In Conversation: Romanian Fashion Prodigy Cosmin Diaconu

By Jude Jones.

Cosmin Diaconu is a Romanian fashion designer working in the UK, whose designs explore themes of self-expression and freedom against an adolescence spent in provincial post-socialist Romania. GAY45.eu Managing Editor Jude Jones caught up with him to discuss his work, his extraordinary journey to London Graduate Fashion Week, and what to expect next.

After settling in and ordering a round of iced coffees, I ask Cosmin an icebreaker question: What are you wearing today?. Something between humble embarrassment and a startled coyness flashes across his eyes (I read it, in the end, as a mixture of the two). “It’s very boring,” Cosmin concedes after a short breath, “To be honest I just threw this together.” It’s the classic fashion designer’s folly: creating the brightest, most extravagant, make-your-eyes-glimmer garments you could possibly imagine, then leaving the house in a block-coloured Levi’s shirt (although this might just be brand loyalty – Cosmin works at the Levi’s tailoring department on the side) and straight-cut shorts, all hushedly hued to match the heatwave weather.

Cosmin Diaconu is a Romanian-born fashion designer based in Cambridge. It’s a city with a quiet fashion scene, far more renowned for its stuffy scholasticism (articles on “how to dress like you’re in Saltburn” and guides to picking the right socks dominate the student paper’s fashion section) than its creative edge. But after graduating from its red-brick Anglia Ruskin University with a BA in Fashion Design last year, Cosmin decided to stay put rather than making the logical default to London, with all its cool coldness and gentrified, Brick Lane chic. “I feel like there’s a lot happening in terms of fashion under the surface here, small bits,” he tells me, “I want to be part of it, I need to be part of it. I’m here.”

Look closer at these small bits and it’s Cosmin’s hand drawing the invisible lines between each part, like stars connecting into constellation. Over just the past year, Cambridge has held three independent fashion shows – the Mill Road EcoChic Fashion Show, the Cambridge University Charity Fashion Show, and the Cambridge Pride Rainbow Runway – with Cosmin either being organisationally involved or showcasing his looks in each of them. RetroGusto, his luxury vintage fashion brand, has also just wrapped up a month-long pop-up in Cambridge’s city centre, which he describes as a happy success. He compares the city to a playground, exciting yet still juvenile. His mission now: “bring it all together.”

After taking another short while to reflect on his outfit, a smile splashes Cosmin’s face and he grabs his jacket from behind his chair. Finally, the ice has broken, although it’s a piece of winterwear, an off-white windbreaker, that ironically deals the blow. “This is actually interesting. I found it in a vintage shop. I think it’s very ‘80s, with the big shoulder pads. Why would you put shoulder pads on sportswear?” I tell him it reminds me of his graduate collection “La Dolce Vita”, a four-look reflection on the challenges of self-expression in a former Eastern bloc country. It featured shoulder pads too (albeit far bigger, boxier ones), and kitschy, ‘80s-nostalgic technicolour. He says he had never made the link.

Crafted using deadstock leather and eco-fabrics, sustainability was “La Dolce Vita”’s secondary theme. Or, maybe sustainability is just second nature for Cosmin, who grew up in a working-class Romanian family and had second-hand and repair hammered into him long before their Depop-peddled “preloved” and “upcycled” rebrands. “If something was ripped we couldn’t throw it away, so we repaired it or made something new from it.” His earliest experimentations with making his own designs were a similar process, he adds, taking scraps of unwanted cloth given to him by his mother then transforming them into couture garments for his sister’s dolls.

The key message of Cosmin’s work though, as he stresses to tell me, is individuality – to stop caring, believe in yourself, and just do it. Such a message is far from cliché in the hands of somebody who has truly lived it: Cosmin opens up about moving back to Romania from Italy at the age of 14 and wanting to go to arts school, but being unable to because the nearest one was too far away. “So I studied economics,” he says, “it was the safe route, a way to get a job.” Opportunities for artistic self-expression were rare, but hungrily seized whenever they came up: a one-off school trip to a nearby university that taught textiles classes, a teacher who put on a fabrics workshop at his school (Cosmin naturally dove in headfirst, despite the raised eyebrows of his classmates), and a national writing competition commemorating the death of great Romanian poet Vasile Alecsandri, which Cosmin won with a series of diarised letters to himself.

Yet he found it hard to keep growing artistically in Romania. “I was not able to fully express myself. Not just as a gay person, but as a creative person.” So he moved to the UK and, after two years of trying and waiting, finally enrolled in fashion school. From this would come “La Dolce Vita,” which he tells me was “a form of therapy,” a continuation of those letters and diaries, writing sublimated into cutting and weaving and sewing, the complex language of fabrics.

Pressing him more on the collection, its intimate nuances start to come through: the rigid Constructivist shapes and the distorted silhouettes modelled after Communist-era military uniform, all reborn as a sort of vibrant, gender-bending armour, an ode to the sweet life after which the collection is named. When I chime that this process of transforming childhood traumas into material beauty makes me think of canon collections like John Galliano’s Catholic couture or Hussein Chalayan’s fashion stories of war-time displacement, he blushes and asks really?. “They’re some of the best.”

We gossip about the MUBI Galliano documentary and Pitti Uomo’s recent upcycled collection for a bit before beginning to wrap up. I try to ask Cosmin what’s next for him, but he doesn’t really know: maybe his own runway in November, but “most things I do are spontaneous. I like to be full of surprises.” When I ask him about his inspirations as an addendum then, I’m somewhat disappointment by the run-of-the-mill names he generates: “Margiela, Schiaparelli.” But then comes one of those surprises he had promised to me, “I find most brands too commercial though, that’s not where I get my inspiration. I like to watch normal people in the street, see what they’re wearing. They’re who inspire me.”

Jude Jones is the Managing Editor of GAY45 and is an interdisciplinary journalist, currently completing an undergraduate degree in History & French at the University of Cambridge. Their writing – covering photography, nightlife, fashion, gallery reviews, interest pieces, and political comments – has also been published by Varsity, The Cambridge Language Collective, DISRUPTION, and the Cambridge Review of Books, among others. 

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