There are not so many life stories that are as inspiring, complex and intriguing at the same time. Especially if we’re talking about a woman, a seamstress, a Jewish refugee in the worst times to be one and an eternal inspiration for generations of women to come. This is not a movie script nor a piece of fiction, this is the true story of one of the most influential Croatian women of the 20th century and maybe even of all times – the story of Žuži Jelinek!
Žuži was born as Suzana Färber in Budapest in 1920 as the youngest of three children, in a poor Jewish family. Her parents, both deaf, met in Budapest where they sent their children to the only school specializing in sign language.
It didn’t take long for young Suzana to start exploring the world at the age of only 17 when she started working at the Paris factory of Nina Ricci as a tailor. For a shorter time she worked for famous fashion designer Coco Chanel. There is even a funny anecdote about the two, in the words of Žuži herself: “I was only 17 years old when I came to Paris to work as a seamstress at the Paris factory of Nine Ricci. Paris is not nice when you have no money. Once Nina Ricci came with her friend Coco Chanel. I told her that the dress she was wearing didn’t suit her. She looked at me, “What do you know, little chump, who do you think you are?” The next day she came again to me and we talked.” Next thing you know- a job at Chanel.
Žuži was known for her multiple marriages. She first married in 1941 a dentist Dr. Erih Jelinek and had two children.
World War II, unfortunately, did not spare Jews even in Croatia, so Žuži lost both of her brothers who got shot in front of their deaf parents. During the Second World War, she heard that parents were to be deported to a concentration camp. In order to save them, she tempted an Italian officer and later commented: “I paid my parents’ life with sex and I’m not sorry. And what will you think of me, I honestly just don’t care”.
By the end of the war, Žuži came back to her love and became a tailor. Towards the end of the 1950s, she began to work with magazines overseas, and local printers named her as the ambassador of fashion. Her designs were popular around the globe, she not only brought the latest trends to a bit depressing Yugoslavian streets, but she also created new fashion trends.
At age of 40, she moved to the United States where she continued successfully with designing. Upon her return to Zagreb, she found out that her husband had cheated her with the house helper and left her behind. Her successes and traveling at that time didn’t sound well for Josip Broz Tito, who considered that promoting her models as was not good for self-managing socialism of Yugoslavia. Instead, Tito offered her a place of director of Macedonian fashion company “Teteks”, under whose name she would represent her models. And what Žuži did? She elegantly declined and shortly thereafter, Tito mentioned her, namely, in his 1962 speech in Split as a negative element for Yugoslavia, and was told that it was better for her to leave the country. Soon after she moved with her children and parents in Geneva.
In 1964, she returned to Tito’s call and started making creations for his wife, Jovanka Broz which also got her a prestige title in the society.
As she retired in the 80s, she became a book author and a columnist. In her writing career, she has written ten books during her life, the last of which was published in 2013 under the title “Cheers to Men” and consists of her columns. Other Žuži’s books are titled “Changing Men,” “Women, Conquer …,” “From Sex to Eternity,” and wrote about everyday problems, health education, personal hygiene, and money-relation.
She died at old age in 2016 but her legacy will live on with everyone who is not afraid to take big steps and be kind but different!