Jadwiga Grabowska, who would establish the most renowned label in Polish history — created her first fashion house amid the rubble and chaos of post-war Warsaw

The “Polish Coco Chanel”

Andrzej Wiernicki photograph of Jadwiga Grabowska, jubilee 80th anniversary of Jadwiga Warsaw December 1978, ©Forum

Andrzej Wiernicki photograph of Jadwiga Grabowska, jubilee 80th anniversary of Jadwiga Warsaw December 1978, ©Forum

Grabowska (1898-1988) chose an apt name for her first fashion house. Called Feniks, which means ‘Phoenix’ in English, it was established as the Polish capital lay in ruins following World War II. An estimated 730,000 Varsovians lost their lives during the war, with up to a quarter of that number perishing in the Warsaw Uprising.

When the war ended, those who had survived, regard- less of gender or social position, used whatever skills or tools they could to begin the slow process of rebuilding their beloved city. 

Grabowska, affectionately known as Grabolka, set about resurrecting the Warsaw fashion scene, which before the war had been famed for its forward-thinking elegance. The Feniks fashion house, rising from Warsaw’s ashes and a visible symbol of the city’s rebirth, began to attract impoverished aristocrats, the wives of communist leaders and celebrities who had miraculously survived the war. However, the new communist authorities would not allow the rebirth of the pre-war bourgeoisie.

In 1947, as a result of the aggressive nationalisation of trade and industry in Poland, Grabowska was forced to shut down Feniks. Fiercely determined, Grabowska refused to give up and ironically the failure of the fashion house would prove to be the making of her. 

She immediately began working in the newly established state clothing factories and a decade after the closure of Feniks, she was appointed artistic director of Moda Polska. Under her guidance, the brand flourished, growing to become the most important brand in the history of Polish fashion. Grabowska had nearly every factory in the country at her disposal and during this period the textile industry in the Polish People’s Republic enjoyed a huge revival, supplying goods to Russia and Eastern Bloc countries. Despite Poland operating in a closed market and even though the Polish currency was non-convertible, Grabowska was permitted to import fabrics from Italy and Paris. Moda Polska exhibited its collections at prestigious fashion shows across the globe.

Stanisław Kudaj in   Ty i ja   magazine, issue 100, phot.   Krzysztof Gierałtowski

Stanisław Kudaj in Ty i ja magazine, issue 100, phot. Krzysztof Gierałtowski

Famed for her ruthless approach, Grabowska was so influential she was able to appeal to those at the very highest level when she needed something. An industry legend tells of a time she reportedly threw a heavy glass ashtray at a group of government ministers to get her message across.

Throughout the communist era Grabowska moved in heady circles, regularly attending Paris Fashion Week and Dior shows. However her life before and during the Second World Warare somewhat cloaked in mystery. She frequently travelled to Paris before war broke out and had excellent contacts in the French capital after 1945.
Grabowska’s style represented contemporary elegance—she designed luxurious but practical clothing, from impeccably cut suits (garsonka) to stylish turbans. In the 1950s and 60s, she was recognised as the most famous fashion designer in the Eastern Bloc, hailed by many as the “Polish Coco Chanel.”

The circumstances surrounding Grabowska’s departure from Moda Polska in 1968 are unclear and it has been suggested that her dismissal may been politically motivated. Following her departure from Moda Polska, she endured a long period of relative obscurity and it is only recently that her contribution to Polish fashion has been recognised.

Paulina Latham