...
Back on a street near you soon…

One of the coolest projects I stumble upon at Sole & Shape is also Romanian run, the Bewise Collective Movement. They perform the noble service of repairing battered skateboards, giving them a chance to return to the streets if they are still intact – or repurposing them as shelves, pieces of furniture, decorations, or even breaking them down and fashioning them into earrings, necklaces and other smaller items, if not.

“The fact is,” says Dan, “that skateboards are glued with resin, and that’s not good for the environment. You can’t burn them, you can’t recycle them, you have to upcycle them. So you take the shape just as you have it and you try to give it another utility, or just use them from an aesthetical point of view.”

“…skateboards are glued with resin, and that’s not good for the environment. You can’t burn them, you can’t recycle them, you have to upcycle them.”

Dan is clearly taken with the romantic aspect of what he does, especially when an old board he has worked on finds a new owner: “You can see the scratches and the marks. This is the fun part of it because each board has its own history. They were first made in a factory by a skater – because the skate companies usually employ skaters to work on the design – then there’s the period when the board waits in the shop to be picked up by someone. Then that person picks it up and rides it in his own style, and then presumably and happily it gets to us and we give it a second chance… a second life.”

This cool cat sells wallets from recycled PVC banners
This cool cat sells wallets from recycled PVC banners
These appeal to the 8 year old in me
These Autoboots are made for walking…

After meeting all these passionate people and talking about their projects I am glad that I happened to be in town for this biannual event. And I’m even more glad that it’s showcasing local talent, design and creativity, alongside the international brands, and hopefully giving these entrepreneurs a platform to make their projects successful. From my, admittedly limited, experience in Bucharest the Romanian capital seems very much like a city still waking up to its full potential. Perhaps being further out East than the likes of Berlin and Warsaw, ostracised from Europe geographically and politically (until 2007, when Romania joined the EU), had clipped Bucharest’s wings up until now. But as the two million strong capital of a 20 million strong nation one can’t help but feel it’s now primed to fly. Dorin certainly sees the potential:

“When it comes to Bucharest it is a virgin place. A lot of projects and a lot of ideas, that have been working for years, or even decades ago, in other countries, or different parts of the world are not implemented here, or started here… yet. So that’s why I call it a virgin city. Because if you look around you will see plenty of opportunities to start something, to create something, to open a new space, open a new gallery, to come with something new.”

I can attest from personal experience that the city’s nightlife and hospitality are already first rate, whilst in the hands of Dorin and friends it seems that Bucharest’s creativity, fashion and contemporary culture are not so far behind…

Duncan travelled to the capital as part of the #EnjoyBucharest blog trip, an initiative organised by Eventur, with partners including Blue Air and CDI Transfers. Whilst there he also reported on the opening of the much-hyped Carturesti Carusel bookstore and other great literary dens, that surprised him during his stay.

5 thoughts on “Sole & Shape: Bucharest’s Sneaker Pimps

  1. I can relate to the first paragraph in so many levels… wild city this Bucharest 😛
    Good read btw! Had no idea of that happening at the same time we were there!

    1. Hi Dorin,how are you? Hope this message finds you well. Seeing that picture of the rosprint shoe reminded me of my beautiful childhood and my beloved father.
      Well donee making Rosprint shine again.

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