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In Warsaw, mining a rich vein of Polish creativity
Michal Rola-Janicki, left, and Ania Hynowska work with a client to create a new fragrance at the Mo61 Perfume Lab in Warsaw on Nov. 16, 2022. Over the last decade, Warsaw has bloomed into one of Europe’s most compelling capitals, and Mokotowska Street has flowered along with it. (Maciek Nabrdalik/The New York Times)

by Ginanne Brownell

WARSAW.- Every day outside of a shop at 61 Mokotowska St., an intriguing dance of sorts happens: A smattering of men and women of all ages walk out onto the sidewalk and smell the top of their hands or the inside of their wrists. Some smile, others look quizzical, and a few seem to simply get lost in thought. After a few moments, they reenter the shop and, after a short interlude, the dance repeats.

The Mo61 Perfume Lab is an emporium of smells. It stocks more than 400 different oils, imported from Grasse, France, that include scents such as seaweed, bergamot, sacrum — which may remind one of the interior of an Eastern Orthodox church — and rhubarb.

Opened in 2014, Mo61 is an atelier that creates bespoke fragrances. The process takes about 30 minutes — no need to make an appointment — and perfumers ask clients about the scents they are drawn to. Then the beakers and droppers are brought out and an extensive process of measuring and sniffing begins. After an initial batch is mixed and dabbed on the skin, customers are encouraged to walk outside to clear their noses, as the inside of the shop is an onslaught of smells.

“Mokotowska Street houses some of the best boutiques of Polish design,” said Monika Zagajska, the co-founder of Mo61, which also has locations in Krakow and Poznan, Poland. “Our customers are creating and designing their own fragrances so we wanted to be close to that.”

Over the past decade, Warsaw has blossomed into one of Europe’s most compelling capitals, with world-class museums, an internationally lauded contemporary art scene, exclusive hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants. Global luxury brands including Hermes, Bottega Veneta, Brunello Cucinelli and Louis Vuitton have all opened Polish outposts. And yet Mokotowska Street, Ulica Mokotowska to locals, has remained charmingly local for the most part. Polish fashion and jewelry designers have opened flagship boutiques there, as well as art galleries, perfumeries, bookshops, skin care and interior designers, restaurants and gourmet shops that sell everything from homemade Polish soups to imported Sicilian sauces.

Starting at Plac Trzech Krzyzy (Three Crosses Square), Mokotowska Street runs less than a mile to Plac Zbawiciela (Savior Square) and is bisected by Piekna Street.

“Customers who are coming to Mokotowska Street are coming for the quality,” said Karina Sobis, a Warsaw- and New York-based fashion entrepreneur who founded E-Gardrobe, an online designer clothing rental company that has a showroom on the street. “It’s like the old Fifth Avenue in New York when we used to have really good designers. If you want your brand to stand out,” she added, then Mokotowska is the street to pick to showcase it.

That was not always the case.

“When we moved to Mokotowska in 2007, it wasn’t the street as we know it today,” said Bogna Swiatkowska, the president of the Bec Zmiana Foundation, a noncommercial arts and publishing organization that has offices and a small bookshop on the street. “It was kind of forgotten and though it was beautiful, it was not very frequently used even with pedestrian traffic.”

Over the past decade, entrepreneurs and designers started moving onto the street that, though central, is not a main thoroughfare of the Polish capital. As a result, it has morphed into a place where Varsovians — as natives are called — and expats alike know they can find gems of Polish creativity.

Not far away is Lilou, a jewelry shop that first opened in 2009 on Mokotowska Street, and now has branches across Poland, Germany and France. The shop is known for its affordable create-your-own charm bracelets, and this autumn the brand released The Scarf Story 48.4, a hand-stitched scarf in red and white emblazoned with images that Poland is known for. It retails for 459 zloty (about $100).

A few doors down is Beller, which focuses on jewelry handcrafted in Warsaw by local goldsmiths. Their “Your Way” collection allows clients to create bespoke pieces such as pendants, earrings and engagement rings. With a five-day turnaround, customers don’t have to wait long to adorn themselves or their loved ones.

“Our clients are mainly Poles,” Patrycja Procner, Beller’s brand manager, wrote in an email, “but there is also no shortage of Warsaw tourists or simply foreigners who appreciate our designs and show them later as a model of Polish jewelry making.”

There is a particular aesthetic to much of the fashion on Mokotowska Street: well-cut pieces coupled with luxuriant textiles create a quiet sophistication that speaks volumes.

“What is unique here is it is not fashion for the masses, it is not for everyone,” said Katarzyna Sosinska, a social media influencer who works in fashion, while trying on a pair of black knee-high boots at L37, a handmade shoe boutique. “When my friends come from abroad, I always bring them here because the boutiques offer great quality, good prices and are long-term investment pieces.”

Sosinska added that it has become quite fashionable in certain Warsaw circles to wear Polish brands.

Many of those, including tailored basics sold at Mrs. Drama and 303 Avenue to the buttery soft fabrics offered at Wasalaa and Bunny the Star, happen to have been started by women.

“I think they drove each other,” wrote Joanna Trepka, co-founder of L37, in an email. “One succeeded, others saw in her a good example and also wanted to change their lives.”

She added that small fashion businesses in Poland, many with their boutiques on Mokotowska, were also very conscious in responding to the needs of clients’ desire for ethical and responsible fashion.

“It is an added value that the customer feels and appreciates,” she said. Trepka added that when the war in Ukraine first broke out earlier this year, a number of shops, cafes and boutiques in the area banded together to bring food and clothing to the border for refugees.

Food is also quite fashionable along Mokotowska Street.

Bistro Charlotte has long been an institution on the street, known not only for its delicious French-inspired breads and preserves, but its long communal table, which was created by Polish designer Tomek Rygalik.

Magda Gessler’s colorful over-the-top patisserie Slodki Slony (Sweet Salty) has been a favorite place over the years for a sugary pick-me-up for shoppers; Gar Nasz (Our Pot), which sells soups, sauces and curries made from scratch, has recently also become a popular stop.

Just a few doors down is the wonderfully named Wloski Maz (Italian Husband), an Italian deli and wine shop that was opened a year ago by Alessandro Vanzi, a native of Turin, Italy. “Absolutely, it’s a great street,” said Vanzi, adding that the camaraderie among business owners was reminiscent of home. “Mokotowska Street is where the real shopping happens.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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