Excluded from Hungarian “high culture”, this design studio embraces Roma culture


Two sisters from Hungary’s Roma community take this design studio to new heights to highlight their heritage and culture.

Romani Design is the creation of the sisters Erika and Helena Varga with the aim of re-establishing Roma culture in a modern context.

The fashion space – created in 2010 – challenges centuries-old stereotypes that the country’s Roma minority faces and asserts a place at the high culture table for the historically marginalized group.

“We were one of the first brands to really give the answer on how to rebuild (Roma) traditions in a contemporary and modern way,” said Erika Varga, co-founder of Romani Design.

The Roma are the largest minority in Hungary and represent up to 10 percent of the population of this central European country.

Like their counterparts across Europe, Roma in Hungary are often victims of social and economic exclusion and face discrimination, segregation and poverty.

Present in Hungary since the 15th century, many Roma traditions are deeply rooted in Hungarian culture at large.

Yet many of their unique customs and occupations, as well as their language, Romani, have slowly died out after centuries of marginalization.

Maintain endangered traditions by using bold designs

Before starting Roma design, the Varga sisters worked as jewelers and designers.

They started Romani Design in response to concerns about the disappearance of their traditions and the exclusion of so-called “high culture”.

“We wanted to educate the social majority, including the social elite,” Erika said.

Using the floral designs, colorful fabrics and depictions of the Virgin Mary prevalent in traditional Roma clothing and folklore, Romani Design creates modern clothing, jewelry and accessories that place Roma cultural traditions in a contemporary context.

Helena, the younger of the sisters who oversees their product design, said most of the dresses and accessories are reflections on the lived experiences she had growing up as a Roma in Hungary.

“When I design, I absolutely live my own gypsy identity, and my roots are absolutely there in my heart and soul,” said Helena, using a term for Roma considered derogatory in some places but commonly used by Roma in Hungary.

“I saw how (Roma communities) live, what they wear, the types of houses they live in and what the interior decoration looks like … These memories and experiences are completely ingrained in my mind as I design Something.”

Advocating for Roma rights in modern times

While some advocacy groups in Hungary are pushing for equality and social inclusion of Roma by representing elements of Roma culture like folk music and dance, the Varga sisters claim that fashion is one of the most powerful ways to bridge the gap between their culture and the rest of society.

“The fashion, the way we dress, the clothes we wear on our body can send a message so fast and so intense that it reaches its target audience very, very quickly,” Helena said. “It is very effective.”

In the world of high fashion, choosing to shop at Romani Design represents a conscious value statement, Helena said, and their customers typically purchase their products with the intention of expressing their perspective on inclusion.

Most of the studio’s clients are “people who want to more fashion“, says Erika.

“They want to be able to express their personality as much as possible, shape their immediate environment and at the same time represent important values ​​in their personal and community life, such as the values ​​of multiculturalism,” she said.

Six dresses by Romani Design are currently on display at an exhibition at the Museum of Applied Arts in the Hungarian capital, Budapest.


Joseph E. Golightly