Designer Spotlight: VIKTORIA ZUZIAK, Taking On Gender
Chapter Z speaks to fashion designer Viktoria Zuziak, who’s eponymous gender-fluid fashion label questions the restrictive and exclusionary aspects of gender through play and exploration. The label aims at loosening the rigidity surrounding this socially constructed system by challenging its binary structure.
Viktoria’s debut Gender Benders collection is based on a questioning of femininity and the end result embraces it as a fluid means of expression and identification for everyone.
So, Viktoria, tell me about the journey behind your gender-fluid label. Did you already know that’s what you wanted to do when you decided to study fashion?
The concept was a continuation of my final collection which was based around strength and femininity. It focused on exploring femininity in a non-confirmative way.
For me, that meant looking back at how I related to these topics and what stood out was the role swimming has played in shaping my gender identity. Swimming competitively from a young age provided me with an arena to push myself and continuously challenge my limits. It made me feel strong and free and it taught me to have faith in myself.
Exploring the topic of femininity and all its pressures, ideals and restrictions made me realise how much swimming protected me from all these ideals that get placed onto young girls, especially in regard to body ideals.
Your body is where your strength comes from in swimming. It’s something you are taught to take care of and listen to. That approach gave me a very healthy relationship with my body. The way I looked was of very little importance to how I saw myself. I had really wide shoulders and was very muscular and it was a nightmare finding clothes that would fit but it didn’t matter, because I was a swimmer.
The second key element in the collection was power, especially power in society. The way gender is used as a divider of power infuriates me. Women are pushed down, held back and not given the same opportunities as men. So, this imbalance of power was something that I wanted to rewrite.
The concept led my primary research which consisted of an experimental draping session that included tailored garments, for their link to power, and professional swimwear. By using the swimwear as a means of shaping the silhouettes of the tailored garments I created a balance between these two elements that represented my standpoint. Next, I wanted to question the binary framework for gender that is so essential for this unequal division of power. It is such a restrictive, exclusive and limiting framework and it is causing so, so many people so much harm.
So, what I did next was to put the models and their drapes into a pool. In a second, it completely changed all the rules of how fabric behaves. Whatever silhouettes we had on land, behaved completely differently in water. Everything about the drape changed, even down to the colour of the fabric. Taking the model out of water, the drape became something different once again. This was my way of commenting on the binary gender system and communicating that what society considers as natural is just empty rules in an outdated system.
I think that standardised sizing has a really big impact on us and how we see our bodies. If you’re constantly feeling like this doesn’t fit here and this doesn’t fit there, it starts to feel like there’s something wrong with the way you’re shaped rather than with the sizing. That is why I wanted to construct pieces that were a lot more flexible and allowed for a lot more of physical differences. And that was the key element that then developed further into the gender fluid aspect of my label.
The concept of water is very closely related to the idea of fluidity. Was that a part of the idea behind your collection?
Water stands for so many great things for me. Water itself is so very, very powerful in a quiet and calming way. It’s an incredible force. And fluidity as a concept is something that is very appealing to me, in basically all parts of life.
At one point I was really struggling with my mental health and going swimming became my little escape that did so much to stabilize me.
It’s like being in a different atmosphere isn’t it?
Yeah, it even has its own sounds. If you swim breaststroke, and your head goes up to inhale and then down as you exhale under the water, you’ve got the bubbles passing your ears and if it is really quiet you can hear them passing. The sounds are so rhythmical and repetitive, I love it.
So now tell me about your upcoming collection… Did you ever expect that your grandpa’s wardrobe would be a source of inspiration for it? How’s it been to explore masculinity through his clothes?
Well, my grandpa passed last year and because clothing carries a lot of emotional meaning for me, I collected a substantial part of his wardrobe. When I was going through the stuff, my grandma was like “Oh, you should take this, it’s new!” which were absolutely not the garments that I was interested in. I wanted the worn-out pieces; the ones people wouldn’t think someone would want. This was in my final year and I was just getting out of a phase of only wearing vintage, stained, off white clothes after a previous pink and purple fluffy phase. And suddenly I had this whole new wardrobe at my disposal.
What is quite nice is that it was around the same time as I started questioning my sexuality. As a person who uses clothing and stylization as a means of exploring and expressing their identity, the timing of this new wardrobe came in quite handy. It allowed me to test out a more masculine gender expression in a very safe and quick way, as compared to having to go and buy every single piece one by one. And I say safe because it provided me with a great answer to any questions that I didn’t yet have the answers to. So, in that sense, my grandpa played a vital role in my coming out story, even though I never got to come out to this incredibly important person in my life. And that is what my next collection is about.
What would your fashion utopia look like?
I would like a lot more pieces to be made to measure. No high street, just investing in pieces that are fairly produced, that fit and that last.
If you could give some advice to your younger self, or to any young designer, what would you tell them?
I’d tell them to dare to believe in their dreams and to give things a good go. Be focused on what is really important to you and have a think about what you are willing to compromise on. You will have to be flexible about things, so it is helpful to have a list of priorities singling out your main goal and separating that from the rest so that you can keep on trying different approaches until something works.