In her artistically arranged apartment/atelier, Vendula Kalinova has seven sewing machines, 14 birds, seven dressmaker forms and a fluffy-puffy Persian cat named Emma who spends her days prancing on patterns and batting at tape measures.
It’s early morning, and the canaries, caged in the kitchen, are singing their hearts out. As the finches look on, Vendula lets Burda the parrot perch on her hand.
All of these creatures in this immersive oasis, and, in fact, everything in the world, are inspiration for the custom art fashions of KALINOVA Design as well as for Vendula’s art and interior design projects.
Despite a lifetime of creativity, this is the first time that Vendula, who is 41, has ever had the freedom to follow her passions.
Vendula, who is dressed in grey KALINOVA overalls accented with rose-gold straps and safety pins, grew up in Netvořice, a market town in the Czech Republic that at the time had a population of only 600.
Nine of those residents were members of Vendula’s family.
The town, under Communist control, had many cows but no telephone lines.
The family didn’t have much money, and Vendula, the oldest of seven, was assigned, by virtue of her birth order, to play the role of second mom to her siblings.
“We wore hand-me-down clothes,” she says, “or clothes from scratchy yarn that my mother knitted. And we mended our socks when they got holes.”
There was a TV in their four-bedroom apartment, but it was black and white and only had two channels.
“We were not allowed to watch it,” she says. “I had no exposure to the outside world — people were not allowed to travel outside the country – much less the fashion world. But when my first-grade teacher asked me what I wanted to be, I said fashion designer.”
Beauty came into Vendula’s world the day one of her aunts presented her with a small ball of dark green yarn flecked with gold.
“My mom taught me to crochet, and I had enough yarn to make two squares and form a sleeveless sweater for my doll,” she says.
Vendula’s interest in fashion intensified when she enrolled in a trade school to learn shoe manufacturing.
“High schools in the Czech Republic were trade schools,” she says. “We alternated – one week in school, one week in the factory. We got paid to work.”
By 18, when she graduated, Vendula was determined to come to New York City, the fashion capital of the world.
“At home, I used to sit at the window and stare at the stars,” she says. “I knew there had to be something bigger.”
That something bigger started with something smaller.
“I got a job as an au pair,” she says, adding that she only had to take care of two, not six children, as she was accustomed to. “I replied to an ad in a newspaper.”
Although she spoke Russian and Czech, she didn’t know English.
“I had never been anyplace,” she says. “It never occurred to me that people in New York wouldn’t be speaking Czech.”
Two years later, she left that job and worked in a variety of fields, most of them not even on the fringes of fashion.
After 10 years living in Astoria, circumstances took her to Miami, where she studied interior design at Miami Dade College.
“During that time, I was doing a lot of sewing jobs,” she says. “I even was a sail maker for boats.”
She was also honing her hobbies, making clothes for friends and creating paintings, sculptures and crafts projects.
In 2014, she returned to New York, where she got a job as an interior designer for Estée Lauder and enrolled in FIT.
“I worked during the day and did school at night,” she says. “Sometimes I didn’t get home until midnight. I kept this up for two years, but I was overwhelmed.”
In 2017, she gave everything up to start over.
“The day I quit my job and school, I found a dollar bill in the street,” she says. “I picked it up and wrote on it, ‘This is the day I quit to create.’ It was so freeing.”
She put an ad on Craigslist and tapped into groups on Facebook, and before long, she was getting work making custom handbags as well as clothing for men and women.
She turned her living room and dining room into her atelier.
“My work, which incorporates embroidery, painting, lacework, beads and felting, is art,” she says. “I don’t make sketches; my approach is organic. When I work with the fabric, it just falls into place.”
She brings out a mood board she created to help bring to life a diaphanous white gown called Passing Through that she visualized in her mind. The idea came to her when she spotted an injured pigeon struggling on the sidewalk.
“I tried to console him,” she says. “He fell into a puddle and was splashing mud all over. It was just me and him – I didn’t notice anything that was going on in the outside world. He passed away in my hands. I could tell he passed away loved, and I knew he was going to a better place.”
Vendula was so moved by the bird’s passage that she commemorated the event with a tattoo on her left forearm that depicts not only the bird but also her favorite scissors, a tree branch, hands and the face of the Buddha. Underneath, in Latin, are the words from a wise, Greek painter: “Not a day without a line drawn.”
It is the motto Vendula lives by.
Vendula loves her new life and hopes to move to a large, loft-like space where she can live and work.
“I’d like to have a TV show where I would travel around the world visiting the ateliers of people nobody knows about,” she says. “But I will never stop making fashion.”
Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 15, 2019.
Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling