I met master artisan, Gheorghe Ciuncanu five years ago, when I was looking for a craftsman to make me a Valentino coat (Pardon me, Mr. Valentino!) that looked very similar to an old Romanian model. The embroidery was slightly different, but the stylization didn’t stray too far from the original Romanian coat. He totally refused me, saying: “Lady, I’m not making this Chinese stuff!”.
Later on, I came to the master artisan with a beautiful vintage Romanian mantle, which he brilliantly recreated. He is one of the most respected artisans in the country and unique in his own way. He’s the one who was copied by Tory Burch, with now, the famous, Queen coat. I asked him what he thinks about the price that the American designer is selling the model he designed. The answer synthesizes in a phrase an entire philosophy of 55 years of dedication to his craft work: “You cannot ask the human soul for a coat. My greatest pleasure is to see people wearing my coats and being happy. Not the money.”
By Anda Ene
What is the name of the craft you practice?
My craft is called “Abagerie”, the name is coming from the word “aba” (baize) and “gaitane” (embroidery made with cotton strings manually and mechanically applied).
At what age did you start to learn this craft and who taught you? How many generations practised this craft in your family?
I was 15 years old when my father took me to the same teacher from whom he also learned the craft. This was a nobleman, “ boier” named Brailoiu, who was very famous at that time for his high class atelier of exquisite coats. In his atelier, my father, then my brother and I learned the technique, but we also learned how to “design” and create our own models mainly, getting inspiration from church architecture and from the elements of nature. In my family, we have had this craft, for four generations: my father and his brother, myself, my daughter and my nephew, who is 22 years old.
Explain to us what are the steps to get to the finished product. What is the technique? What type of fabrics do you use?
I use wool, wool and cashmere cloth over which I embroider strings specially created for this type of coat, called “gaitane”. This is the iconic element. So, first I make the cut, and then on every piece of the coat, I apply, mechanically or manually, as needed, these cotton strings. And this is the most difficult and sensitive phase. After the piece is embroidered, the garments are closed and other decorative elements are added. The machines I work with are very specialized and some date back to 1864. Dad worked with them too and never complains about them. The work is very hard, but the coats I make last two generations.
Man has tended to decorate his coats from very old times. Our traditional costumes have sewn signs and symbols giving information about the bearer (married or not, social status, professional), functioning like a “ Curriculum vitae”. In our mythology from pre-Christian times, of which we still hold some beliefs even today, our ancestors saw the coat as an armour, defending the man not only from the whims of the weather, but also against the demons from the unseen world. The coat was a combination of aesthetic adornment with an apotropaic function – the power to avert evil influences or bad luck. Do you agree with this symbolism and do you see your coats also from this perspective?
Yes, divine signs were made on the clothes, so that the man is protected and attracted good in his life. When he left the house, the man makes the cross sign, and also the cross was sewn on his coat. Craftsmen used to put other symbols that were specific to the area where the customer came for. I put: the rhombus, a powerful sign in sacred geometry, on the breast pocket, then goes down the “snake” symbolizing the flowing water of Tismana (the name of the river and the little town where Ciuncanu lives), clover and on the back, the fir tree because we have fir trees in our area, with the purpose to put the man in communion with nature. I embroider also on coats, the rope and infinite column, very strong symbols that was very dear to the great sculptor Brancusi. He was born in this region and took inspiration from peasant art.
How many traditional patterns have you met? How open are you to do other models that would suit the modern man, living in the city?
The motifs and patterns are innumerable. Only around Tismana, in 10 villages we have each village with a different model with extra or minus certain elements and other symbols, with the scope of differentiation. Village people don’t want to wear exactly what their neighbours from the other village, wear. And it is the same in all parts of the country. Just imagine! I am open to novelty, I can make any coat.
How many hours you work daily? Describe your daily routine.
I’m ready for the day at 7am, everyday. At 8 o’clock my “team” ( me, my wife, my daughter, my nephew and a lady I hired) we start to work. Without many breaks and we work hard. Sometimes I work until 9-10 pm in the night. Everything twirls around me: I set the pattern and the design of the coat. I do not repeat the same model, only if I’m asked, I like to innovate all the time. Then, I apply “gaitane” which is a very difficult and delicate job. It took me about 10 years to know how to apply these “ gaitane”. After 55 years of work, I still have to learn, I learn all the time.
What do you say about Tory Burch, the American fashion designer who copied your model. Is it, indeed, your model?
Yes, it is my model! Identical. I was inspired by an old photo, where Queen Maria carries this coat, so I made the model. A lady bought from me this coat and she told that she will take it to America. Where, I understood, she sold it for a very expensive price. Then, I saw my model, in the media, that was copied without giving credit, by a famous designer.
How did you take this? In some way it’s good publicity for you …
Yes it is, but it bothers me that, that this famous American designer, did not tell where she took the model from. Also it bothers me even more, that she asked the human soul for a coat! That’s not fair.
What is the greatest joy this craft brings you? Will you ever get bored of what you’re doing?
I don’t do this “job” for money, I am a modest man with a simple life. I love what I’m doing and I’m never bored. I am so enthusiastic about my craft that even after 55 years and I feel that I have enough energy to create a cooperative with 20 people to make more coats. The biggest joy I have is to make people happy. Women say to me, “Master, people turn their heads to look at me on the street, everyone looks at my coat” … then I am the happiest!
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