A master’s degree in economics and early training to be a bank manager may not have been the most obvious starting point for a career as a fashion designer, but then nothing about the rather glamorous Ania Zofia is formulaic or predictable.
Born in communist Poland before the fall of the former Soviet Union, where work opportunities were to some degree limited and personal creativity was seen as something of a liability, the young Ania felt like a fish out of water.
“I was always interested in beautiful things,” she says, and the financial route her friends took — she still has many friends in banking back in Poland — was not one that was ever going to appeal to her.
She arrived in New York in 1980, she says, full of hope, energy and ambition to study jewelry design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Then, to support herself, Ania began making extravagant leather “collages”’ Next, she borrowed $15, a paltry sum today but a fortune for a poor student, to buy scraps of silk, which she made into tops and kimonos, selling them in a store on the corner of Spring Street and West Broadway. When burglars smashed the storefront window and her entire collection was stolen, an insurance payout suddenly gave her a small amount of working capital.
It was Ania’s first “lucky” break. Now, she started to put leather, suede and silk together to make one-off, original gowns. “A friend said to me, ‘Ania, why don’t you do a trade show?’ So I did. With my boyfriend —now husband, Robert Walker — we borrowed some money and we did the Pret show. He was so nervous, because all he could think of was how we were going to pay the money back.”
She sold every piece at the show, got her money back in three says and took orders for $100,000. “I didn’t know how we would ever fill them. Suddenly, I had to take on staff. I had to say to people, ‘no, no’ I can’t take another order.’”
It was at the same trade show that Ania met Robert Braché, co-owner of Mount Kisco’s famed Elephant’s Trunk, which had opened some 12 years earlier, and together they established a business relationship that has prospered for 35 years.
Now established in New York, Ania soon took her sister, who was working as a mathematics teacher back in Poland, into the business. These days, the sisters, along with Ania’s niece, operate their business internationally, Ania designing in her studio in Montreal, the city she calls home, and her sister making up the pieces in Warsaw, Poland. If the arrangement sounds unorthodox, Ania insists it isn’t. “I talk to my sister every day and when I see the production through Skype or Facebook, I can spot even the smallest mistake,” she says.
As for the designs themselves, nearly 40 years since Ania first came to New York, they are still unique. She does silk dresses, both ready-to-wear and made- to-order, along with jackets, tunics, stoles and scarves, but it is always the quality of the silk, coupled with the swirling, free-form designs, which make these pieces real stunners. “‘Artware,’ we call it,” says Rafael Braché, Robert’s brother and co-owner of the upscale salon.
The printed silks are even more distinctive, free-form clouds, flowers and beautiful motifs turning the already gorgeous fabric into something precious and ethereal. Subtle beading often adds to the luxurious look.While Ania takes orders through her website, Elephant’s Trunk still carries the largest collection of her designs in the United States. And Ania’s guiding principles still hold true. Couture quality fashion is irresistible to today’s woman, she believes. “Beautiful to look at, pleasant to touch and sumptuous to wear, ” she says, neatly summing up what her designs are all about.