When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I wanted to grow up to be a bunch of stuff. My dad's an architect, so I really wanted to be an architect. But he stopped that idea. He said that if you're an architect, you spend more time with construction workers than actually doing design [which is what] I thought architecture was. He didn't want me to spend my life arguing with construction workers.
It can be a great hobby. It's very creative. You talk about art, you talk about theater, you talk about every play ever written, you study a lot of art history, you have time to do languages. It's very beautiful as an education, but it's very impractical. Obviously if you end up being a Broadway costume designer or you do it for Hollywood movies, great. But that's probably less than one percent of people who actually study it.
How did you decide to attend the Academy of Fine Arts?
In Serbia, everything is [either] University of Belgrade or private schools that are kind of intertwined. Applied arts you can study at the Academy of Applied Arts or at my Academy of Fine Arts. That's pretty much it.
So I started school, but I never really liked the concept of having to choose one thing to study for the rest of your life. My mom found an advert for a scholarship an Open Society Foundation scholarship for one year in the States. I applied and I really liked it because it was non-specific for what you're studying. You could just do whatever you wanted.
I went to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. I really liked it. I had lived in the States when I was a kid. I lived in Hanover, New Hampshire. My mom was doing her post doctorate at Dartmouth. I went to a great, amazing elementary school there. I started school when I was five, which is very usual. It's typical in the States, but in Serbia you would start at seven or eight depending on your parents. I got two years advantage. I went to elementary school for the first two grades of elementary school. So I thought I knew what the States were, and how school looked and everything.
When I came to Arkansas, I was most surprised by the fact that it all looked like a college movie. When you're from anywhere else in the world, you think that it's very exaggerated and that it doesn't really look like that. Then you go to a school there and it's pretty much exactly that. I really loved my college experience. We had fraternities and sororities. I hung out mostly with international students, because we had the same housing. I made a lot of great friends. It was a huge eye-opening experience.
I got to take classes in so many things that I never would have if I'd stayed in Belgrade. I took two political science classes. I took a philosophy class. I took a class that was called Sex and Media. I took Spanish, German, a bunch of different stuff. I really loved it. I wouldn't have taken the jobs I took [after college] if I hadn’t done that year. It made me realize it doesn't really matter what you study. It matters that you have a wide awareness of what exists in the world and about people, and that you can think with your own head. Obviously, I don't think you can be a heart surgeon if you don't study, but social sciences, etc. It's a matter of experience. Your job is going to be different wherever you work.
I spent three months working at a theater, because I loved theater design. And after that, I came back to Serbia, and I came back to my university where it was just all dull and very routine and done in the same boring way. I think that's when I knew that this wasn’t going to be my actual career. I thought, “I'm going to finish university and I want to have the degree, but I'm probably going to do something different.”
How did you get from college to where you are now?
So I finished school and I got my first job at a TV station. They actually employed me to be a set designer although I told them I had zero idea what I was supposed to be doing. They didn't really know the difference between costume designer and set designer. Maybe two months after that, they transferred me to production. I stared working with marketing agencies and stuff I had no clue about. But I really liked it, and one marketing agency that I was working with a lot invited me to actually come and work for them.
I was an account assistant, so I handled the accounts of clients. I had no idea what I was doing. The lady from the marketing agency [who hired me] was amazing. She liked me very much, and she taught me everything. I was there for two and a half years and I fell in love with marketing. She kind of gave me a career.
Now, 10 years later, I don't necessarily like all the things that I initially liked in marketing. But I like the agency work because it was not boring. You'd always have three clients that you worked with on a daily basis. Then there were also tasks that needed to be done. You always had this feeling that you were actually getting something done. There are a lot of jobs where you don't always see the result of your work or it takes a very long period of time. When I was younger I really liked the sense of, okay now we design something and tomorrow it's on a billboard or in a newspaper. You can actually see it. I liked the part where you're actually earning money for people because of this billboard or this magazine. I like the feeling that something's actually happening.
Then I thought that maybe I should try something in my field of study, that I should try to actually be a designer. I was 23, 24 at this time, and most of my friends hadn’t even finished university yet. I was kind of living this serious grownup person life, which I was not and my friends were not. I wanted to try something different.
I wrote a letter to Cosmopolitan magazine. They had a competition for Reader of the Year or something, so I wrote a letter and told them that I wanted to start my own design business, and that I wanted to design clothing for young working women who don't all want to be dressed the same. And I won. They gave me €5000 to open my own business.
I opened up a brand with my best friend from college. We named it Must Have, because you “must have” everything that we made. It lasted for about a year. We were super young and we had no clue about business. We were good at design, we were good at picking the fabrics and making stuff like that happen. But my two and a half years in marketing did not teach me what business is, although I thought I knew everything. Some of it was working out, some of it wasn't. We decided to close it because we were constantly putting more money in. And anyone who might be reading this will say, “You didn't even give it a full year - obviously it wouldn't start making huge amounts of money within the first year.” But we also had the diverging ideas of what direction we should take. Work clothes is too wide, and we're not a factory so we couldn’t really produce all of it.
We closed and I went back to marketing, but I didn’t want to work in an agency anymore. I wanted to go to the client side, so I got a job at a UK university that was opening a branch office in Belgrade, the London School of Commerce. I was their marketing manager, and it was a great job. I also got to open up their branch in Sri Lanka, which was amazing. I traveled a lot to lecture about the school. It was a great job. But then at some point I ran out of work to do, because the school was working really well. So I got a job at a hotel, and I was in the hotel industry for the next almost six years.
This is very different in Belgrade than in a lot of places around the world, but even if you have a great job and a great position, like I was the director of sales and marketing for the best hotel in Belgrade, but you spend 15-18 hours at day at work, which is not typical in Belgrade. Belgrade is more laid back in terms of work hours.
I was pretty much spending my life at the hotel, so I decided that I need to change something and I figured that maybe by now I knew enough people who thought well enough of me that they would want me to do marketing or consulting for them. I also developed a kind of a holder for your stuff [cards and money and notebooks]. I produced a few in leather, and everyone liked them. I thought maybe this could be a connection between my business career and my design career. I decided to give it a go, and try to develop and brand out of it. So last July I became self employed. I opened my own company doing marketing consulting for clients, and I produce beautiful leather bags called Libra. And it's going very well.
Going back to what I thought I would be doing when I was 17, I maybe had a tiny idea that I wanted to do something for myself. I always preferred my dad’s self-employed architect job to my mom working for a company, going there every morning, having office hours and stuff like that. My dad worked from home most of his life, which is great having your dad at home. It's very easy to say it now from this perspective, but I maybe had this idea that I wanted a job that's more manageable, that I could do from home, have a little bit of a looser, more flexible schedule. Maybe I had the idea, but I never knew it would be this.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
There are many, many things that I wish I knew before. I do not know why my parents told me to go study costume design. If I was a parent, I would never give this advice to my child. It really baffles me.
If someone had told me, it's not what you're going to study, it's what you're actually going to do, that would have made it a bit easier. Obviously, some things that I find fascinating today like economics, which I think is amazing and I would tell everyone go study economics for at least two years, I found them super boring then. When I was 17, I thought that was the worst possible thing ever in the world. If someone had told me do it, it's going to be useful, I would never have listened. You need time, and you need to develop some knowledge and ideas through personal experience. It's very difficult for someone to tell you.
I think people should think about what kind of a life you imagine for yourself. Do you want to live where you’re living now? Do you want to be able to travel a lot? Or do you like sitting at home? Do you like getting dressed up? Do you want to go to an office and wear high heels every day? Or do you want to be able to wake up and work from bed? I think those are very important questions, which actually answer a lot of what you might like as a job when you grow up. I think if you start backwards from how your ideal job looks, you might get closer to what it should be.
Now, ten years since I started working, I can say that. I finally understand what I like. And you might not know until you're 35. I'm still not sure that this is my career. I have no guarantees that my company will be successful, and I don't know if in three years the leather bags will be a thing of the past. Maybe I'll focus on consulting, or maybe I'll do something else.