Irina Lakicevic is one of the fashion pack’s most recognised faces, with her angular cheekbones and directional silhouettes setting trends for next season and beyond. While some know her as the dentist-blogger—she practises in Norway—few know about her experiences of war and living as a refugee. Here Irina talks about what it’s like to lose everything—and why a Celine handbag still matters.
The Fog of War
I was born in Pristina, Kosovo—which at the time was part of Yugoslavia. The war broke out when I was 11 and it completely turned our lives upside down. I come from a family of very well educated people who had the same jobs and same lives for generations. My maternal grandmother was the dean of the University and my mother has two doctorates. We didn’t live a crazy, lavish lifestyle—it was a Communistic state after all–but we were solid and respectable; an intellectual family. Then almost overnight, we lost it all.
The war was devastating for my parents. When you’ve only ever lived a stable life, you have no skills to deal with uncertainty. It’s difficult to describe what it was like going through the trauma of the experience. I can’t remember specifics—this happening or that happening—it’s just a total fog. But I can definitely recall feeling a deep fear. As a child to see your parents so impotent is a really scary thing to go through.
We ended up in a refugee camp in Norway—where my parents, brother and I lived for four years. [Eds note: By the end of April 1999, about 600,000 residents of Kosovo had become refugees.] The camp was mixed nationality and we had a small 50 sq metre house—more like a barrack. The walls were paper-thin, but we felt safe inside them and that meant everything. It certainly wasn’t the worst place to be in the world, but it was obviously very different from the home we had fled. It was also a huge cultural shock. To come from a capital city to the smallest town you could imagine, with barely 5,000 residents was unimaginable to me at the time. It wasn’t even Oslo—it was centuries away from Oslo.
As Norway had a strong relationship with the Balkan states, the authorities decided to put my brother and I immediately into a normal elementary school. The first year was very, very hard. From the language to the cultural differences everything was a huge challenge. I’d say my brother and I faced two different kinds of bullying. He had to deal with it on a physical level, but he struck back and managed to defend himself. But for me, I got the silent treatment and it never really went away through my whole time at school. To a point I can understand it—the other kids had their lives and their communities and were already established when I arrived. You know, it’s a small place, these people have known each other for forever and you’re an outsider. Not being the most confident person made it worse. I basically spent my entire education completely cut off from my peers and I didn’t really have any friends within the Serbian or immigrant community either. It felt like I was completely segregated and ostracised.
“It’s difficult to describe what it was like going through the trauma of war. I can’t remember specifics—this happening or that happening—it’s just a total fog.”
Every day at school was like constant rejection and that’s how it still feels looking back. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to come to terms with it—ultimately it wasn’t necessarily because I was like this or like that. Instead it was a product of my circumstances. Of course, there were plenty of cultural issues which took me a while to understand. In Serbia when you talk to someone about something, they will respond with a comparable, similar story drawn from their lives. Ultimately, they will talk about themselves and share an experience with their friend—it’s considered a generous thing. But if you’re in Scandinavia–or anywhere in Western Europe—and you constantly talk about yourself in response to other people, they look at you like, ‘what’s wrong with you? Are you this self-obsessed and arrogant that you can’t listen to my problems without bringing it back to yourself?’ Scandinavians are also very individualistic and there is an art of self-care–me first. In Serbia, it’s all about community: ties, who you know, how many friends you have. It’s a warm weather country and people are passionate, warm talkative–there is no reserve in Serbia.
Back in Pristina, I was always drawing and had hoped to go to art school. People said at the time I had talent, but then then our world fell apart and we kind of lost control of our lives for a time. With that kind of instability, your priorities completely change and for me it meant, even as a teenager, I became obsessed with creating a secure life for myself. I decided that I would become a dentist because it meant guaranteed security. I finally got my permanent residency and moved to to another Norwegian city called Bergen. It’s Europe’s rainiest city and in case you were wondering how my hair looks most of the time at home—the answer is: you don’t want to know.
“With instability, your priorities completely change and for me it meant, even as a teenager, I became obsessed with creating a secure life for myself.”
I got my qualifications and I’ve been working as a dentist for the state for several years now which means I work with children, psychiatric patients, substance abuse cases and with the elderly. The work is fulfilling, but secretly I never let go of the yearning for a more artistic life—and that was where the blog came in. In Norway, fashion is very niche, it just isn’t something that’s part of everyday life. Living in Bergen you just have to roll with the weather—it’s constantly wet so most people just give up with looking stylish. So starting a fashion blog was definitely not the norm.
I was so nervous when I started– there was this feeling that it had to be perfect immediately. Then when I decided to go to London Fashion Week, even getting on that plane was petrifying. The anxiety for me has always been about a fear of failure. My first season of shows—it was still at the point of hanging out around the venues, very embarrassing but we all had to do it—I’d chosen to wear some Louboutins which I hadn’t broken in yet and I was trying to get a cab back to the hotel because I had such bad blisters. I sat on this colourful wall, texting my boyfriend when suddenly I heard all these photographers. It was the first time they had ever taken my picture and it was such a strange and weirdly validating experience.
The next day I was back at home in Norway and I was a complete wreck—I felt so alone and like the trip had been a disaster. I remember my brother came over with a pizza and Coca Cola and back then Coke was printing messages on their bottles. Mine said: ‘Close your eyes and wait’. At 2am, I went on to Vogue.com as I always did before bed and I couldn’t believe my eyes—there I was, sitting on the colourful wall on the homepage. I’ve kept the bottle ever since.
Over time being invited to fashion week and being featured on street style blogs has slowly given me confidence with my style. I certainly use clothing to visually express the type of woman I am. Of course, you have business and personal lives and you have to play your part. For my work life, there has to be something a little conservative—at the end of the day I still change into scrubs. Underneath you can have a bit more freedom, but I wouldn’t push it too far. I mean when you have to pass your patients in the waiting room, you probably don’t want to be wearing your most crazy Sophia Webster heels!
It is true that have expensive tastes, but I am very, very selective about what I buy. I have thought endlessly: do I work in fashion and wear these clothes as a kind of overcompensation for what I felt I missed out on as a child? I remember when we first came to Norway and I wanted to go to this party and I was desperate to buy a top which from Vera Moda. It was maybe 10 Euros–but that was a huge amount of money for my parents back then and I couldn’t have it. And now I wear Celine. Is that a kind of recompense? It’s good to question yourself, but really I don’t think it is about trying to replace something that I lost as a kid.
“I have thought endlessly: do I work in fashion and wear these clothes as a kind of overcompensation for what I felt I missed out on as a child?”
For me fashion has always been about the feeling that clothing and your personal wardrobe evokes inside. Certain clothes have the power to transform you and quality is everything to me. I’m not going to splurge a ridiculous amount of money on something that’s just hype. I’m going to wear my cut-out dresses and oversize jeans a gazillion times. I love my clothes—each and every piece in personal way. I’m also a notorious bargain hunter and a lot of my clothes—Celine, Loewe, JW Anderson—I’ve found on eBay or other sites. So it’s not all about thousand pound price tags.
Images taken from @irinalakicevic
For a long time, I’ve wanted to do something more than just my fashion, to curate a creative platform that goes beyond just clothes. Early this year I launched Mint Journal [Ed’s note: a pan-design platform that approaches style with substance.] To say it has been hard work is an understatement, in fact it has drained me entirely. But it has also fulfilled me hugely. Starting something new wasn’t easy for me—and I still have my panic attacks and this constant fear that I’m out of control. But what I’m trying to do now is channel that into an adrenaline kick—and create an idea that fear is a positive feeling. Sure, I don’t get much sleep, but the response has been fantastic. I’m very open to criticism and I’ve had some people say to me, ‘Irina this doesn’t work’, or you should change this and that. And I so appreciate the feedback because instead of being suffocated by fear of failure, I’m trying to find a joy in learning.
As for my general anxiety, the current political situation has certainly created a deep concern that I haven’t felt in years. My boyfriend of ten years is in the Norwegian navy and he was in Syria, so conflict often feels close to home. At one point I didn’t hear from him four days—it’s not unusual to not hear from him for a day, but this was something else. He had been completely cut off because there was shooting nearby and bombs were falling everywhere. I think that’s the first time that I relived the war all over again. I guess for me, I’m very aware of the realities of all the rhetoric.
“In the past I have felt like an outsider and I’m still and outsider and there will always be a part of me that feels like a refugee. And that is part of who I am and what makes me special.”
But when it comes to internal anxiety, there’s definitely been a shift. I’ve spent so many years of my life apologizing in Norway for being different, for being an Orthodox Christian, or for my accent or the way I speak in conversations. But you get to a point where you realise that this is what makes me individual as a person. The fact that I have an accent means that I’ve learnt another language, for example. In the past I have felt like an outsider and I’m still and outsider and there will always be a part of me that feels like a refugee. And that is part of who I am. But my attitude to that is definitely changing. It’s been so funny for me to see Eastern European block designers gaining momentum in the fashion world. All the things that I have been stigmatised for in the way I dress all my life—suddenly they are fashionable. It’s just made me think: I’m an idiot. It turns out that maybe no-one was stigmatising me—other than myself.