Designer Krzysztof Stróżyna Is Fighting for LGBTQ+ Rights With Fashion

In 2017, Krzysztof Stróżyna’s fans included Lady Gaga and Hadid sisters. A decade prior, barely out of uni, he found acclaim with Vogue and the BFC. Now the Polish designer is relaunching his brand by rejecting all status quo. Is third time the charm?

WORDS Karolina Liczbinska
IMAGES Courtesy of Krzysztof Stróżyna

Fashion capital is not the term I’d use to describe Poznan, Poland. The student town, crawling with Mac Demarco lookalikes and artisanal coffee shops, feels more hipster than haute. Yet this is where Krysztof Stróżyna, 39, migrated to after his time at London Fashion Week, and where I interview him to understand why a queer designer would turn his back on a promising career in London in favour of our homophobic political stronghold in our motherland. 

We sit in his eclectic showroom with pop-art lamps and stuccos; the place moonlights as an intimate party venue for the brand’s community of friends and collaborators. I ask about his time at Central Saint Martins and Stróżyna lights up remembering the mischief. Enrolled in 2006, shortly after Poland finally joined the EU, he was desperate to get the most out of studying abroad. This did not mean spending all his time at school. “I was more of a wild child.” By day he crawled around museums and galleries; by night, he frequented drag shows in Shoreditch. But as long as he passed, allowing him to present his diploma collection at the LFW graduate show, grades weren’t high on the list of his priorities.

Twenty-something Stróżyna wasn’t ready for the whirlwind success of his graduate collection. After receiving a distinction from the Harrods Design Award, he was working nightly on his designs and waking up at 2 PM to calls from Vogue critic Sarah Mower and e-mails from Barney’s.

When in 2007 things fell into his lap like an avalanche, Stróżyna panicked. The logistics were overwhelming.  “I don’t know what I was thinking,” he tells me chuckling in disbelief. “I expected the world to fall at my feet. Not because I had so much confidence, I was just naive.” He held on for a few more seasons, receiving BFC’s New Gen scholarship thrice and then losing it after moving out of London. He’d probably keep receiving it if he were “more obedient and mature”, he says. “I chose the path of safety… I had a head full of ideas and trouble executing them. Lots of young designers experience that, then meet an investor who knows how to guide them. I just ran away to Poland.”

I chose the path of safety… I had a head full of ideas and trouble executing them. Lots of young designers experience that, then meet an investor who knows how to guide them. I just ran away to Poland.

Krzysztof Stróżyna

I find it hard to believe he’d give it all up so easily. Didn’t he enjoy London Fashion Week? Yes, sure; as a student he loved crashing shows, calling PRs from a phone booth outside the venue pretending to be someone else to get his name on the list. One time he even walked through the dumpsters just to see Naomi Campbell backstage. But as a designer? “What do you want me to say,” he winces at me. “I was always just carrying tons of hangers. It wasn’t going anywhere.” As he admits, it was his controlling do-it-myself attitude that finally burned him out. KRYSTOF finally shut down in 2014 and Stróżyna “took a gap year” before starting his second label, KREIST, with the help of his friend Magda Machajska. 

I had a strong desire to do things differently. I was just glad to start over. I won’t force myself to do anything.

Krzysztof Stróżyna

“I had a strong desire to do things differently. I was just glad to start over. I won’t force myself to do anything.” Under the new helm, he created custom designs for Lady Gaga and Lizzo; Gigi and Bella Hadid were the first to wear his new pieces. It seemed to be gaining momentum when, all of a sudden, in 2020 Stróżyna put everything on hold again. Together with his new business partner Kacper Bęski he decided to opt out of the fashion system and remould the label closer to their values. “People, fun and fashion” is the new motto. Less abstractly: from now on, all clothing lines are non-seasonal, everything is sewn on demand to avoid overstock (Stróżyna has been employing the same seamstresses since his graduate show), and sold exclusively from the brand’s online store to cut out the middleman’s margin. Instead, 20% of every order will be donated to organisations promoting sustainability and human rights.

 Stróżyna wants to team up with an LGBTQ+ rights organisation fighting homophobia in Poland. It’s a cause close to his heart. “I wasn’t out of the closet until I was like, 28. Coming out of my shell wasn’t easy. I’m a very careful person and tend to grab a taxi if I feel sketched out. On occasions I got too comfortable, sometimes I had to fucking run. Each of my mates got beaten at least once.” He quickly assures me he’s no activist, but he does his best, fostering a community that gives magnificent misfits a place to belong. In July 2021, a friend from the Stonewall Poland organisation invited him to DJ at Poznan’s Pride Parade. The event coincided with the brand’s relaunch as THIS IS KREIST; post-parade, they threw a party in Lokum Stonewall on the queer club’s opening night. “I was scared shitless, but I thought, what the hell. I used to be afraid to participate in Pride. DJing at my own stand was a huge milestone. I will not hide.” 

Fashion allows you to express your emotions or status, and it’s easy to tempt consumers with novelty. It’s a need manufactured by mega-brands and their investors.

Krzysztof Stróżyna

“I just don’t feel like going down the beaten path. Not saying I’m the first to do this, but to me it’s new. I used to be a shopaholic, buying clothes blindly, and it terrifies me.” Bęski chimes in: “Having a stock is basically littering. You can never be sure if it’ll sell. And if you work with marketplaces, ultimately the anonymous consumer pays for the mark-up. It’s a machine that fuels consumption and we simply don’t want to participate.” Hence the lack of seasonality. “Fashion allows you to express your emotions or status, and it’s easy to tempt consumers with novelty. It’s a need manufactured by mega-brands and their investors.” In this post-capitalist hellscape of 2022, is there a way to ethically participate in fashion on a bigger scale? “We opted out of marketplaces, we find their price mark-up neither fair nor necessary. Besides, when we pass the orders to our seamstresses, we know someone anticipates wearing it.” If not hundreds of dollars on the (virtual) tag, then a long wait (2-3 weeks from order to delivery) would definitely weed out the impulse buyers.

The line shared in a Pride sneak peek is entirely denim, a perfectly versatile canvas for Stróżyna’s web of references. Some of them are immediately recognizable: Slavic folk wear, Cher’s costumes, Wild West cowboys. Other sources of inspiration surprise me. Turns out, while designing his nostalgia-tinged bell-bottoms and puff-sleeve blouses, Stróżyna was listening to hyperpop on a loop. “I love Slayyter and Ayesha Erotica. Kim Petras is my idol, I need to dress her someday. Music helps me with abstract thinking, I’ll hear a note and some visual pops into my head.” 

I suppose that’s where the “fun” part of THIS IS KREIST’s motto comes in: his relentless, admirable even, resolution to have a good time no matter what. A week later I get invited to a small party at Bęski’s flat. I arrive wearing a sweater vest, but encouraged to play dress-up by the host I pick myself a puffed sleeve shirt, miniskirt and wide-brim hat. Kim Petras is playing in the background as I walk out of the closet all fabulous in white denim, ready to elope with the nearest Mick Jagger lookalike. Stróżyna is the first to enter and last to leave the living room dance floor that night. He’s still a wild child, he just found a way to channel it.

Shop KREIST Valentine’s collection, available now, with 20% proceeds going to Stonewall.

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