The Collection of Regina Chmurska
On Sunday the 31st of January, 2010, a woman called Regina Chmurska died. The day before she had been shopping at her favorite church bazaar, looking for bargains. She slipped on the ice, and that day would be her last shopping trip, the last in her whole life.
Regina was our Grandmother, a Polish dressmaker and a woman with enviable style that carried her through the Second World War and a lifetime of hardships. The story of her life is fueled by a burning energy to survive and indeed to dress beautifully, whatever happened. Her passion for clothes and objects grew to an obsession, which eventually became a burden. When a collection grows over many years, it can take over the rooms you live in, your ability to move around your house and your rationality concerning the objects you possess. They become a safety blanket; a nest. This is what happened to Babcia, her collection became an obsession and it took over her life. It sounds like a sad story, and in some ways it is, but her collection gave her great pleasure, and since she died it has brought joy to many others.
To begin with I would like to explain that Babcia means Grandmother in Polish, and this what we called Regina. When I say ‘we’ I mean my sister and I who have written this together.
Babcia’s house is perhaps one of the most beautiful and haunting places you could ever set eyes on. It is a rather grand Georgian house in Bedford. Babcia moved here after the Second World War like many Poles. She had a difficult time during the war, and things were not easy for years to come. Germany invaded her village in the middle of the night so her family fled leaving all their belongings behind. During the war the family was separated, some forced to work and some were captured and put in concentration camps, many were never seen again. Babcia somehow managed to survive. She lost everything and soon after the war came to England and married my Polish Grandfather.
After losing everything she had ever owned, the desire to hoard followed. Babcia proceeded, as many who experienced the same did, in keeping things even if they were broken. ‘Make do and mend’ mentality. She kept everything from plastic bags to motorbikes, hidden within the walls of her derelict palace. Her favourite things to buy were clothes, and beautiful furniture and home ware. She would go to boot sales, charity shops, markets and house clearances. If she saw something she liked she would buy it, not questioning if she needed it, would use it or could afford it.
A lot of what she collected was delectable, and she had very good taste. Art deco cabinets, stained glass windows, 50 piece tableware sets and grand pianos. But she became less picky as time went on, and soon everything and anything was bought and kept in the ever-growing piles. Broken food blenders, tacky curtains with cartoon characters prints, used bath mats and food. She even kept food packaging, as well as pickled fruit in jars, which she kept under the bed, along the stairs and around the bathtub.
The house began to fill up room by room, my Mothers says she remembers Babcia keeping things Mum had put in the bin, so slowly the rooms became uninhabitable. At one point there was a fire in one of the rooms downstairs and the room was left like this with burnt piles of clothes, boxes and melted furniture. We visited as children and realised that her collection wasn’t normal, but we enjoyed playing in the piles of clothes and rummaging.
For us, only great explorers and archaeologists could understand the excitement we found as we made each new discovery as we grew up, foraging through the towers of curiosities she had collected. There is a vintage Morris Minor in the garage and old plane seats, 5 bathtubs, and several washing machines and tumble dryers; it was like a playground. We all worried about her, it’s not the way your Grandmother should live, but if we tried helping to clear a room, re-decorate or even throw away something she got angry and upset. It was her palace, and since losing everything as a young woman, she had a fear it would happen again. So she didn’t stop collecting until she died, nor did she throw anything away. Beautiful trinkets, kitsch ornaments, broken clocks, giant teddy bears, calendars, paper work, bread crumbs, wedding dresses; she kept everything even if it was ugly. It’s a feeling of simultaneous delight and horror while looking through some of the piles, one minute you have found a gorgeous baby pink 1950s cocktail dress, the next you have found a set of teeth from pre-war Poland.
House of Lalka was born when Regina died. She always dreamed of having her own shop, to sell the clothes she collected and ones she had made herself. She even took a selection of some of her best pieces to her house in Poland with the vision of opening her first shop there. Months after her death as we tried to sort through the treasures she left behind, we decided that we could try to finish what she started and carry on her ideas of collecting and selling beautiful artifacts and recycling style from the past. This was the beginning of House of Lalka and we decided to launch it at Goodwood Vintage, the place where her collection would be appreciated most.
What followed was a careful clear-out with Mum, as we attempted to gather the items that were still sellable and undamaged, choosing things to take with us back to London to clean and repair.
The discoveries we made, led us to learn the habits of Babcia, and her eccentricities made us miss her even more. Who else would stuff a pillow with hair she had collected from her brush, why was there a perfectly preserved cheese cake hidden under her bed? House of Lalka has been selling in various boutiques for the past 2 years and we still have plenty more stock. A lot of the clothes were ruined by the way they were kept, but what we have salvaged could have clothed an army.
We have now been clearing for over 2 years. It is still not empty and we are still finding many treasures and of course a few horrors. It is hard and dirty work, and very emotional especially for Mum. Most recently we have discovered the shed, and inside was large and very heavy body bags full of clothes. A lot of these were damaged, but we have been salvaging what we can and a lot of it was crimplene, which is indestructible fabric. We launder, dry clean and if we like it or it fits one of us we keep it, if not we sell or archive the piece. This is our system. Since then we have had new clothes made based on ones we have found in the house. We have done fashion shows and vintage festivals. We have had many happy customers wearing the clothes to balls, gigs and parties. We wear her clothes every day and will do for the rest of our lives.
Her house, for us and Mum is a shrine of inspiration, remains to this day and through our own work we will share her legacy with the world.
Written by Katie Rose and Alice Harriet Whiting
I personally, have made this house and its contents the basis of my work. My first collection was based on Babcia and her collection. I utilize her life’s work and respect why she kept these beautiful things. I notice my own hoarding tendencies now and again. I look for exotic things to surround myself with, which make feel like the world I am living in is more beautiful. But for my Grandmother, it was like a nervous twitch; she couldn’t help but collect things. I use the fabric she kept for years and I make something new from them, which people can buy, and use and love. I dry clean the dresses that reek of mothballs and I wear and cherish them more than anything I could buy. I found an unworn 1950s wedding dress there, which I one-day want to wear at my own wedding. It’s like she has left presents for me, my Mum and my sister and I feel lucky to have this inheritance in the form which it is. House of Lalka is currently about to launch an online shop, and Katie Roze my own bag label uses vintage fabric and shapes from the house in every collection. I cannot imagine our lives without Babcia and her accumulation of things she felt she couldn’t exist without. I think it would be a much duller world without collections and when things turn to excess, it shows passion, necessity and strength of character. Qualities I would be proud to embody.
Katie Rose Whiting