Tamás Király: Hungary’s King of Fashion

Photograph by Almási J. Csaba, 1990. Courtesy Ludwig Múzeum.

Few Hungarian designers have made a name for themselves on the international stage. Ready to-wear brands Nanushka and Sugarbird, and demi-couture Abodi are a few of the contemporary brands that have recently captured the attention of the fashion industry. Long before this contingent, Tamás Király (1952-2013) broke through the barriers imposed by the socialist system to present politically-informed collections in both Hungary and abroad. The neo avant-garde Király was not a fashion designer in the traditional sense of the term. He created what he called ‘clothing sculptures,’ which he often made out of mundane, ephemeral materials and objects such as fishing rope and kitchen supplies. As such, his garments and accessories skirted the line between the everyday and the fanciful. He sold his collections at New Art Studio, a collaborative underground boutique that he ran with his fellow designer friends. Due to his affinity for unusual designs and those who consumed them, Király referred to himself as an ‘anti-fashion fashion designer,’ a term that the Hungarian press, starting with the general-interest magazine Új Tükör (New Mirror), readily adopted.1

Király’s created his exaggerated, fantastical designs in defiance of with what was considered ‘socialist good taste,’ standing up to established conventions of both the regime and the ready-to-wear industry.2 Although the majority of his pieces were not explicitly political, he did occasionally take the opportunity to present garments and imagery that were controversial.

In 1987, the red star, a symbol of communist military might, was transformed by Király into a multi-dimensional dress with massive points radiating off the wearer’s body.3 In 1989, Király boldly photographed a model wearing a hat that he built as a small-scale replica of the dome of the Hungarian Parliament Building — complete with the infamous red star on top — right across the Danube with its inspiration in plain sight.4 Dressed in a hodgepodge of various different layers and prints, the model and her hat were an eyesore next to the otherwise scenic landscape, effectively transmitting his views of the regime in a coy, playful manner.

In 1988, Király presented an extraordinary collection at the historic Dressater fashion show in West Berlin. With a rallying cry of ‘dressed to thrill’ as the show’s central theme, Vivienne Westwood may have been the show’s celebrity guest, but Király held a special honour: he was the only designer from all of the countries behind the Iron Curtain in attendance. The show received great accolades not just for its talented roster of designers, but also for its location: it took place at an abandoned train station. Comprised of forty eccentric pieces, Király’s collection looked right at home in its surroundings as models eagerly strutted down a makeshift catwalk, a steel-plate hanging in train station, in pyramid-, ball- and disc-shaped garments. The daring red and black colours and exaggerated shapes evoked the masterful work of the avant garde Russian Constructivists and Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet.5

Király’s participation in Dressater was entirely dependent on the state — international travel was restricted, yet the Kádár regime permitted him to travel to West Germany, an enemy country, to take part in this event. As Király could have easily defected and besmirched the Hungarian People’s Republic’s name, this authorisation was a calculated action designed to show that it was actually a permissive country where self-expression, art, and fashion flourished. During the late socialist period, Király was also fortunate enough to have belonged to a unique social strata of citizens who were tolerated — not persecuted nor promoted — by the regime. Taking advantage of his special status, Király foreshadowingly called the collection ‘Open Doors,’ a subtle jab at the socialist regime and its impending dissolution. The following year, during which the regime collapsed during what became known as the ‘Fall of Nations,’ his work was featured in the West’s preeminent fashion and culture magazine, i-D.6

Like most designers, Király also presented his work in the format that is most common within the fashion industry: catwalk shows. His experimental fashion performances, however, transcended the borders of traditional shows and are part of a unique era of fashion history to which other visionary designers such as Thierry Mugler and Alexander McQueen belong. From as early as 1981 up until 2002, Király periodically appropriated Váci Street, the area of Budapest known for its fashionable, upscale boutiques, to serve as his catwalk during his ‘fashion walks.’7 The 1997 ‘Schwaa 3C 273’ collection (named after the first quasar ever to be identified), was an example of what he referred to as ‘fashion performances’ for which he built specific sets and integrated contemporary dance.8 He also collaborated with performance groups to present what he called ‘fashion theater,’ a medium through which he used dress as a narrative storytelling technique. His most famous production was with the Baltazar Theater, a professional troupe of intellectually disabled actors, with whom he staged Baltazár Éjjeli Álom (Baltazar Night’s Dream). Made of all white and cream-coloured textiles and objects, the costumes reflected the phantasmagoric atmosphere of the Shakespearean play it interpreted: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In the years leading up to his headline-grabbing alleged murder in 2013, Király frequently showed his work at the Petőfi Csarnok (hall), the famous Sziget music festival on Margaret Island, and the Elle magazine-sponsored Fashion Weeks in Budapest. The year 2011 was very successful for Király. In May, he showed one of his most sculptural collections at the Fashion Deluxe runway show in the famous New York Palace (then known as Boscolo) in Budapest. Silver, gold, and bright red garments with boldly cut out and vividly three-dimensional details seemed to take on a life of their own as the models danced and vogued their way down the catwalk. A few days later, an interview with Király, interspersed with footage of the show, was released on Divatikon, one of Hungary’s most successful fashion blogs and YouTube channel.9

Later that year, a short made-for-television documentary on Király aired on ‘Propaganda,’ a show on the Hungarian public-access TV2 channel. The documentary, ‘Abszolút,’ available in its entirety on YouTube, took a very light-handed approach to Király’s craft.10 The host’s bias against Király was evident as he repeatedly alluded to the designer’s alleged insanity, and implied that he was sloppy and unprofessional. The documentary undoubtedly had a negative effect on the general Hungarian public’s opinion of Király. His death, a mere year and a half after the documentary aired, was overshadowed by the very rumors that it had fuelled and helped perpetuate. Half-naked and with a silk sash supposedly around his neck, Király was found dead in his own apartment after what various media outlets called a night of rough, sado-masochistic romp with a male sex worker. In the socially conservative country that is Hungary, both the police and the press focused on the potentially shameful, reputation-ruining aspects of his death instead of the incredible legacy he left behind.

In 2014, the opening of an exhibition at tranzit.hu, an art gallery and think tank, changed the public discourse around Király. Curated by Gyula Muskovics and Andrea Soós, the exhibition, Nyitott kapuk: Király Tamás ‘80s (Open Doors: Király Tamás ‘80s) sought to unravel the layers of meaning within Király’s work during the years leading up to the dissolution of the socialist regime.11 As an astute reference to the creative output that Király expended during this tumultuous period, the exhibition was named after the collection he showed at Dressater. Comprised of a selection of garments, photographs and primary documents from the designer’s personal archive, the exhibition was praised by art historian Endre Lehel Paksi for effectively fulfilling the action implied in its name: opening Király’s body of work to constructive analysis and scholarship.12 The exhibition’s accompanying book, Király Tamás ’80s, was published by Tranzit in 2017.

Most recently, the Ludwig Museum in Budapest mounted their own aptly-titled exhibition, Király Tamás: Out of the Box. Curated by art historian Katalin Timár, Out of the Box was designed to allude ‘…to the visual athmosphere [sic] so typical to Király’s shows… to evoke the multifaceted and interdisciplinary approach that render Király’s activity [sic] so unique in the Hungarian visual arts scene.’13 The exhibition featured extant garments and accessories from several of his collections and productions, including Baltazár Night’s Dream, and his last ever catwalk show in 2013, during which he showed his ‘Red Collection’ of sculptural pieces that he painstakingly cut and formed with a pair of nail scissors. Although Out of the Box was criticised for its lack of adequate signage and labels, it built upon the tranzit.hu effort by providing the first large-scale retrospective of his consummate career.14

Renewed and increased public interest into Király’s history has also laid the groundwork for an upcoming feature-length documentary by London-based filmmaker, and Royal College of Art alumni Noémi Varga. Having participated in several major development incubators, including the Sheffield Doc/Fest EDN Market Mentors program in 2017, Varga has obtained unparalleled access to Király’s archives and its previously camera-shy caretaker, his son Ilias. Through her film, Varga seeks to tell the sensitive story of Király’s life as an artist, demonstrating his devotion and passion to his craft, rather than the  potential profitability of the wider fashion industry.15

The thirtieth anniversary of the 1989 regime change has brought renewed attention to the burgeoning arts and culture of the late socialist era. Tamás Király, one of the most prolific Hungarian artists of the socialist and post-socialist periods, has certainly benefitted from the increased attention towards his work, including that which occurred posthumously. What remains to be seen, however, is if and how Király’s legacy will continue to be shaped.


Doris Domoszlai-Lantner is a New York-based historian and archivist specialising in dress and fashion. Petra Egri is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Pécs, Hungary.



  1. Katalin Bogyai, ‘Divatellenes divattervező’ (‘The anti-fashion fashion designer’), Új Tükör, January 29, 1989 

  2. Ildikó Simonovics and Tibor Valuch, eds., Öltöztessük fel az országot: Divat és öltözködés a szocializmusban, (Argumentum Press: Budapest, Hungary, 2009), p.65-95 

  3. Gyula Muskovics and Andrea Soós, Király Tamás ’80s, (Budapest: Tranzit Kiadó, 2017), p.11 

  4. Ibid, p.64 

  5. Gyula Muskovics, ‘Against Interpretation. On the performance art of El Kazovsky and Tamás Király,’ Artportal, March 27, 2019, https://artportal.hu/magazin/against-interpretation-on-the-performance-art-of-el-kazovsky-and-tamas-kiraly/ 

  6. C.D., ‘Fashion Hungary,’ i-D, issue 71 (1989), p.83 

  7. Katalin Timár, ‘Király Tamás: Out of the Box’ (exhibition brochure), Ludwig Museum, https://www.ludwigmuseum.hu/system/files/page/attachments/2019-08/ludwig_kiralyt_kiall_vezeto_kis_pdf.pdf 

  8. Ibid, p.15 

  9. ‘Király Tamás divattervező a Fashion Deluxe 2011-en,’  Divatikon, May 29 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGCsHUx5kk0 

  10. ‘Király Tamás: Abszolút,’ Propaganda, December 11 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dyDQkgo5jHY 

  11. “Nyitott kapuk: Király Tamás ’80s,” tranzit.hu, http://hu.tranzit.org/hu/esemeny/0/2014-10-10/nyitott-kapuk-kiraly-tamas-80s 

  12. Endre Lehel Paski, ‘Csillagködszerű ábra. Király Tamás a tranzit.hu-ban,’ Artportal, November 19, 2014, https://artportal.hu/magazin/csillagkodszeru-abra-kiraly-tamas-a-tranzit-hu-ban/ 

  13. Katalin Timár,  ‘Király Tamás: Out of the Box’ (exhibition brochure), Ludwig Museum, https://www.ludwigmuseum.hu/system/files/page/attachments/2019-08/ludwig_kiralyt_kiall_vezeto_kis_pdf.pdf 

  14. See exhibition critiques by Kata Benedek, ‘A divattervező és kult-figura munkáit mutatja be a Ludwig Múzeum. Kérdőjelek. Elszalasztott lehetőség.,’ Artportal, August 20 2019, https://artportal.hu/magazin/kiraly-tamas-retrograd/, and Petra Egri, ‘Megjegyzések a Ludwig Múzeum Király Tamás. Out of the box című kiállításához,’ Artmagazin, September 2 2019, http://artmagazin.hu/artmagazin_hirek/megjegyzesek_a_ludwig_muzeum_kiraly_tamas._out_of_the_box_cimu_kiallitasahoz.4655.html?pageid=119 

  15. ‘Inkubátor Hét: Varga Noémi Pályakezdő filmrendezők bemutatása,’ November 16 2016, Filmhu, https://magyar.film.hu/filmhu/magazin/inkubator-het-varga-noemi.html