By Krisztina Than
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Transforming traditional flowery Roma patterns into bold, modern prints, designer Erika Varga aims to use fashion to increase acceptance of the Roma minority in Hungarian society.
She launched Romani Design, Hungary's first Roma fashion label, with her younger sister Helena Varga six years ago.
Since then her colorful, sometimes flamboyant, designs have won fans in Hungary, as well as in Brussels, Berlin, Paris and India, where she has also presented her women's and menswear collections.
Inspired by the traditional clothing of her rich Roma cultural heritage Varga, 46, hopes fashion can fight stereotyping in society.
Born in eastern Hungary, she was a jewelery maker before turning to clothes. She also worked for several years as a mentor to young Roma people - an experience that she says has had a profound influence on her mission now as a fashion designer.
"We talked a lot about how important it is to find and live fully their Roma identity," she said of her mentoring work. To succeed in this, she said, society needs to change as well, to be more open towards Roma people, who make up about 5 percent of Hungary's population.
"The reason why Romani Design was created is that I wanted a much more intensive and stronger communication channel and ... to boost the prestige of Roma culture," Varga told Reuters in the small sewing room in her studio in Budapest.
At a glitzy fashion show in the capital featuring Hungarian designers over the weekend, held by Marie Claire magazine, models strolled the catwalk in Varga's vibrant Romani designs.
"The fact that Roma designs have now integrated into the international fashion world is a huge experience for the Roma community," said Lorena Dogi, 38, a Roma activist from Romania.
In the audience, Hajnalka Bessenyei, 37, loves Varga's designs, and the message they send, and wore a pair of the designer's black trousers with a red flowery waistline as she attended the show with a friend. The social "mission" behind the designs give the clothes a special value, she said.
"I think the more people wear (these clothes), the more visibility Roma culture gets ... and this can improve relations between the Roma and non-Roma communities," Bessenyei said.
(Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Susan Fenton)