the eastern beat

Francesca Menichelli

costume & prop designer

"I am an Italian costume and prop designer currently based in Budapest, Hungary.  After years as an independent costume designer I entered the film industry, where I built my experience in the set decoration department of small and big movie productions, and where I developed my style from the conceptual ideas to the practical applications.

My personal aesthetics are very much about craftsmanship, just as visible paint strokes, untidy hand-stitching, and in general any detail that displays the process and makes it until the final object. I love being involved in the making of mock-up items and prototypes, and they are my favourite stage of the creative process".

Where are you from and what brought you to Budapest?

I'm from a small city in the middle of Italy, not too far from Ancona. I came here after a round through Europe. I was in London for 3 years and then I got a little bit overwhelmed living there. I was approaching my 30s, and I decided I needed a change, but didn't know what change exactly, so I decided to very randomly pick three cities, check them out and choose where to live. Actually Budapest wasn't my first choice, my three picks were Lisbon, somewhere in Morocco and Istanbul, but someone recommended it to me. The flight was cheap so I came here for five days for a holiday, and that was it - I fell in love with the architecture, and there was a type of decadent, romantic feeling that completely got me. Two months later I was back, without any idea what to do. It was a very random choice, but I like to think it was from the guts, and it has been almost 6 years now that I have been living here. 

Do you still have the same feeling as back then?

There are highs and lows, but it’s the place where I've felt home the most. I feel I have a relationship  with the city, I don't see it the same way as when I first arrived, now I can see different sides of my experience of being here. 

What do you do in Budapest?

I am a fashion and costume designer. After arriving in Budapest I started working in the film industry as a prop designer for movies, ads and music videos. Aside, I pump as much energy and creativity as I can to my personal projects. The costume and fashion projects tend to be more personal and closer to art and installations. I'm juggling between working in movies and doing my personal work for galleries, fashion shows and contemporary dance costumes. 

I guess it’s a good place to be when it comes to the film industry then. 

Very. This profession found me after one year of living here - I  got introduced to the world of the films by a friend, and I soon figured out there was a lot going on in this field, big productions with a huge demand for professionals. Working in this industry allowed me to experiment, and that's why I have been doing drapery, props, set dressing, scenic painting. It allowed me to try myself in different areas - and this is the best that could happen to me, as someone who gets bored easily. And I love the film world, it’s unpredictable, you never know what the next project will be, you are always learning, it makes it virtually impossible to get bored. 

And before Budapest?

Back in London I was doing costume design for music videos and smaller productions, and in the last period I started doing model making miniatures for an agency that was producing inflight magazines. I did covers and sometimes editorials as well. In parallel there has always been my personal costume project ongoing.

How did you become an artist?

I don't come from a family of artists. My family has owned an agriculture business for several generations, they have glasshouses and sell plants. I somehow didn’t develop any interest in this beautiful craft. I have been drawing women and clothes ever since I remember. I always knew I wanted to do something creative, and during my education I zigzagged and experimented a lot. I chose to study painting at high school, and then product design at university. During my studies I came across impactful discoveries, such as Japanese packaging techniques, and the work of various artists that really impressed me, Louise Bourgeois, Georgia O'Keeffe and Eva Hesse among others. The decision of studying industrial design came from my old belief that you cannot just do art for the sake of doing art, there had to be some practical application to it. I no longer believe that. Then my master project happened to be a collection of costumes with zero functionality involved. I was breaking free from my own limiting beliefs. That was the first time I realized it was time for me to do what felt right to me, and everything became a little bit happier around me since.

Was it difficult to pursue this career as a non-Hungarian speaker in Budapest?

Yes, it’s of course easier for the local crews to speak in their own language. Possibly it is my own paranoia, but sometimes I feel it is a bit complicated for the Hungarians to work with me because I am not fluent. Anyway my level of Hungarian gets me by, I struggle but I manage. 

I guess it's a little bit harder to get into the circle of the film industry as a foreigner, it took me more years than it would have taken someone local - to be understood and to understand makes relationships easier. It went pretty gradually, with a certain amount of frustration and doubt on the way, but I was always choosing to stay here and not leave because the balance was always positive. It has been challenging of course, but now looking back I can see the number of connections, the good work I have done with people here. 

Was it easier in London then?

The scene there is busier and there are many many people wanting to do the same thing at the same time. Here there is a huge demand for professionals, it is smaller and there are less people. The industry is still relatively fresh, but big movies have been made here for the last 10-15 years. Even though here language-wise it’s harder, a lot of other things are easier, and there is space for challenging yourself and growing professionally. As long as you manage to connect with people, this gives you strength - being part of the expat community will make you feel like part of a group, but it is fundamental not to  isolate yourself from the locals, because this will just boomerang back to you. You will always need a connection with the locals, you cannot alienate yourself. You need to understand where you are, understand the mentality - otherwise it doesn't work. Also, the expat community is very volatile, people come and go, so you need to be connected to who stays - both for your mental balance and also for giving back to the community. On the other note, even if you are struggling with the language, being abroad allows you more freedom, there is a type of freedom you cannot enjoy in your own country. 

How have you been dealing with the situation since the pandemic started?

For me it has been a big thing, it hit me just after I got back from a trip to South America. It was destabilizing - I was expecting to be without income for a while and the things I had been planning suddenly became impossible. It allowed me to take time to rethink my work and my professional direction, and to let the experience of my recent travels sink in and get absorbed into my work. Also, I took the chance to take part in a coaching program during the spring lockdown, and this has been mind-opening. It was a group coaching, and it had been surprisingly helpful, more than if it would have been one to one. Being separated from people made me re-appreciate the importance of the connection with people. Eventually I was able to see what being disconnected from people does to me, and that it is not the way I function the best, as I believed for a long time. It made me realize how you can affect each other with your experience, very often other people’s experience is so close to yours, much more than we tend to imagine. I guess I expanded my ability to listen to others and to really understand what they do, on a deeper level. Quite often creatives tend to be a little self-absorbed, and I guess I always suffered from this myself. Through this whole experience, I lost interest in a certain way of working, and it helped me clarifying in which way I want to work instead,a way that gives me pleasure. I believe that once you fix your inside, the outside will also follow, so I'm staying positive that the new way in which I perceive work and connections will bear fruit. 

If you think about where you would like to be in some time, is there something you would love to achieve?

This is a wise exercise to do, and it should be repeated every now and then to check where one wants to be. Right now I am living for the day to be honest, I don't currently have a time frame for my goals, but it might be helpful to set them to check where you are headed. In the past I used to hold on and control too much, now I believe things will happen at their pace if I ‘float’ a little bit, so I am trying to allow myself to loosen my grip on what I think should be happening. I do have a vision of what I would love to do - for example, to create costumes for a very intense show, to be part of a project where other people share the same level of enthusiasm and commitment, to be part of something bigger than what I could do on my own. Growing outside of my bubble. Now I know that you need people with a similar vision to achieve big things. This sounds too obvious but it took me a long time to admit it, because it’s difficult, but I am now able to endure more complexity than I used to.

Going back to Budapest, what do you think is the thing that really keeps you here after those years?

Now I know it’s the people. I came to realize that I managed to build very good and deep connections with people here, both on a personal and a professional level. 

Is there anything you wish someone had told you before you moved here?

To kick my own ass and push myself to speak the language better. I consider myself semi-nomadic, therefore I always feel that at some point I will move again. This becomes a poor excuse for not committing to learn a language properly. 

Secondly, to stay active and social, to connect with expats and with locals, without isolating from either of them. In the beginning I wanted to be with the locals only, but my knowledge of the culture and the language skills were too poor, and I ended up feeling really lonely. So just meet people, speak out about what you do, just get out there, and things will happen organically.

More about Francesca's work on her website 

December 2020

Photos: Anna Jopp

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