She Cut The Iron Curtain With a Pair of Tailor Scissors
It's a story of an inspiring seamstress who irreversibly changed Yugoslavia.
We are proud to tell a story about how one inspiring woman and her love for fashion design slowly changed the country covered by the Iron Curtain. Colourful and modern designs entered Yugoslavia thanks to the persistence of Žuži Jelinek – maybe not the first but definitely the bravest and most inspiring Croatian entrepreneur.
During her career, Žuži's garments were worn by famous models such as Suzy Parker, she worked for Nina Ricci and Coco Chanel, and even designed outfits for the Yugoslavian first lady Jovanka Broz.
But Žuži, in fact, did not have an easy start in life.
She was born in Budapest (then Kingdom of Hungary) in the 1920s, as the youngest daughter in the Croatian Jewish family of Isidor and Ruža Ferber. Both of her parents were deaf. They met in Budapest, as the city hosted the only school for people with such disability.
After returning to Zagreb, family experienced difficulties and lived in poor conditions. Žuži’s father assembled brushes and sold them from door to door to make a living, while mother was taking care of her four children. Although Žuži’s aunt married a rich businessman, she did not do much for the family. She was embarrassed of her poor and „crippled” brother and even refused to host family in her saloon, but instead only allowing them to visit secretly, in the kitchen. At the age of 12, Žuži swore to herself that she will succeed no matter what, and that she will not be poor and hungry ever again.
The only education a woman of her social standing could take, was one of a seamstress. After finishing school, she was sewing in her aunt’s saloon in Budapest but soon moved to Paris in search of a job. There she started working for the designer Nina Ricci. Although she was very hard-working and talented, she didn’t earn much. She lived in a cheap apartment and everyday ate omelet and bread for lunch. From that time originates her saying: „Paris is only beautiful when you have a buck! Actually, without money, nowhere is beautiful.” As her apartment did not even have heating, she was always the first and the last person in the workplace.
In the beginning of 1940s she moved back to Zagreb and achieved her childhood dream – she finally opened her sewing saloon in the center of the city. For the money she earned selling her first dress she bought her mother a new fur coat. It seemed like sun finally shone upon the life of Žuži Ferber. But soon, the dark wind of Nazism swept black clouds on the young woman’s fate.
Her three brothers were sent to concentration camps where they were brutally murdered. She almost lost her parents, but in the last minute she managed to save them by creating a vicious pact with the local official – he will provide her parents’ papers if she “pays him a visit” in his hotel room. Brutally honest Žuži, once said: – I paid for my parents’ life with sex. I do not regret any of it and I don’t care about anyone else’s opinion on that matter. –
Soon she joined partisans and, after the liberation, reopened her saloon in Zagreb. She worked very hard and very long hours – from 5 am to 11 pm every day, as her designs were very modern and very desired by the Yugoslavian women.
Her popularity and quality of her work enabled her to travel all over the world with her designs (let’s not forget she lived in a communist country). She held fashion shows in USA, Japan, China, Israel, Brasil…
Žuži was also notorious for telling „no” to the leader himself – Josip Broz Tito. The story goes that Tito, after accusing Žuži of undermining socialism while selling her own branded products, asked her to run a Macedonian factory „Teteks” and represent her designs as the product of the state. She informed the leader that she is an artist and that she wants to sign off her own designs. This led Tito to arrange her arrest and send her to concentration camp, but she sensed the danger, and fled the country on time.
Her success continued. During her 5th visit to USA, Žuži was even welcomed by an article in New York Times. „Blond, blue-eyed designer from Zagreb, Yugoslavia, came to New York recently to interest buyers in a Spring collection of fashions for the career woman; She Came, Showed – and Sold”, the journalist wrote.
Žuži had many more ups and downs. After divorcing her husband, she had to move to Geneva and, again, start from the bottom in a new country. But clever Žuži climbed the fashion ladder one more time, and in the end of the new challenge life prepared for her, finally opened two of her very own fashion saloons in Zagreb and Geneva. During 70s and 80s she was very successful and respected, even sewing for the Broz family.
In the later days, she was famous for writing and publishing a dozen books and a couple hundred columns about her life, career and sex in which she discussed taboo topics with unprecedented openness.
Her most famous one-liner was: „Give your love to everyone, but your credit card password to no one”, by which she encouraged women to achieve financial security and independency.
Charismatic Žuži was the 20th century’s most famous Croatian entrepreneur, designer, and fashion artist. Her employees remember her as a considerate and honest employer, while Croatian history recognizes her as an entrepreneur who, in many ways, paved the way for other women to succeed. All that in a system in which entrepreneurship formally did not even exist.