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How vegan leather brand Nanushka aced affordable luxury

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What’s the secret behind the seemingly sudden success of the Hungarian fashion brand Nanushka? Its founder and creative director, Sandra Sandor, has an answer. “It’s definitely my skill to make things look more expensive than they are,” she says cheerily on a video call from her headquarters in Budapest.

It’s true that Nanushka’s supple, butter-soft vegan leathers (a sheeny alternative made from polyurethane and polyester) put a sense of luxury into formerly questionable pleather garments when it gained global attention back in 2016. And its modern minimalist aesthetic — drapey satins in off-shades, slouchy recycled cashmere knits, sexy shirting — lends both its female (and as of last year) male customers an air of nuanced style that’s on the money. It’s also true that with most women’s faux leather puffas under £500 and knit sweaters about £300, this comes at prices somewhat less eye-watering than those of the established luxury houses.

“We offer a designer aesthetic at an affordable price point,” says Peter Baldaszti, Nanushka’s chief executive and Sandor’s fiancé, who is sitting alongside her. “And we have to talk about quality,” he adds, “because 85 per cent of our manufacturing is in Hungary and our partners work with all the luxury brands. I don’t want to name-drop here, but when I say all the luxury brands I mean it. LVMH and Kering.”

The combination of Sandor’s eye — which spied the faux leather fabric amid a pile of less inspiring examples at a textile exhibition — and their local production set-up, has in three years pushed Nanushka from a €1m business to a €28m one, the founders say. Even after the pandemic forced an adjustment to a 2019-20 forecast that had been “well over” €30m, the company has still seen 15 per cent growth, a figure that in current circumstances might make some rivals weep.

To rub salt in the wound, Nanushka has just opened its third bricks-and-mortar store, its first in London, slipping into the 250-year-old building between Kenzo and Isabel Marant at 30 Bruton Street, where Stella McCartney formerly sat. While Baldaszti describes running a construction site over Zoom during a global crisis as “pretty intense”, he’s confident about the new store’s positioning. “The location perfectly reflects where the brand is on the market: a stone’s throw from Bond Street.”

If this all sounds too smug, too soon, a note — Nanushka is not an overnight success. Sandor started the label in 2006, not long after completing her BA in fashion design at the London College of Fashion. She did her thesis on the Bauhaus movement and her brand is inspired by its principle of “form follows function”. In between her studies, Sandor worked around the corner from the site of her new store at Fenwick’s. London, she says, had a big impact on her design sensibility.

“Hungary has always been an intersection of east and west and I’m forever inspired by that clash of cultures. But if you look at the majority of Hungarian fashion there’s a little bit of a ‘following’ attitude, not so much self-expression. London gave me a braveness and the daring to express myself as who I am.”

Even back then, she says, she was planning to make Nanushka an international brand. “But I didn’t think I’d actually have a store in London, [never mind] Mayfair.”

And perhaps she wouldn’t have, nor the stores in Budapest and New York, if she hadn’t met Baldaszti, a Hungarian entrepreneur she dated for about three years before he became CEO and co-owner in 2016. Nanushka had been doing ok — it had some distribution in America and a good turnover, but had been reliant on financial support from friends and family. Sandor had to sell her apartment for capital at one point and a 2012 VC investment had not helped the brand break through. Baldaszti saw the potential to turn Nanushka global and brought in Agoston Gubicza of GB & Partners Investment Management, whose funds include Export-Import Bank backed by the Hungarian government.

AW20 campaign © IMGN Studio
AW20 campaign © IMGN Studio

Gubicza, also on our call, had never worked with a fashion brand before, but that was part of the appeal. “We liked this challenging mission,” he says. “We thought, there was no real fashion company coming out from eastern Europe, so why don’t we just try?”

Building an in-house territorial sales team, they pushed Nanushka into more international wholesale doors (over 300 in more than 50 countries), globalised its e-commerce and opened the store in Budapest. From November 2016 to the end of 2018, they say the business grew tenfold.

With this experience behind them, Baldaszti and Gubicza have now founded Vanguards, a burgeoning fashion group, comprising the small portfolio of Nanushka, Aeron (another Budapest-based brand) and most recently the Milan label Sunnei. “We realised there’s a huge gap between venture capital slash private equity and the fashion group market for companies growing from €500,000 to €30m-50m,” says Baldaszti. “Very few companies have been interested in that range … Now we have the framework to support the creativity.”

Nanushka’s new store in Mayfair
It’s the company’s third bricks-and-mortar store and first in London

Baldaszti says the common thread running through the portfolio will be “sustainability”, a tricky catch-all word, which in Nanushka’s case drills down to social responsibility and a more considered approach to fabrication. Sandor says that sustainability was not a founding principle of Nanushka — “I never really wanted to compromise on aesthetics” — but is now key. They are sourcing more recycled and traceable fabrics, as well as developing their own, with a focus on avoiding virgin sources.

“In the next five years we’re working towards all of our materials being certified and traceable to the source,” says Sandor. “With menswear we’re at 47 per cent. And with women’s we are at 59 per cent.” The company’s first sustainability report, audited by Deloitte, goes out later this year.

AW20 campaign
AW20 campaign

On the environmental impact of the synthetic vegan leather, which Sandor wanted to use as a more ethical alternative to real leather, she has a ready response. “Kering’s Environmental Profit & Loss study states that it has a third of the harm of real leather because of the GAG [Generation of Ammonia from Grazing] emissions from agriculture, the tanning process of real leather and so on. It’s not without environmental concerns because it’s made from polyester and polyurethane and it uses a big amount of water and virgin sources, but it will improve. We’re now developing a new technology which will allows us to change the backing to a recycled polyester.”

As Nanushka’s ready-to-wear range has grown, vegan leather now sits at 25 per cent of the offering (in 2017/18 it was 50 per cent), but it continues to be at the heart of the brand. “What we have learned is not that vegan leather is above all, but that there is a huge demand for more sustainable, more innovative fabrics,” says Baldaszti. “Vegan leather is our iPhone. No one knew they needed it until they had it.”

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Global house prices: Raising the roof

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Global house prices: Raising the roof



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Missing Belarus activist found hanged in Kyiv park

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Belarus updates

A Belarusian opposition activist has been found hanged from a tree in a park near his home in Ukraine, a day after he was reported missing. Local police said his death could have been made to look like suicide.

Vitaly Shishov, who led the Kyiv-based organisation Belarusian House, which helps Belarusians fleeing persecution find their feet in Ukraine, had been reported missing by his partner on Monday after not returning from a run.

Shishov’s death follows weeks of increased pressure in Belarus by authorities against civil society activists and independent media as part of what the country’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko has called a “mopping-up operation” of “bandits and foreign agents”.

Many Belarusians have fled the country since Lukashenko launched a brutal crackdown last summer after nationwide protests erupted following his disputed victory in presidential elections. About 35,000 people have been arrested in Belarus and more than 150,000 are thought to have crossed into neighbouring Ukraine.

Franak Viacorka, an aide to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who met UK prime minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday in London, said Shishov’s death was “absolutely shocking and unexpected to all of us”.

“He [Shishov] and his friends helped people who were moving to Ukraine,” Viacorka told the Financial Times. “They were very helpful, especially for those who have just arrived and didn’t know what to do.”

Viacorka said many activists living in Ukraine, such as Shishov who fled Belarus in 2020, had “complained about possibly being followed, and receiving threats”.

Kyiv park where Vitaly Shyshov’s body was found
The Kyiv park where Vitaly Shishov’s body was found after he failed to return home following a run © Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Downing Street said that after meeting Tsikhanouskaya, Johnson condemned the Lukashenko regime’s severe human rights violations. “The UK stands in solidarity of the people of Belarus and will continue to take action to support them,” a spokesperson said.

Ukrainian police have now launched a criminal case for the suspected murder of Shishov, including the possibility of “murder disguised as suicide”.

Yuriy Shchutsko, an acquaintance and fellow Belarus refugee who found Shishov’s body, ruled out suicide, pointing out that Shishov’s nose was broken.

“I suspect this was the action of the [Belarus] KGB . . . we knew they were hunting for us,” he told Ukrainian television.

Ihor Klymenko, head of the National Police of Ukraine, subsequently said Shishov’s body had what appeared to be “torn tissue” on his nose and other wounds, but stressed it would be up to medical examiners to determine if these were caused by beatings or the result of suicide.

There was no immediate comment from Lukashenko or his administration.

Belarusian House said: “There is no doubt that this is an operation planned by the Chekists [the Belarusian KGB] to eliminate someone truly dangerous for the regime.

“Vitalik was under surveillance,” it added. “We were repeatedly warned by both local sources and our people in the Republic of Belarus about all kinds of provocations up to kidnapping and liquidation.”

Adding to the swirl of attention on Belarus this week, Tokyo Olympics sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya on Monday took refuge in Poland’s embassy after alleging she had been taken to the airport against her will, having criticised her Belarusian coaches.

The athlete has said she feared punishment if she went back to Belarus but has so far declined to link her problems to the country’s divisions.

Shishov’s death comes five years after Pavel Sheremet, a prominent Belarus-born opposition figure and journalist, was killed in an improvised bomb explosion in downtown Kyiv while driving to work at a local radio station. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

Ukrainian authorities at first suggested Belarusian or Russian security services could have been involved in the hit, as Sheremet was close to opposition movements in Russia as well.

Instead, officials charged three Ukrainian volunteers who supported war efforts against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine — although they steadfastly denied involvement and authorities were unable to provide a motive in what has been widely described as a flimsy case.

Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London



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EU pledges aid to Lithuania to combat illegal migration from Belarus

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EU immigration updates

In the latest sign of deteriorating relations between the EU and Belarus, Brussels has promised extra financial aid and increased diplomatic heft to help Lithuania tackle a migrant crisis that it blames on neighbouring Belarus and its dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Lithuania detained 287 illegal migrants on Sunday, more than it did in the entirety of 2018, 2019, and 2020 combined, the vast majority of them Iraqis who had flown to Belarus’s capital Minsk before heading north to cross into the EU state. Almost 4,000 migrants have been detained this year, compared with 81 for the whole of 2020. 

“What we are facing is an aggressive act from the Lukashenko regime designed to provoke,” Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs told reporters on Monday after talks with Lithuania’s prime minister Ingrida Simonyte. “The situation is getting worse and deteriorating . . . There is no free access to EU territory.”

The EU imposed sweeping sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime in June, after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and then led a brutal campaign to violently suppress protesters and jail political opponents. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

The rising concern over the migrant crossings, which EU officials say is a campaign co-ordinated by Lukashenko’s administration, comes as one of the country’s athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympic Games sought refuge in Poland after team management attempted to fly her home against her will after she publicly criticised their actions.

Johansson said the EU would provide €10m-€12m of immediate emergency funding and would send a team of officials to the country to assess the requirements for longer-term financial assistance, including for extra border security and facilities to process those attempting to enter.

Simonyte said that Vilnuis would require “tens of millions of euros” by the end of the year if the number of people attempting to cross the border continued at the current pace.

Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told the Financial Times in June that Belarus was “weaponising” illegal immigration to put pressure on the Baltic country over its housing of several opposition leaders. Since then, the flow of illegal immigrants from Iraq, Syria, and several African countries has increased sharply.

Iraqi diplomats visited Vilnius at the end of last week after Lithuania’s foreign minister flew to Baghdad in mid-July. Johannson said on Monday that EU diplomats were engaged in “intensive contacts” with Iraqi officials, which she said were “more constructive than we had hoped”.

State carrier Iraqi Airways offers flights from four Iraqi airports to Minsk, according to its website. Former Estonian president Toomas Ilves suggested on Twitter that the EU could cut its aid to Iraq “immediately until they stop these flights”.

Speaking at the border with Belarus on Monday, Johansson added that the tents provided by Lithuania were unsuitable for families. Lithuania’s interior minister Agne Bilotaite said she hoped the number of illegal migrants would subside in the coming months but that Vilnius was planning to build some housing to accommodate them over the upcoming winter.



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