Accessorising Gjirokastra's Traditional Spirit

An interview for the GJIROART-project.Author: Rudina Hoxha
Place: Albania
Date: 14 December 2011

November 2011 was a good month for Arjela Banushaj, one of the newest Albanian designers, who held a modern fashion exhibition in Tirana quite different from the rest. Her modern collection of garments and accessories, based on traditional motifs, was inspired by the city of Gjirokastra in southern of Albania, also known as the City of Stone.

Every design and object by Arjela Kule represented Gjirokastra, its castle, its cobbled roads, its characteristic houses, and, all told, its history.
Supported in this enterprise by the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the Gjirokastra Conservation and Development Organisation (GCDO), Banushaj cooperated with top local female artisans to bring something unique and inimitable like Gjirokastra is.

The 40 piece exhibition, called “GjiroArt Clothes and Accessories Collection,” was displayed at the premises of the German Embassy in Tirana.

The exhibition idea dates back to one year ago when Banushaj met Sadi Petrela, the director of the GCDO who spoke about the project, which was still vague at that point. But as Banushaj won a one-year fellowship to study at the Academy of Fashion in Italy, the project was postponed for a later point in time. One year later, the GCDO revisited the project with a clearer idea, objective, and results. They had already selected the 10 best female artisans who would cooperate with Banushaj in this project.

“Such exhibitions require a lot of work and time as they are not commercial ones. They contain much history, ethnography and they should be authentic. That was the main focus of this project, which was the first of this kind for me,” Banushaj told Southeast Europe: People and Culture.

Gjirokastra, with is population of 43,000, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2005 as a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town. Gjirokastra is an oasis of history, ethnography and tradition.

Banushaj went to Gjirokastra, as she said, to touch every stone of this city, visit every characteristic house and museum, meet local people and artisans, and learn about motifs, threads and symbols.

“My goal was to produce objects as authentic as Gjirokastra is. This was the challenge of this project. After I did the study part, my task was to put the Gjirokastra handicraft art into each and every design of mine,” she said.

The usual itinerary for foreign tourists is to come to Albania via Ionninna or Corfu, in Greece, both of which have a strong market for handicraft products.

“I bought a few products in Corfu to show them to the artisans. The project also intended to change the mentality of those women who were used to produce large tablecloths or heavy works not that suitable to be carried in the small suitcase of a tourist,” she said.

Banushaj’s designs are driven by the nature, lifestyle and the art of Gjirokastra. She is proud of her original approach to her designs, particularly the bags carrying the region’s characteristic mountain tea (çaj mali) ortrahana (cracked wheat and yogurt) or various specific aromatic herbs. “Why not promote such special elements which, for us, might not be that impressive since we have them in our day-to-day life, but are real attractions for visitors,” she said.

Part of the exhibition was clothes worn by models which were designed and embellished with particular accessories.

Such accessories, including bracelets, earrings and necklaces using both crochet and needlework, took visitors by surprise. Identified and encouraged by her professor in Naples for her talent in designing accessories, Kule pursued this passion. “I was not aware that I had this skill. This comes to me naturally. My first contact with accessories was before the 1990s when I bought a small book entitled “Stoli Arbërore” (Arbëresh jewelleries),” she said.

Banushaj was a finalist of the 21th National Competition of Young Designers in Riccione, Italy, and she won the first prize of the “Vision & Co.” international competition in 2010. This prize assured her a one-year fellowship (2010-2011) at the Fashion Academy in Naples.