Bosnian-Austrian, Vienna-based menswear label Hvala Ilija (which means “Thank you, Ilija” in Slovenian) dishevels the sartorial tropes of the Balkan man. The themes and issues designer Ilija Milicic forefronts range from personal to political; from a collection inspired by his uncle’s sartorial habits to photographs shot at the Südbahnhof bus station that raise awareness about immigration issues, Milicic investigates the micro to tackle the macro.
Currently working on his graduate collection at The University of Applied Arts in Vienna, Ilija Milicic fled from Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early '90s and settled in working-class parts of Vienna. “My experiences are woven into me so they will exert their influence on my work one way or the other,” he says. Sometimes, subconsciously, Vienna’s immigrant Balkan community is more often than not a core reference in the designer’s work. “I’m definitely not trying to mould myself into a Balkan fashion ambassador or something, I just deal with topics and people that are dear to my heart,” he adds.

Although Milicic’s sleazy menswear can also be flatteringly unisex, he is planning to stick to designing for the male body for now.“ I enjoy the limits that menswear brings with it. For someone as free-spirited as me, it can be soothing to work with those limitations from time to time. It feels like you’re in a box which you’re trying to expand, make more space in it, and fill it with new things.”

Like an increasing number of climate-conscious young designers, who opt for designing timeless pieces on their own terms, Milicic does not wish to comply with fashion industry’s arguably outdated seasonal model that encourages extreme consumer behaviour. We talk to Milicic about authenticity, the influences of his Balkan roots, the irrelevance of the traditional fashion industry model and the perpetual appeal of tracksuits.
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What propelled you to choose fashion design as your career path? Was fashion something you were interested in growing up?
It would be a bit of a stretch to say that I was interested in fashion but I definitely noticed certain people and their energy. I guess the way they dressed and their sense of style must have been one of the things that made them so interesting to me.
I don’t recall the exact moment I chose fashion as a career. I knew I wanted to draw so I applied to an art university, I kind of went with the flow and had a good time while studying. At one point, other people showed interest in my projects and it felt like I was doing something right, you know. But I always knew that I wanted to do something visual, and here I am.
You are studying at The University of Applied Arts in Vienna. What is your greatest takeaway from the school?
I am working on my graduation collection at the moment. The thing I’ll cherish the most is the relationships I established with other students from my class and the collaborations I had with the students from other departments such as photography, painting or transmedia art.
Since most of the departments are located under one roof, it is easy to run into people with different skill sets and make friends with them. Oftentimes these friendships evolve into business relationships. Not all of us are going to become designers. Some are great in understanding how a pattern is constructed but unfortunately lack creative vision, and some of us have extensive knowledge of fashion history and culture in general, but struggle to translate this knowledge into a collection. They will make good consultants one day. The great thing about studying is that you get to meet all of these people in one place.
The university’s textile print department is probably my favourite place. The three tutors from the textile print department are legends to me. Ute, Gabi and Robert know all there is to know when it comes to textile printing. They are masters of all the traditional fabric printing and dyeing techniques. At the same time, they are up to date with every innovation in their field. They have seen a lot over the years they have spent working with students. Even after all of the years, they managed to remain open to new ideas. Sometimes I feel they are more excited than me when a printing experiment ends up being a success.
After you fled from Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early '90s, you settled in a working-class part of Vienna. How do your experiences growing up among the immigrants from Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia and Turkey manifest in your designs?
I think these experiences manifest themselves in the choice of garments I work with, fabrics and imagery among others. I don’t really think about how I could incorporate my background or my experiences in my work. This is something that just somehow naturally happens on its own. My experiences are woven into me, so they will exert their influence on my work one way or the other. It’s not like I’m forcing anything. I’m not trying to fit the Balkan stereotype and I’m definitely not trying to mould myself into a Balkan fashion ambassador or something, I just deal with topics and people that are dear to my heart. I feel like your roots are always present no matter what you do.  Even if you wanted to conceal them, they would still be visible or traceable.
“I just don't understand the fuss about dropping six collections a year, like, why? What's the point? Many designers are talking about sustainability but continue to show sixty looks. No one needs your sixty looks.”
In an interview in 2017, you mentioned that even though a lot of women are into your clothes, you prefer your designs on men. Why is that? And has that changed?
I just feel like there are many facets of masculinity I haven’t dived into. Also, I enjoy the limits that menswear brings with it. For someone as free-spirited as me, it can be soothing to work with those limitations from time to time. It feels like you’re in a box which you’re trying to expand, make more space in it and fill it with new things.
I enjoy seeing women in my designs and seeing my designs on a female body but I just don’t feel ready to step into womenswear at the moment. To me, knowledge, understanding and passion are the keys to everything you do in life. I might tick the passion box but in order to create an exciting womenswear collection, I feel like I lack knowledge and understanding.
Female bodies are different and I would need to spend some time studying the differences first. I also might need time to understand what a woman feels comfortable in and then we can talk about developing a collection. I’m not saying that I will never do womenswear but at the moment there are several female designers doing womenswear and I’d rather leave womenswear to the experts. Maybe one day, once I feel ready, I will strike with a womenswear collection, who knows.
You create clothes that are directly inspired by your background, your experiences and your surroundings. Do you think the references have to be personal to achieve authenticity in fashion design? And are you after authenticity at all?
As I mentioned before, your background, experiences, etc. are woven into you so no matter what references you're working with at the moment, your fingerprints will always show. Sort of like a signature that permeates everything you touch. You can't escape that. For me, it’s more about how far you’ll push a reference you’re working with or how deep you’ll dive into your research topic. Of course, there were a few references I considered including in my work in the past but ultimately decided to give them up because they did not feel quite right. It felt like I was faking it. I guess that would be my intuition that signalled something was not the right thing to do.
In another interview, you stated that you don’t really think about separating yourself from anybody. Do you want people who wear your clothes to blend in or stand out?
Separating yourself is a result of comparing yourself, I think. I don’t compare myself to others. I never really think about if I want to make people stand out or blend in through fashion. I just want the garments I design to find their owners. In my collections, there’s something for extroverts as well as for introverts. I honestly just do whatever feels right at the moment I’m designing.
Functionality and the feel of a garment are a concern while I’m sketching but I don’t think about potential wearer yet, extrovert or introvert.
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Your Instagram bio reads “Austrian quality, Balkan mentality.” Could you expand on what Balkan mentality entails in relation to your designs?
he Balkan mentality and Austrian quality thing was just something that I thought sounded like a funny bio for my Instagram profile. I guess Balkan mentality pertains to how I tackle different situations I find myself in, ideas I'm attracted to or how I deal with different impulses, creative or otherwise. But it could also be a fitting description of how I approach life in general.
You have mentioned that you view tracksuits – which have over the years been a recurrent garment in your collections –  as “Something very elegant.” Why is that?
A tracksuit is my 'Sunday's best'. In my opinion, it deserves the same level of respect as a suit. I like the fact that it’s a two-piece ensemble. I like the glossy shine of the fabric. I like that it is typically loose cut but still manages to flatter the male form. I love the versatility; you can dress it up or dress it down. A tracksuit is a very democratic garment, it's a look that nowadays pretty much everybody can afford. I guess it was my aunts and uncles who instilled in me the love of tracksuits. In my community, a high-quality tracksuit was regarded almost as a status symbol. I enjoyed the way my aunts and uncles personalised their tracksuits and owned it.
A tracksuit is like a suit in many ways, it can make a man or break him. At some point, every man should invest in a bespoke suit and a bespoke tracksuit if you ask me. And guys, never go commando when wearing a tracksuit if you are not equipped, you don’t wanna give away information that might change later.
From lookbooks shot outside of a brothel on the city’s outskirts to photographs shot at the Südbahnhof bus station that raise awareness about immigration issues, your visual campaigns are intricately interlinked with the messages of your collections. In our increasingly digitalised, image-based culture, what would you say are the main consideration when creating the brand image?
Know who you are. Know what you want and more importantly, know what you don’t want. Keep around the people that make you question your decisions, people that make you think. Have values, have a vision, and have a set of balls to be able to deal with the detractors, disparagers and the naysayers.
Know the people who can help you if you don’t feel comfortable creating a brand image all by yourself. This entails looking for photographers, graphic designers, stylists and models or getting a partner who would do this for you. It’s not shameful to ask for help, plus you’re creating job opportunities for other creatives.
Instead of spending your money on photographers who are already well established, work with new, unknown creatives who are able to offer a different point of view. It feels fresher. Try not to measure someone's talent or impact by how many followers they have on Instagram. Same goes for models. Why would you waste your funds on overused, overpriced trendy faces when you can invest in street-cast models instead and enjoy the freedom that comes with working with them? Paying them feels much better. You bring something new to the table and along the way you may open up a door or two for someone.
I always have an idea in mind of what I want to send out there and how this message should look like, but the moment I put the message out there and invite other people to partake in my vision, people’s reaction and their feedback might subconsciously influence my next project. So there’s a kind of a 'collective branding' going on in fashion at the moment, I think.
“To be honest, I don’t see the fashion industry changing as long as the new generation doesn’t break stubborn old habits and override the current broken system.”
What do you mean by 'collective branding'?
Sort of an interplay between a singular vision of a creative director and their audience. Not particularly in my case, because my label is still in its infancy and I have the freedom to experiment and make mistakes when it comes to the business side of my label. But Kim Kardashian, for example, can’t allow herself not to listen to her costumers' feedback and risk producing a bunch of things that no one can relate to or that no one desires. It just seems like a bad idea. I’m pretty sure that a creative director at a big Maison loses their position the moment their vision does not translate well financially. When you reach a certain level, I think, you have to practice what I call collective branding.
From early on you decided not to work within the fashion industry’s traditional seasonal framework, focusing on your label’s development instead. Over the last few years, we have seen many fashion brands showing outside the official schedules, the development which has been accelerated due to the global pandemic.
Yeah, I just don't understand the fuss about dropping six collections a year, like, why? What's the point? Many designers are talking about sustainability but continue to show sixty looks. No one needs your sixty looks. You could have stopped at twenty, to be honest. All this force-fed fashion is way too overwhelming. In my opinion, by shoving sixty looks into my brain you're just taking away meaning and quality from the whole project. It’s like a sixteen track album with five filler songs and two rushed interludes.
I prefer the shows that are unconventional as it is at the moment, during the pandemic. It’s strange that it took the 'mainstream fashion houses' a pandemic to move away from the old fashioned way of presenting their collections.
I guess I’m more used to experiencing fashion in an exhibition or a performative setting than in a show setting as we know it. Conventional fashion shows always felt more like a publicity stunt and a waste of money. There are smarter, less expensive and more interesting solutions to presenting fashion at the moment.
How do you think the industry should adapt?
To be honest, I don’t see it changing as long as the new generation doesn’t break stubborn old habits and override the current broken system. The payment culture has to change too. People should be fairly remunerated for their labour. I’ve never met an intern that was able to afford his rent just by interning for an established label – unless you come from a wealthy background. If you have the money for all the stunts on the catwalk I’m sure you can also afford to pay your interns or at least 'pay' them with an outfit they can re-sell…
Imagine every designer just dropping collections whenever the collection is ready like musicians do in the music industry. They release a record whenever they feel the record is finished. Imagine setting your own deadlines, working at your own pace with your team, having enough time to properly research and experiment, make the samples, photograph the looks. Then you invite buyers to a secret showroom and then boom – the collection is there and it’s ready to sell. You have your own moment and you don't present in a fashion week where half of the things are being overlooked.
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