By Her Design
How renowned designer Elizabeth Kollo cut a path to fashion and freedom from the fabric of an oppressive society
By Caitlin Frost
“Unless you lived there, you can’t even imagine,” says fashion designer Elizabeth Kollo, sitting at the kitchen table of her Beaverton, Oregon, home. “You couldn’t trust anybody, not even family,” she continues, her accent tugging at her words. “Everyone was afraid.”
The elegant fifty-seven-year-old has coiffed hair, sharp features, and round hazel eyes. She’s wearing a hand-made, fitted tweed jacket with black lace embroidery on the front panel and bunched loops of wool surrounding the cuffs – the style of a European sophisticate. Kollo, an ethnic Hungarian, lived in Romania until 1984 under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. His regime controlled every aspect of society. Secret police tyrannized the people, threatening them with torture. In Bucharest, the city where Kollo conducted her fashion design business, Ceausescu was accused and convicted of committing acts of genocide. In a controversial coup d’etat in 1989, he and his wife were pursued across the Romanian countryside until captured and executed by a firing squad.
Before the coup and amid the oppression, Kollo flourished as an artist. She established herself as a fashion designer within a small sector of cultural elites in the Romanian capital. Her cotton dresses and hand-dyed garments were in high demand, even among Communist Party members, garnering the designer acclaim and prosperity.
But the wealth of her achievements did not exceed her desire to escape Ceausescu’s tyranny. The oppressive environment prevented Kollo from realizing the kind of life she envisioned for herself – a life that could only be designed in a free society. She planned to escape Romania and never return.
On this damp winter evening inside Kollo’s suburban abode, the Pacific Northwest air and muddy-gray skies are kept at bay. The interior, a festival of orange and yellow walls, is vibrant in contrast to the climate outside. Large paintings share space with floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The home feels like a massive fitting room in an upscale boutique. Kollo lives alone now, her three daughters having left the nest. She uses the extra space as a design studio.
Kollo scurries into her kitchen with an energy as dynamic as the room’s decor. She hugs her newest creation, a handbag she was requested to design for the charity event “Power of the Purse.” The event paired local designers with Portland “purse-onalities” to create one-of-a-kind bags, which were auctioned to raise money for Girls Inc. Kollo was matched with her client, Portland philanthropist Arlene Schnitzer.
She fiddles with the work-in-progress like a child exhilarated by a new toy. The purse’s plush, black fabric gathers into a honeycomb pattern decorated by an adornment on the flap. It is a marvel for a first-time handbag design. “Sometimes I feel like I’m getting a fever,” she says of her passion for creating new designs. The self-proclaimed workaholic patterns her couture collections in her home design studio under the label Kollo Originals. Her beaded blouses, wool-embroidered coats, chiffon dresses, and other custom-made pieces are catered toward prominent Portlanders and fashion connoisseurs.
During her upbringing in a repressive society, Kollo used her creativity to entertain herself. Resources were scarce in Eastern Europe after World War II, so she turned the insides of her parents’ kitchen cupboards into makeshift sketch pads. Her favorite things to draw were wedding dresses. When Kollo was thirteen, Communist Party talent scouts selected her to attend a government-run boarding school. She went on to the University of Cluj, where she studied tapestry and fashion design.
After graduation she became the head pattern maker for a major knitting company. Three years later, she decided it was time to launch her own business. She produced designs and sold them to government-owned shops that taxed 40 percent of her sales. Kollo’s clothes immediately generated a buzz.
Pieces went for $2,000 to $3,000 – comparable to the monthly earnings of an engineer in Romania at the time. Her collections were displayed in art exhibitions and hung from gallery walls like canvases. Her dresses were made from hand-dyed, thin-stretched cotton, drawing from her skills with the loom. Layers of textural detail, delicate ruffles, and overlapping fabrics created pieces that complemented a woman’s figure. In the face of oppression, Kollo found her niche as an architect of contemporary Romanian fashion. Limos carried her off to the mansions of Communist Party officials to perform fittings with their wives. She designed specialty pieces for Madam Elena Ceausescu. But in accordance with strict economic policies, Kollo couldn’t earn any income beyond the boutique sales of her merchandise. Socialites bribed her to perform services, and she learned how to work the system.
Despite her growing demand and fame, the regime barred the expansion of Kollo’s business. Artist household incomes were capped at $10,000 a year and the “economical police” hunted commoners who “led luxurious lives.” Kollo made more than the instituted cap, illegally, by creating multiple copies of certain styles and disregarding government rules regulating the number of pieces she could sell. Store workers gave Kollo her earnings under the table and kept the government’s 40-percent tax. They hid their stolen sums in toilets, flushing the evidence during periodic police raids. When recalling her criminal acts, she clearly justifies her actions. “It forced us to do illicit things,” she says.
Not only was the economy strictly controlled, foreign print materials were either banned or censored. The temperature of household thermostats remained fixed. Hidden audio recording devices lay scattered among the street-side trees to listen in on the conversations of passersby. Ethnic racism pervaded the country and created deep divisions among Romanian people. As an ethnic Hungarian with a grandfather who had once drunkenly burned the Romanian flag, Kollo was born with the Ceausescu regime’s target on her back.
Her relationship with the government was complex. On the one hand, she was in high demand for her skills in design. On the other, she was an outcast because of her ethnicity and suspected of political disloyalties. The Party kept a close watch on Kollo, refusing to allow her to leave the country. They knew she might never return.
At twenty-nine, she met Dan Balaesh, a security advisor for President Ceausescu. Balaesh’s father was the general director of Romanian Broadcasting and a close associate of the president. Officials followed Kollo and Balaesh to monitor their budding relationship. The Ministry refused to allow a member of the Romanian Communist Party to associate with an ethnic Hungarian. They forced him to choose: his government or Kollo. When Balaesh chose his future wife, the Ministry expelled him. Although a government target, the couple remained in the country. Soon after their wedding Kollo gave birth to their first daughter, Cristina.
At her kitchen table, Kollo sifts through piles of black-and-white photographs from Romania. One photo shows her on the set of a 1980 photo shoot for the Romanian magazine Flacara. She is dressed in a white cotton overlay constructed from the lace trim of a bed sheet. Her long, wavy hair is swept across one eye. Married and in love, Kollo says this was one of the happiest times in her life. But what the lens couldn’t capture is her disgust with the hypocrisy of her circumstances. She praised a regime she detested, sang an anthem she didn’t believe, and represented a country she didn’t respect. Nationalism was forced on Romanians, Kollo says. She knew that she had to find a way to leave.
“Every single day it was like I was trying to beat the lie detector so that nobody would read my thoughts,” Kollo says. Her desire to flee Romania increased as her daughter grew. By the time Cristina approached her third birthday, Kollo and Balaesh’s plans of escape were established. The couple pleaded with officials to grant them clearance to travel to a soccer match in Paris, a guise for their plans to escape. Balaesh’s father believed the couple’s plans to be authentic and used his connections with the government to convince officials to issue passports. The government agreed, but on one condition: Cristina had to stay in Romania as collateral.
On August 11, 1984, Kollo and Balaesh enjoyed a gathering with family and friends to celebrate Cristina’s third birthday. The couple chatted with relatives, concealing the fact that in less than twenty-four hours they would be en route to a secret location in Europe. With the car packed and waiting, Kollo was unable to grasp the severity of her situation and the decision to leave Cristina behind.
“We had to lie to everybody, even my mother,” says the designer. “We had to keep it a secret because we were afraid if we told one soul, they would tell someone.” Kollo kissed her daughter goodbye that day, hoping they would be reunited in a free country.
Upon the discovery of their escape, both the government and the couple’s family were furious. Balaesh’s father was fired from his broadcasting job for his broken promise, and Balaesh’s brother was dismissed as a military pilot. The government attempted to track down the couple. Kollo feared for their capture because the Romanian government had condemned Balaesh to death. The couple knew that they could never return to Romania.
The government held Cristina in Romania as leverage and the wait for reunification was excruciating for Kollo. While international law prevented Cristina’s legal detainment, the involved bureaucracies took time. The only thing that stopped Kollo from risking a return to Romania was the knowledge that her family would never be reunited if she left her husband in Europe – the law was void if the couple separated.
“I don’t know how I survived,” she says. The couple sought the help of the International Rescue Committee, which relocated them to Los Angeles after three months of hiding in Europe. The organization intervened and forced the Romanian government to let Cristina go. After thirteen agonizing months, Kollo got her daughter back.
Reunited in L.A., the family constructed their new life. Although adapting wasn’t easy, Kollo managed to teach herself English by pasting sticky notes with words and phrases around her dingy apartment. Fortunately for Kollo, fashion-forward L.A. was ripe with opportunities for seamstresses.
A sizable Hungarian population offered Kollo the ability to network in the foreign city. She quickly met James Galanos, a prominent L.A. designer and one of the more well-known names in eighties fashion. Galanos was famous for his silk fabrics, hand-sewn beading, and glamorous gowns. He was one of the first American couture designers. After recognizing Kollo’s talent, he immediately put her to work in the midst of his booming career.
Galanos introduced Kollo to different materials and a different process of design. She never doubted her abilities to sew, but she had no idea that the craft existed at such a fine level. As a pattern maker in Galanos’ studio, she learned the art of couture design and fortified her style using high-quality fabrics.
“A blouse for the daytime was $1,600 twenty years ago, and evening dresses were $30,000,” Kollo says. “At that time it was unheard of. Nobody paid that much for a Paris designer. But they paid that much for him.” Galanos designed pieces for Nancy Reagan and Diana Ross and crafted $35,000 gowns for Italian princesses. Kollo remembers working with Nancy Reagan on numerous occasions – especially to make a black-and-white-striped silk and gabardine wool dress for the former first lady.
Although immersed in a prestigious niche of the fashion industry, Kollo was put off by the glitz and glamour of Beverly Hills. “Nothing ever really impresses me about the materialistic part,” she says. “I enjoyed it, but my dreams weren’t exactly to work on expensive merchandise. My dreams were to live in a country where I can travel, where I can say whatever I want to say, and where I’m free.”
Kollo yearned for a more low-key lifestyle where she could provide a decent education for her three daughters, and this desire brought her to Portland, Oregon. She began working at an exclusive boutique and then became the head of the alterations department at Saks Fifth Avenue downtown. Cindy Tortorici, the former general manager of Saks, says that Kollo was a godsend. “It’s a very rare talent to be able to create couture creations,” she says. “It’s a trade.” But taking care of her children outweighed all other priorities, including pursuing big-time success in fashion. “During these past years, I could have adventured and tried to make it big. But it wasn’t important to me,” Kollo says. “It was more important to be home when [the girls] come from school, to be able to take them to piano lessons and gymnastics… I very much loved being a mother.”
Nestled among the supermarkets and grade schools of suburbia, Kollo’s life as a high-profile couture designer is discreet. Yet her pieces continue to astound her loyal following of clients, who seek out her unique and quality craftsmanship.
A premier client is Arlene Schnitzer, whose philanthropy includes primary funding for Portland’s Schnitzer Concert Hall and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon. Schnitzer relies on the designer for her entire wardrobe. “I always say, ‘If it wasn’t for Elizabeth, I’d be a recluse,'” she says.
On April 5, the Power of the Purse charity event featured high-visibility local attendees such as Nicole Vogel, publisher of Portland Monthly, State Senator Avel Gordly, and Schnitzer. Kollo’s newly stitched bag was a big hit at the event and auctioned off for nearly $3,000. “She is truly amazing,” says Schnitzer. “One of the most intelligent women I know.” Schnitzer says that living under the communist regime gave Kollo the determination to provide for her daughters in a free country.
Like the designs mastered with her keen eye and vibrant imagination, Kollo had a vision for the way she wanted her life to be and designed accordingly. “In my mind I am successful, and I think that’s what matters – how you think about yourself and how you define success,” she says. “I think that if you have a comfortable life and you love what you are doing, you are successful.”