Long Overlooked, Bratislava Shines With Newfound Cool

 Long Overlooked, Bratislava Shines With Newfound Cool


BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — The Hotel Kyjev has dominated Bratislava’s skyline in stark, tombstonelike fashion since 1973, a Brutalist holdover from the communist era.

But the building, long closed as a hotel, got a personality makeover in August 2018, when it was dragooned into service as part of a festival plastering the city with street art.

The local photographer Jakub Markech, better known as Lousy Auber, led a group of painters who climbed its facade, daubing it with a striking monochrome op-art mural. “I was thinking about reinterpreting the building, but we couldn’t see it as a blank paper,” he explains now. “We had to see it as an artwork already, and just make a new twist to it.”

Mr. Markech could be describing not just the building but his hometown, an Eastern European city that has finally sloughed off the last vestiges of communism. More than just Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava has become the region’s capital of cool.

One focal point for its energetic rebirth is the design store Slavica, a short walk from the Hotel Kyjev on a curvy pedestrianized side street. Ivica Juskova, a former model and onetime Miss Slovakia, opened the first iteration of this showroom elsewhere in the city eight years ago, aiming to spotlight Czech and Slovak designers.

Slavica quickly gained a following among young locals, and the store moved to this larger site five years ago. It is minimalist, light-soaked and whitewashed. The shelves and tables are dotted with small clusters of products from an assortment of Slovak talents.

Jewelry is her most popular merchandise, Ms. Juskova says: the organic, marble- and brass-focused Metaformi line or the quirky Minka, with its animal shapes made from porcelain. There are also ceramics from Modranska, a Slovak company that co-opts traditional patterns for modern designs, and rubber sneakers by Novesta; they sit in an orderly line on one shelf, like a row of brightly colored M&Ms.

Ms. Juskova’s shop has proved such a retail magnet that it is now bookended by friendly rivals, also examples of the capital’s newfound style cachet: Local and international streetwear is the focus of Slowatch, while the T-shirts at Kompot feature graffiti-style cartoons, slogans and modern riffs on the same traditional patterns used on dishes by Modranska next door. This trio of shops is easy to find in the city center, close to the Soviet-style trams which still trundle noisily around its main streets.

Head northeast of Bratislava’s city center and you’ll find Drobne. This boutique, run by three sisters, also specializes in homegrown designers. It stocks its own clothing brand as well as Buffet, which produces Everlane-like quality basics, and Biela, whose capsule collection consists largely of white shirts for men and women.

To help shoppers find their way, the Slovak Fashion Council, which champions that industry across the country, designed a shopping map for Bratislava three years ago.

The first edition featured 20 retailers; the latest iteration, published this month, showcases more than 80 shops. The council is producing two versions. The free hard copy, available in English at many stores in town, is aimed at casual visitors. A smartphone app in Slovak and English, coming out Dec. 1, is to offer live updates and event listings.

“The strong point for high-end design here is that you can be sure it’s created locally,” said Zuzana Bobikova, who runs programming for the council. “And you can be sure you won’t find 20, or even 10, other people wearing the same thing.”

The council’s map and app will help more shoppers unearth stores like Zita, a millennial pink-painted optician that specializes in heavy-framed, hipster glasses, or Tikoki, which sells sneakers produced in an old Slovakian factory and which collaborates with local designers for limited-edition remixes of its classic silhouette.

The designer Andrea Vonkomerova focuses on Merino wool knitwear, also produced in Slovakia, with eye-catching prints and oversize silhouettes. Malinna is an all-natural beauty brand and retailer with a minimalist aesthetic, while Pakta is a standout accessories brand.

Pakta’s combined workshop and retail space in the city center is where the couple behind the brand both make and sell their designs; they specialize in sustainable materials, especially waxed cotton and pinatex, an eco-fabric produced as a byproduct from pineapple farming.

Pakta’s Kerim Hudson is a Londoner who met his Bratislava-born girlfriend, Hana Komanova, when she was studying fashion in Britain. They moved here when mulling starting their own line. “There’s a young scene here, because nowadays lots of Slovaks study abroad and then come back, looking to try to regenerate areas,” he said.

Another such returnee is Jakub Dianiska, who left life as a consultant in London to open one of the city’s chic cafes, Mandla, in the once-grubby district between Bratislava’s hilltop castle and the banks of the Danube.

That area of waterfront real estate is being redeveloped as a mixed-use site, anchored by spots like Mandla, where Mr. Dianiska sells coffee, tea and ceramics, including the thimblelike earthenware cups in which he serves espresso. “Bratislava is unique, in that it has been starved of attention and was maybe waiting for its opportunity to come to the surface, to bloom into something,” he said. “That’s what’s happening now.”

Another boomeranging Bratislavan is Matus Vallo, elected last year as mayor. Mr. Vallo, 42, an architect by training, spent his teenage years in Italy before living in London and New York.

“The biggest question of my generation was whether to stay in Slovakia or live abroad,” Mr. Vallo said. “Like many others, after being successful abroad, I decided to come back.”

His mission as mayor, a tenure that lasts until 2022, is to focus on quality of life. He has earmarked several million euros for creating additional urban green spaces and supporting a contest next year to design new city benches, bicycle stands and trash cans. “The narrative in this city, for many years, was nothing is possible. I would like to show that change is possible.”





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