Buy Me Track Pants, Love

Why do three-quarters of the Czech population buy clothes from cheap markets?

The times when the typical clothing worn by a Respekt journalist was a worn-out sweater and an old T-shirt are long gone. Nevertheless, a tour of the magazine's offices probably wouldn't leave a great impression on a fashion-conscious visitor. Employees sport everything from expensive designer heels to torn Converse trainers; second-hand shirts mix with branded goods worn for interviews at parliament; T-shirts with amusing (or not) slogans mingle with jewelry custom-made by Czech designers and old coats handed down by grandma.

Whether that kind of variety is typical of Czech society as a whole is hard to gauge. Polls or facts of any kind are hard to find. "The Czech Republic is a small market," explains Ivan Tomek of the Market Research Think agency. Foreign clothing companies aren't interested in Czechs and there are only a few local manufacturers. Sociologists don't seem to take much interest in Czech clothing either. The only remaining source is the Incoma GfK agency, which researches this topic on a regular basis. Their most recent poll was published in 2009 and, despite the rather limited range of sources, it makes for interesting reading.

Go cheap
When researchers from Incoma GfK asked almost 20,000 people from 19 different countries across Europe and North America about fashion, the Czech Republic was revealed to be a state where fashion creates very little interest. While Romanians and Russians care about their shoes and Brits pay attention to their jeans, the Czechs showed the least interest in what's trendy or à la mode. Another survey in 2006 concluded that Czechs, Swedes and Germans appreciated the more "practical" side of clothing.

These three nations' citizens answered most often that they buy clothes simply because they need them. In the Czech Republic alone, the need to buy items to "throw on" was mentioned by 96% of respondents. The price of clothes was also one of the determining factors.

Consequently, Czechs buy their trousers, T-shirts or sweaters where they are cheap -- and that leads to Vietnamese markets or to hypermarkets, which can be found throughout the country. Interestingly, even people with above-average incomes are tempted by cheap markets. Thirteen percent of the population spends half of their clothing budget at Vietnamese markets.

"The fact that most people shop at Vietnamese markets doesn't mean that they are buying everything there, or that they shop there often," says Martina Drtinová of Incoma GfK. "It means that even somebody with a high salary will buy a tracksuit for their child at one of these markets, but such an expense will represent next to nothing from their budget."

Go sporty
A detailed look at what Czechs wear most often leads to the conclusion that they care about quality when it comes to shoes and sports clothing. "It is typical for Czechs to confuse or interchange sport outfits and casual wear. If we ask them where they shop for everyday wear, they say 'in Adidas,'" Drtinová points out.

With tongue firmly in cheek, one could say that the average Czech either dresses cheaply, in clothes from a Vietnamese market, or expensively, in clothes from a sports shop. Either way, both routes lead to "tepláky" -- tracksuit bottoms. This "mass of track suits" was observed by young designers during a project called Czech Original Fashion, in which young designers observed and compared street style in 14 country towns.

"We saw people mostly in comfortable clothes: loose trousers, trainers, sweaters, not too many colors, not too many variations," says Jan Trnka, one of the photographers involved in the project. "Foreigners often say our streets sometimes look like everybody is about to leave for a trip to the mountains soon."

Fashion designers and sociologists have an explanation for the "Czech fashion phenomenon" -- dressing well isn't a crucial part of Czech culture or an indicator of social status. There's no straightforward answer as to why that is but a traditionally egalitarian way of life, the damaging effect of totalitarianism and a lifestyle that typically involves people living their lives out behind closed doors are all factors.

"The Italians or the French live outdoors," says Josef Ťapťuch of the VŠUP university's fashion department. "They are always in a café, in a bar with other people, while we tend to resolve everything at home or at our country cottage."

Still, this picture of Czechs as a nation of valley-bound mountaineers wouldn't be complete without including the minority that takes fashion seriously -- fashion students, readers of the many magazines devoted to clothing and style, artists, bloggers, etc. For them the country is slowly changing. Code:Mode, Prague's "Free Fashion Weekend" started out four years ago as practically an underground happening but this year's event, on the second weekend of April, will fill all three floors of Karlin Hall.

The number of Czechs prepared to spend sky-high sums on fashionable items is on the rise too. "We are still growing, despite the crisis," says Martina Lewis of Louis Vuitton Czech Republic. "Last year the Czech customer base surpassed the foreign one so we are less dependent on tourists now."

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