Under the Radar is Highsnobiety’s weekly celebration of upcoming talent. Each week, we’re spotlighting an emerging brand that’s bringing something new to the worlds of streetwear and fashion. 

Today, menswear is a rapidly shifting landscape, a battleground of obsessions, and a constant conversation about what is acceptable and what is hot. The most interesting stories and looks often come from the fringes, either cultural or geographical — grime, football, and post-Soviet Russia to name just a few.

Based in Vienna, Bosnian-Austrian designer Ilija Milicic explores yet another territory not so many people will be aware of. His brand Hvala Ilija (literally “Thank you, Ilija”) is a wild ride into the Balkan culture of the ’90s, where a bus station can become a gateway to your dreams, and tracksuits are the height of elegance.

Originally from a village in the north of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milicic moved to Vienna with his family around the age of five and spent his adolescence traveling between Bosnia and Austria. Experience of the contrasting worlds of the East and West, and the eclectic culture of Vienna’s immigrant Balkan community, had a huge impact on his creative vision. Hvala Ilija’s debut collection tapped into tough-yet-gentle ’hood romanticism and reinvented tropes on Balkan masculinity. Think tight white T-shirts, shiny suits in metallic blue and purple, and jackets adorned with Marlboro branding, to name just a couple of garments.

The brand’s SS18 collection is also based on a slice of personal history, with his uncle the inspiration.

“A couple of years ago, I went to Bosnia to visit my family and came across a lot of pictures of my uncle and my mom from their youth. My uncle had a great style and was very wild, and I started asking questions about him,” Ilija remembers.

“My mom told me that when my uncle was around 20, after the war in the ’90s, he started coming to Vienna to work for a few months to save some money. He worked here but also enjoyed the city very much, like young people do. My mum also told me that the first time he came to Vienna his goal was to save enough money for a pair of Levi’s jeans, a tracksuit, and some sneakers. And when he got this, he came back to Bosnia. It was enough for him.

“It shows how much of a status symbol a tracksuit was when I was a child. You’d see people in Bosnia who worked in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland, and all of them came back with an adidas tracksuit. My uncle had the classic one, the dark blue with white stripes, and he always combined it with a Levi’s denim jacket.”

Through his work, Ilija connected the story of his uncle with the broader experience of Balkan immigrants in contemporary Vienna. With his team, he shot his collection at Südbahnhof, a bus station in the south of the city, where all the buses from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo arrive and depart from. He was also determined to raise the increasingly problematic issue of migration in Europe today.

“The collection for me is connected with the refugee crisis across Europe,” Ilija explains. “If you’re telling a story of coming from the village to the city and chasing dreams, which I did, you also can’t ignore the current situation. To me, what’s happening to the refugees right now is like a race: You have to leave and you have to reach the destination very quickly because you’re in danger. That’s partly why I incorporated the racing theme. Also, I’m very used to bikers’ stuff because in Bosnia every guy owns a bike and bikers’ gear.”

The prints and graphics Milicic used in the collection feature tribal tattoo-style dragons and racing cars, and reference fashion from the early ’00s. At the same time, the shapes and the cut of the garments are subversive and contemporary: Voluminous denim and shirts, sports trousers with slits on the sides, and silhouettes with a tight waist, which still aren’t typical in menswear.

Still enrolled at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna (although currently taking a break to focus on his label), Milicic is an emerging designer who truly embraces the flexibility and reach that comes with presenting your work online. He released his first collection in 2017, to a wide acclaim from press and buyers alike. Despite the sudden success, Milicic has chosen not to work within the seasonal framework of the industry, instead focusing first on the label’s creative development.

“The most interesting thing about working in menswear today is that there are so many rules to break,” Milicic says. “Let’s take sportswear, for example. Even with tracksuits, there are still rules to break. Fashion is in a very safe place with tracksuits right now, there are thousands out there — nice ones, beautiful ones, ugly ones. And still something is missing. I would like to see something completely different, like a tracksuit by Palomo Spain.”

A tracksuit is one of the key garments in Milicic’s design practice. “My interest in tracksuits comes from childhood. As a child, I didn’t see a lot of people wearing suits, and whenever I saw someone wearing a tracksuit, to me it just looked so beautiful and professional,” he explains. “I remember my aunt wore a tracksuit, which she altered herself. Her hair was always big and she wore big rings — she really glammed it up. This is where my approach to a tracksuit comes from; I’ve always viewed it as something very elegant. I think if you’re going to wear a tracksuit, you have to look immaculate.”

In today’s fashion, references are becoming more diverse, and mixing high and low culture has become normal. But this process also comes with the risk of cultural appropriation and the fetishization of socially disadvantaged backgrounds. This is why Milicic’s work is so important and relevant — he not only uses his background with fondness and respect, he also dismantles Eastern European stereotypes, offering a fresh, honest perspective on the demonized masculinity of Eastern Europe’s working class.

His work is not only irresistibly cool, romantic, and new — it’s also humanizing.

“Today I see a lot of people wearing tracksuits, and sometimes it looks like a costume. It makes me think that this garment has been very important for people of my background at some point and to you it’s just a style thing. But then again, just because I’m from the Balkans, I’m not in a position to forbid people something. If it was up to me, I would tell them to get more informed about it,” Ilija concludes. “But that’s probably because I take fashion seriously.”

Hvala Ilija SS18 isn’t available directly via retailers, but you can commission personal, made-to-order pieces via Milicic’s website.

For more insights into the tracksuit’s history as a status symbol, check out Highsnobiety’s latest Counterfeit Culture documentary.

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