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Thursday, Aug 28, 2014
Michelle Bearden

Surviving ugliness of war, fashion designer finds beauty in life

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TAMPA — The first time I met Alma Vidovic, that little green monster reared its ugly head.

She’s gorgeous. She’s nice. She’s talented. She has everything. I hate her.

I don’t voice these evil thoughts aloud, of course. Fortunately, the monster knows enough to keep these musings private.

But, as is often the case, my instincts were wrong. After we started chatting, I recognized Alma’s accent.

“You’re from Bosnia-Herzegovina, right?” I asked.

“Why, yes,” she said, rather surprised. Most Americans aren’t familiar with the Eastern European country with the dual name, and few would recognize the cadence of its native tongue. I identified the accent immediately, having spent some time there on assignment in 1997.

“You were there during the war?” I asked.

The smile vanished.

“Yes,” she said quietly.

And that’s when I knew: Never judge people until you hear their whole story. Because jumping to conclusions is a futile exercise. Get the facts before making assumptions.

Here’s Alma today: She’s a full-time fashion stylist for Home Shopping Network, with a list of clients that includes Mariah Carey, Iman, Twiggy, Serena Williams, Rachael Ray and Giuliana Rancic. She’s the founder of the nonprofit Fashion Industry Association, a Florida organization with members in the fashion, beauty, photography and modeling industry.

The 31-year-old Tampa transplant also introduced her first collection of wedding dresses in spring. The 2013 line — which she calls Floriography, inspired by blooming flowers and symbolic storytelling — includes eight pieces. The dresses are a princess’s dream, featuring light chiffon, organza, tulle and luxurious satins in white, ivory, cream, beige and blush pink.

“Classic with a twist,” is how she describes her style. Alma loves the element of surprise.

She’s now working on her second collection to debut next year in her “spare” time, though there really aren’t enough hours in the day to keep up with her crazy schedule.

“She’s hard-working and very dedicated to her craft,” says Vicky Tiel, an international fashion designer and author of “It’s All About the Dress,” who splits her time between Paris and Florida’s Panhandle. Alma is now Tiel’s protégé. That’s no small honor, considering that Tiel dressed Elizabeth Taylor for 20 years, worked on Hollywood sets and operated private boutiques in high-end retail stores such as Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman.

The two women met on the set at HSN in Clearwater. Though there’s a nearly 40-year age difference, that didn’t matter. They were kindred spirits.

“Alma is quick. She listens. She’s got a positive spirit that is so necessary in this business,” Tiel says. “And let’s not forget, she has talent. You only last about three days in this business if you don’t have talent.”

The more I learned about Alma, the more I wanted to know how she got from wartime in Bosnia to America. She was more than happy to share her story.

“It’s a war not talked about very much in this country,” she says. “But for those of us who experienced it, it was very, very real.”

She grew up in Zenica, a mountainous town of some 200,000 people outside of Sarajevo. The oldest of three children, she describes her childhood as idyllic. Her father worked in the steel factory and provided a comfortable home for his family. She remembers spending weekends on his family’s farm, playing in the countryside with her cousins.

That’s when she began dreaming of her faraway future.

“Alma Vidovic, fashion designer,” she declared to anyone who listened. “One day I will be famous for my beautiful dresses.” She made dresses from scratch for her Barbie dolls and cut out favorite styles from fashion magazines.

In 1992, war erupted in her native land. As in many conflicts, this one was steeped in politics, territory, economics and religion. By the time it ended in 1995, an estimated 100,000 people — many of them civilians — would be dead.

The war took away the innocence of youth. Though her city was spared the atrocities — the steel factory was needed for war supplies — life was significantly altered. Grocery stores boarded up, forcing residents to stand in long lines waiting for handouts from UNICEF. The sound of sirens was commonplace. As violence in the outer regions escalated, schools were shut down. It just wasn’t safe to let children walk on the streets.

One of her most frightening memories came one night when several Muslim refugee soldiers knocked on the door. When her father answered, one shoved a gun in his mouth. In the tense hour that followed, they recounted stories of violence done to their own families. They finally left without any further incident.

The irony was that Alma’s family was an example of interfaith tolerance. With a war that pitted Muslims, Christians and Catholics against each other, the Vidovic household was led by her Catholic father and Eastern Orthodox mother. Neither parent was particularly religious, and both taught their children to be accepting of people of all faiths.

“”They didn’t like how religion could be so divisive,” Alma says. “They always stressed to us that we should have respect for all humanity, and that all people are equal.”

Their mixed marriage put them in a potentially dangerous situation, even in the aftermath of war. In 1995, her parents finally made the decision that it was safer to flee than to stay. They first relocated to Croatia, where they had relatives, and then came to America a year later under the sponsorship of the International Rescue Committee.

They landed in Salt Lake City, where they knew no one and spoke not a lick of English.

“Very, very scared and very, very excited” is how Alma remembers those early days. She had watched American television shows and movies, so the young teenager had a Hollywood version of this country. “I just kept thinking how glamorous everything was. And compared to where we had come from, it was.”

I’ve always been so impressed with immigrants and refugees who come here, strangers in a strange land, and make the most of this opportunity they’ve been given.

And so it is with Alma.

The culture shock finally wore off. She and her siblings enrolled in American schools right away, and they eventually learned their adopted country’s language. She went on to the University of Utah to study psychology and art, but never abandoned the dream of becoming a fashion designer.

Her opportunity came when she took a trip to Key West with friends and met a love interest. She followed him to Tampa where he lived. Although the relationship didn’t work out, she found the perfect school here to hone her skills: The International Academy of Design.

It took her five years — balancing a job as an assistant manager at Forever 21 and school — but Alma finally got her bachelor’s degree in fine arts and marketing in 2010. An internship with a local bridal dress designer led to her own budding career in this specialty market.

There is no magic formula to realizing a long-held dream. In Alma’s case, it meant working long hours, taking out a loan from her 401(k) to fund her first line, and constantly marketing her work by knocking on doors and making contacts. She is now one of the featured designers at The White Magnolia, a newly opened bridal boutique in Hyde Park.

“Alma has that special something,” Tiel says. “I give her suggestions, and she’s already in motion, following through. There’s a lot of competition in this field and you have to be fast. She’s got ‘it,’ and I think she is doing all the right things to make it work for her.”

She’s sold three of her custom-made bridal gowns, which range from $1,000 to $2,500. She loves working one-on-one with brides, helping them create the perfect look for their special day. Alma plans to expand into evening wear and sportswear.

She also intends to work with artisans from her native country, using their lace and other raw materials so they can benefit economically. It’s a lesson that Tiel taught her. To those who succeed, it’s important to give back.

And next year, Alma will realize yet another dream when she becomes a U.S. citizen.

“Moving to this country was a miracle,” Alma beams. She counts her blessings: Getting her degree, working for HSN, becoming a fashion designer, starting the association and meeting Tiel. “All of that is miraculous. I really am so, so lucky.”

Perhaps, Alma. But you made it happen through hard work and talent. Given what you’ve come from, I would say the sky’s the limit.

mbearden@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7613

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