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The Model Citizens of Sofia, Bulgaria

Before I left for Bulgaria, I was warned over and over about the wrestlers. It sounded absurd to me, like something out of a B movie. After all, my entirely benign reason for visiting the capital, Sofia, was to check out the rumor that the women there are the most stylish of the former Eastern bloc. Why would I, an American journalist, have to worry about onetime members of Bulgaria's Olympic wrestling and weight-lifting teams?Well, welcome to Sofia.

When the Communist government fell, some of the athletes allegedly went into drug smuggling, prostitution, and racketeering (with the help of a few government allies), forming powerful, diversified "business" empires with outwardly legitimate activities in insurance and security. Here, as in Russia, the mafiya roams around in plain view, making its presence known with expensive German cars and tiny, Versace-clad model girlfriends. So while I learned plenty about the city's best designers, the most exclusive boutiques, and the chicest restaurants and nightspots, I also learned more than I wanted to know about the dominance of the warring mafiya "societies" or "groupings," as they are called.

I BASED MYSELF IN THE HEART OF SOFIA, at the Sheraton Sofia Hotel Balkan, a Stalinist heap of a building that is the city's most expensive hotel (rooms go for as much as $340 a night). It offered easy access to the Bulevard Vitosha, the city's shop-lined central artery, which is framed by snowcapped Mount Vitosha to the south and the imposing 19th-century Sveta Nedelya church to the west. The Sheraton also offered a swift introduction to some of Sofia's many inconsistencies: it shelters a magnificent fourth-century church in its rear courtyard while just next door is TSUM, the behemoth, all-things-to-all-people department store modeled after Moscow's famous GUM. Nearby, on the broad, sweeping Bulevard Tsar Osvoboditel—known to foreigners as "the yellow brick road" (a reference to its bright yellow paving stones)—tinny Ladas clatter next to S-Class Mercedes-Benzes. The triangle loosely formed by Bulevard Vitosha, Ulitsa Alabin, and Ulitsa Graf Ignatief is a heady jumble of traffic and cafés, high-end restaurants and divey pizzerias, glitzy Italian boutiques and dusty junk shops, techno clubs and a museum housing a spectacular collection of Thracian gold objects. All this gives you the impression that here, anything—high or low, aboveboard or below—is possible.

In the fitful 10 years since the end of Communism, Bulgaria has become a country of extremes, with a fast-track, new-money elite on the one hand and a struggling lower class that faces a 14 percent unemployment rate on the other. But for everyone, fashion is an obsession: the newspaper 24 Chasa (24 Hours) devotes daily space to the industry; modeling is a gigantic business (there are said to be some 25 modeling agencies here, which amounts to a certifiable mania in a city of just over a million people); and looking good, by whatever means possible, is a national pastime. It's no wonder that the ephemeral world of fashion has captured the popular imagination—it offers both a diversion from political turbulence and an outlet for individual self-expression, a welcome relief after years of Soviet-imposed uniformity. Or, as Dim Dukov, then CEO of the modeling agency Underground, put it, "People here have been through a lot in a very short period. It's been dramatic. And one way we deal with it, a very Bulgarian way, is by being dramatic ourselves."

AT THE END OF MY FIRST DAY I FOUND MYSELF attending a private party at the Imperial, a comfortably scruffy rock club. I was Dim's guest. As a not-half-bad Bulgarian band thrashed onstage, we sat down amid the smartly dressed young audience, and moments later were unexpectedly greeted by the gorgeous Evgenia Kalkandzhieva, a local celebrity who was Miss Bulgaria in 1996. Kalkandzhieva, who runs the Visages modeling agency, had learned that I—at the time an editor at Harper's Bazaar—was in town, and was eager to make my acquaintance. She promptly invited me to serve on the jury of an event she was both producing and hosting: the nationally televised Best Model of Bulgaria 1998 pageant. I accepted, unaware that I was putting myself in the middle of a long-standing rivalry between Sofia's top modeling outfits.

In the 48 hours prior to the pageant, I received lots of cautionary advice, much of it conflicting, all of it nebulous. For starters, I was told that Kalkandzhieva had purportedly dated one of the biggest players in town, Krassimir Marinov. I also learned that the director of a rival agency, Intersound, had been shot to death the year before, allegedly in a dispute over the rights to beauty pageants. At the same time, people warned me to keep an eye out for anyone connected to Multigroup, by most accounts the most powerful conglomerate in Bulgaria—headed by former Olympic wrestler Ilia Pavlov—which might also have an interest in my attendance at the pageant.

The more I heard about the people said to be lurking behind the scenes, the more concerned I became about acting as a juror. After all, in Bulgaria irregular things seem to happen regularly. Cloak-and-dagger exploits are everyday fare here, and this country will forever be associated with two chilling international incidents: the 1978 murder of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov by poison-tipped umbrella in a London tube station, and (a favorite of conspiracy theorists) the alleged connection of the Bulgarian secret service to the attempted murder of the pope in 1981. I was starting to feel anxious. There was no way I wanted to find myself at the wrong end of an umbrella.

I set out on a bitterly cold Friday night to watch a good number of Sofia's most beautiful people, wrapped in fur coats and hats, descend on the National Palace of Culture. The style-setters had turned out in force for the Best Model contest, a glittering affair that was clearly of colossal interest in this pageant-obsessed country. As many as four fashion-related events take place in Sofia each month, attended by everyone from diplomats and politicians to celebrities and sports stars, while the rest of the country eats up the spectacle via TV.

I thought I saw some thick necks in the back of the hall, but it could easily have been my imagination. So I tried to relax and turned my attention to the contestants, all of whom had the wide, high cheekbones and chiseled, planar features one associates with Slavic beauties. I was convinced that a few of them had the potential to be world-class models, but I doubted that I'd be able to cast even one accurate vote, since I couldn't match the names on the ballot (in Cyrillic) with any of the models onstage.

Fortunately, my failure as a judge didn't appear to make any difference. When the night's winners were announced (only seconds after we'd turned in our ballots, or so it seemed), the audience was happy, the emcees ecstatic, and the winning models in heaven.

EVEN BEFORE SOFIA BECAME KNOWN FOR ITS HIGHLY VISIBLE newly rich (who can easily afford the latest and most extravagant European clothes), Bulgarian women were renowned for their sense of style. Under Communism, Bulgaria had a state institution called the Center for New Goods & Fashion, which allowed designers a freedom unheard-of elsewhere in the Eastern bloc and exposed Bulgarian women to a relatively wide range of designs and locally produced fabrics. According to local designer Darina Manchenko, most Bulgarian women, no matter what their economic status, have always had an innate desire to be chic. "We are used to having very few resources and very little to choose from," she said, "and we have always done a lot with very little."

A walk through the center of town reveals just how fashion-conscious Sofia has become in the past decade. Yves Saint Laurent, Max Mara, Krizia, and Estée Lauder all have shops in prime locations, and luxurious Western-style beauty salons, such as the state-of-the-art Salon MG, are beginning to catch on. While there are no bargains to be had in the international boutiques (where prices similar to those in Western Europe exclude all but wealthy tourists and Bulgarian fat cats), the collections from the best local designers are quite affordable—among them are Manchenko, whose Dary M. boutique offers subdued women's wear, and Zhana Zhekova, known for her gorgeous velvet evening dresses. But perhaps the homegrown designer who best epitomizes Sofia's efforts to cast off the drab mantle of the Soviet era is Evgenia "Jeni" Zhivkova, the thirtyish granddaughter of the late Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria's much-reviled Communist dictator for 40 years. Though her subdued clothes are conservative even by Bulgarian standards (Ralph Lauren minus the contemporary edge), the fact that Zhivkova, with her decidedly hard-core party background, has embraced the glamorous world of fashion at all speaks volumes about the way Sofia is changing.

And changing it is. The government is cracking down on organized crime, making the city a relatively safe, but still tremendously exciting, place to visit. (The "societies" should not be a deterrent: unless you're coming to do some illegal business—or, say, judge a pageant—the wrestlers will remain part of the scenery, retreating to their mansions on the slopes of Mount Vitosha, driving their high-performance cars around at night.) Here, where the high-stakes world of style is inextricably linked with muscle, fashion has become a thrilling form of real-life entertainment, offering Sofians a voyeuristic escape. "Things aren't always so easy for us in Bulgaria," says Dukov, "but fashion lets us believe in a world of beauty and perfection. It's reassuring to think—even if it's just a fantasy—that no matter what happens, we can always look fabulous."

Deborah Kirk is a writer and editor living in New York.

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