Belgrade designers face uncertain future

By bne IntelliNews April 27, 2012

Clare Nuttall in Belgrade -

Tucked away down a heavily graffitied concrete passage behind a sportswear shop in central Belgrade, Choomich Belgrade Design District has housed the shops and ateliers of young Serbian designers since 2010. But with consumer spending low and growing competition from international high street brands, the BDD's future is uncertain.

Back in the 1990s, Choomich was the first high-end mall in Belgrade, stocking brands most people could only dream about buying. Two decades later, the mall was "practically dead", according to Tijana Pavlov, one of a group of young Serbian designers who approached the owners and asked for a deal on rent.

Belgrade's designers are a close-knit community, influenced by Serbia's years in political isolation. "Our country was almost hermetically sealed, we developed unique fashions, something a bit underground," says Pavlov. She and fellow designer Aleksandra Ziravac say the BDD is important for providing affordable retail space and the chance for consumer feedback. "We're not designing for Lady Gaga, but for ordinary people," Ziravac says.

Unfortunately, since every shop in the mall has a different owner, the designers have never been able to renovate, or even replace the cracked, stained floor tiles. According to Pavlov, Belgrade city council has been unhelpful, never promoting the district or putting up signposts. And now the leases are due to expire in November 2012, casting doubt over the district's future. "We have a long way to go to keep the BDD alive," says designer Ana Ljubinkovic. "At a time when the Serbian national gallery and the Museum of Modern Arts were closed, we created an art district. We know we did something great, but BDD is not as popular as brand new shopping malls because we don't have money for big advertising, and that is sad."

With few customers in sight, many of the designers spend their days smoking and drinking coffee together. Others have an air of desperation as they offer to make alterations or run up a dress in a different fabric if none of their stock appeals. The pool of clients is small, mainly limited to Belgrade's artistic and media elite. As a result, many BDD designers are in a dire financial situation. "I am famous in Serbia but I don't earn enough to eat," Pavlov sighs.

Badly mall'd

To an extent, this reflects the situation in the Serbian retail sector as a whole. According to the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia, the sector declined steadily throughout 2011, with sales volume dropping 18.3% in September alone. A Cushman & Wakefield report describes market conditions as "challenging" and warns "a recovery in consumer sentiment is unlikely in 2012."

Recent years have seen some international brands enter the market, though Serbia lags behind other Emerging European countries because of low spending power, lack of modern retail space and continuing perceptions of political instability. "Per-capita shopping centre provision is very low by European standards, although provision across Serbia should increase in the next few years," says the C&W report. Zara was one of the first entrants to the Serbian market. Delta Sport, the Zara distributor for Serbia and Montenegro, opened the first store in 2006, and others have followed. They provide stiff competition for local designers, and with the economy expected to remain sluggish - the IMF forecasts 0.5% growth 2012 - there is not a lot of spending power to go around.

One businessman has, however, managed to find a way to support local designers and writers while also turning a profit. Already the owner of several successful restaurants, Slavko Markovic in November 2008 launched Concept Supermarket, a shop, restaurant and event space on Strahinjića Bana Street - dubbed "silicone valley" thanks to the many surgically enhanced fashionistas frequenting its outdoor cafes. "We launched just after the crisis started. It seemed like the worst period for starting something new, but Supermarket happened to suit the new age we were entering," he tells bne. "The crisis inspired a different way of thinking, that was less about money and more about life, the environment and other people."

Markovic wanted to support new ideas and designers, selling local fashions alongside international brands. He believes that domestic products have gradually become more acceptable to consumers. "Previously, locally-made was a symbol for expensive and bad. We are slowly starting to see domestic products competing with goods from abroad."

Running a restaurant in addition to the shop - all housed in a former food supermarket - provided an alternate source of revenue. Even so, Markovic had to continue putting more money in to keep Supermarket afloat. Now, however, it has started to turn a profit, albeit a small one.

Given the small size and relative poverty of the Serbian market, the next step will be expansion abroad. A small version of Supermarket is going to open at Porto Montenegro, the largest marina on the Mediterranean currently being built in neighbouring Montenegro by a group of billionaires including Canadian gold miner Peter Munk and Oleg Deripaska. "After that, we want to open in Berlin and then spread to other major cities with a community of people who live for their art," Markovic says.

Related Articles

Macedonia kept on hold as Balkans edges towards EU goal

Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -   Macedonia’s EU accession progress remains stalled amid the country’s worst political crisis in 14 years, while most countries in the Southeast Europe region have ... more

Austria's Erste rides CEE recovery to swing to profit in Jan-Sep

bne IntelliNews - Erste Group Bank saw the continuing economic recovery across Central and Eastern Europe push its January-September financial results back into net profit of €764.2mn, the ... more

EU, Western Balkans leaders agree action plan for refugee crisis

bne IntelliNews - Leaders of EU member states and Southeast European countries on the main ... more

Register here to continue reading this article and 2 more for free or 12 months full access inc. Magazine and Weekly Newspaper for just $119/year.

If you have already registered, enter the information below with the same email you used previously and you will be granted immediate access.

IntelliNews Pro subscribers click here

Thank you. Please complete your registration by confirming your email address. A confirmation email has been sent to the email address you provided.

Thank you for purchasing a bne IntelliNews subscription. We look forward to serving you as one of our paid subscribers. An email confirmation will be sent to the email address you have provided.

To continue viewing our content you need to complete the registration process.

Please look for an email that was sent to with the subject line "Confirmation bne IntelliNews access". This email will have instructions on how to complete registration process. Please check in your "Junk" folder in case this communication was misdirected in your email system.

If you have any questions please contact us at

Subscribe to bne IntelliNews website and magazine

Subscribe to bne IntelliNews website and monthly magazine, the leading source of business, economic and financial news and commentary in emerging markets.

Your subscription includes:
  • Full access to the bne content daily news and features on the website
  • Newsletters direct to your mailbox
  • Print and digital subscription to the monthly bne magazine
  • Digital subscription to the weekly bne newspaper

IntelliNews Pro subscribers click here

bne IntelliNews
$119 per year

All prices are in US dollars net of applicable taxes.

If you have any questions please contact us at

Register for free to read bne IntelliNews Magazine. You'll receive a free digital subscription.

If you have already registered, enter the information below with the same email you used previously and you will be granted immediate access.

Thank you. Please complete your registration by confirming your email address. The confirmation email has been sent to the email address you provided.

IntelliNews Pro offers daily news updates delivered to your inbox and in-depth data reports.
Get the emerging markets newswire that financial professionals trust.

"No day starts for my team without IntelliNews Pro" — UBS

Thank-you for requesting an IntelliNews Pro trial. Our team will be in contact with you shortly.