Valerj Pobega used to be a model. Walking the runway for heavy hitters like Valentino and Alexander McQueen, she'd study the clothes, learning the nuances of their fit and construction in a way most beginning designers never get to do — by wearing them. Soon she was sewing her own clothes and wearing them to model castings and fittings, where people would ask her, "Where did you get that?" So began her career as a designer.
"I always knew it wouldn't be enough, a career based solely on exterior looks," Pobega says now, sitting in the elegant and creepily decorated (skulls, bird skeletons, moody blue walls) art deco apartment she shares with her husband in West Hollywood. She was 16 when she started modeling; she's 35 now.
Pobega launched her line when she moved to Los Angeles seven years ago. It shares the same aesthetic as her home — elegant, dark, simultaneously spare and luxe. Each piece is made in limited editions of 10 or 15, hand-sewn and hand-painted in the avant garde, couture tradition. "Most people misuse the term couture," she corrects. "It actually means made by a couturier in Paris." Pobega works in a studio in Culver City.
She's done seven collections thus far. Always in raw-edged silk. She paints the fabric, letting the color drip down in rivulets.
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One season, she was inspired by David Bowie's The Man Who Fell to Earth. Another season, she was driving in her car and was struck by a line in a song: "Black flowers blossom," from Massive Attack's "Teardrop." She imagined dresses like dark flowers with taffeta petals. Black paint oozing like oil atop pale pink silk. A blouse with a voluptuous, frilly collar that makes the wearer's head the center of a giant, black rose. That was spring 2011.
Pobega studied art history in her native Italy, but in terms of fashion education, she is self-taught. "My clothes are more artistic than commercial," she says. "They're nontrendy, nonconformist." She won't do leggings or futuristic Lady Gaga stuff, she says.
There is definitely an old-world romance to Pobega's body-skimming designs but filtered through the edgy mind of a young woman steeped in 20th- and 21st-century pop culture. Take that recent collection inspired by pre–World War II Berlin and the film The Night Porter, in which a girl from a concentration camp falls in love with her prison guard. Pobega's interpretation? Military capes with stars that drip and bleed color.