the eastern beat

Francesca Menichelli

costume &  prop designer

"I am an Italian costume and prop designer based in Budapest, Hungary.  After years as an independent costume designer I entered the movie industry where I built my experience in the Set Decoration Department of movie productions, and where I developed my style from the conceptual ideas to the practical applications.

My aesthetics are very much about the craftmanship, just as paint strokes and visible handicraft of accessories and clothes are a substancial part of my visual narrative. Whenever possible, I prefer to be actively involved in the making of mock-up items and prototypes, which I consider a very important stage of my creative process".

Where are you from and what brought you to Budapest?

I'm from a small city in the center 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 didnt I 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 even 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 with a type of decadent, romantic feeling that completely got me. Two months later I was back, without any idea what to do. So 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 high and lows, but it’s a place where I've felt home the most. I feel that I have a relationship  with the city, I don't see it the same way as when I first arrived here, now I can see different sides of my experience of being here. 

What do you do in Budapest?

Originally I am a fashion and costume designer. After I arrived 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. Basically this profession happened to me here after a year - I  got introduced to the world of the films and I figured out there was really a lot going on, huge productions with a very big demand for professionals. Working in this industry allowed me to experiment - that's why I have done textile, props, set decorations. It allowed me to try myself in different areas - it’s the best that could happen to me because I get bored easily. And I love the film world, it’s unpredictable, you never know what will be needed, you are always learning, so it’s virtually impossible to get bored. 

And before Budapest?

Before, I did costume design for music videos and smaller productions and then I started doing model making for an agency that was producing inflight magazine while I was living in London. I was making miniatures for the covers of the magazines and sometimes editorials as well. Next to it there was always my costume and fashion 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 own glasshouses and sell plants. I broke the mold a little bit I guess. I always had an urge to express myself through art, I was always drawing fashion models ever since I remember. I knew that I wanted to do something like this but somehow during my education I zigzagged around it, maybe the most logical thing would have been to go to a fashion school and learn how to make the garments I had been dreaming about or to become an illustrator, but I chose to study painting in an art school and then product design at the university. I wanted to rationalize it in a way I guess, I didn’t believe you could just do art for the sake of beauty. But fashion somehow always came back - when I was graduating in industrial design,my graduation project was a clothes collection! My teachers were totally surprised but somehow the project was strong enough and I convinced them. That was the first time I realized it was time to go back to fashion and I started making clothes again. 

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, maybe it’s more my paranoia that it’s so complicated to work with me because I am not fluent. Somehow my level of Hungarian gets me by, I struggle but I manage. 

I guess it's a little bit harder to get to the circle 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 deciding to stay here because the balance was always more positive. It was 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?

Not at all, the scene there is so much busier, maybe with the language it’s easier to communicate, but there are so many people wanting to do the same thing at the same time, it’s really difficult. Here there's a huge demand for professionals, it’s smaller and there are less people. It’s still fresh, big movies have been made here for the last 10-15 years Even though here language-wise it’s hard, a lot of other things are easier as there’s space to do things.As long as you manage to connect even with people it gives you strength - being part of the expat community will make you feel like part of a group but without isolating from the locals, because then it just boomerangs back to you. You always need a connection with the locals, you cannot alienate yourself. You need to get where you are, understand the mentality - there needs to be  the connection, otherwise it doesn't work. Also, the expat community is very volatile, people come and go, so you need to be connected everywhere - both for your mental balance and for giving back to the community. 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 was a big thing, it hit me after I had just gotten back from a trip to South America. It was destabilising - I was expecting to be without income for a while and things I had been planning suddenly became impossible. It really allowed me to take time to rethink my work and my professional direction and to let the experience of my travel sink in and get into my work. Also, I  took a chance to do a coaching program during the spring lockdown and it really allowed  me to realise a few things. Being separated from people made me re-appreciate the importance of the connection with people, it was a very deep realization, maybe it coincided with the certain moment in my life. Eventually I could see what being disconnected from people did to me, it made me realize it’s not the way I function the best really. It also made me realize how you can affect each other with your experience, very often others’ experience is so close to yours, much more than you could imagine. I guess I learned how to listen to others and to really take notice of what they do. Quite often artists tend to be a little self-absorbed and I guess I always suffered quite a bit from this too. With this whole experience,  I lost interest in a certain way of working and shifted my view about the way I want to work, what gives me pleasure. I believe that once you fix your inside the outside will also work as well, 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 an exercise that should be done every now and then to check where I want to be. Right now I go from one day to another and I don't have a timeframe for my goals but it might be helpful to set them to know where you’re headed. Before I tried to hold on and control too much, now I believe things will happen if I ‘float’ a little bit so I am allowing myself to do it in this time. I have some visions of what I would love to do very much - to create costumes for the ‘big’ dancers, for a very intense show,  to be part of a very organic project, not just jump and do my little thing, but be part of something that organically grows together. Before I was trying to do it on my own completely randomly and now I know that you need people with a similar vision to achieve such things.

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. The language is difficult and sometimes the cultural differences don't make it easy either, but I realized I managed to build very good and deep connections with people on a personal and professional level. 

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

To kick my ass and push myself to speak the language better. I always thought that maybe I would leave so I thought I would do without it. Also, to stay as active as possible, 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, talk to people and things will happen organically. 

More about Francesca's work on her website 

Photos: Anna Jopp

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