Leaning against the doorway of a Kosovo cafe, I am waiting for somebody named Rita. I don’t know much about her: I do know she’s young, in her 20s, and that she’s one of the first fashion bloggers to come out of the newly independent state. I study each person passing by in the February sunshine, but it’s difficult to pick her out. Everyone I see in Kosovo’s capital of Pristina, is young — around 70% of the country’s population is under 35. And everyone is well-dressed.
Rita Saraqi is part of a growing movement of young Kosovars who are trying to cement the country’s new identity online — one that's youthful, vibrant, safe. Through her blog, she aims to prove that many negative perceptions of Kosovo left over from the 1998-99 war — notions that many people around the world still believe to be true (before I left London for Kosovo, I heard the same piece of advice over again: "Be careful."). It’s been 17 years since Kosovo was locked in conflict with Serbian forces, and eight years since it claimed its independence, but to outsiders, Kosovo is still a land ripped apart by ethnic cleansing, organized crime, and the infamous NATO bombing. And while Kosovo's sovereignty has been recognized by more than 100 countries, including the United States, it still lacks acknowledgement and support from some major world powers (it has, for example, been denied membership to the United Nations).
But inside Dit e’ Nat, Kosovo’s reputation clashes with reality: the idyllic cafe has books along the walls, small bunches of flowers on each table, and its customers (mostly Albanians, who are once again a majority in Kosovo), share conversation over macchiatos.
When Saraqi arrives, she’s dressed in a baggy, striped sweater and choker. She sips on tea and lends some thought to her place among the country's current bloggers. She’s 22 and although her fashion blog, Fishnets and Rainbows has only been running for two years, she says it was Kosovo's first.
Since she launched it, she’s collaborated with local and international brands; she’s fronted campaigns for Mango and Benetton. A career highlight, she notes, was attending Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Berlin, where she was interviewed by two television stations: “It gave me an opportunity to tell people about my country,” she says. “As a blogger, I transmit a message — I tell people about Kosovo and what we are into,” Saraqi, who was born and raised in the country, continues. “Most people know where Kosovo is; they know about our history, but they think it’s not safe here. It’s good for these people to get to know me — I can tell them how friendly it is. I can change their perceptions.” But Saraqi is not the average Kosovar. With a Macedonian mother comes a Macedonian passport, allowing her to escape the crippling visa restrictions that make it difficult for Kosovo’s citizens to visit countries in the European Union and Russia, among others. “If I didn’t have a Macedonian passport, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do," she says. "If I couldn’t travel, I wouldn’t be able to meet people, and networking is a big part of my job."
Blogger Bleranda Citaku, of fashion website Blers World, is not so lucky. “I’ve missed a lot of collaborations because of the visa situation," she says. "I missed Milan Fashion Week." 21-year-old Citaku, who blogs while studying accounting at Pristina University, says sometimes her visa application is rejected, and sometimes she doesn’t have enough time to apply; the application process can take up to two months. These restrictions, however, don’t seem to have impacted her success — she has over 50,000 Instagram followers, compared to Saraqi's 16,000. While working with international fashion brands, Citaku has experienced firsthand other people’s ignorance of her home country: There have been two instances with brands — one Canadian, one Moroccan — where staff did not know Kosovo even existed. If people had heard of it, she says their minds immediately drifted to its unrest in the late '90s. “If someone knows about our country, they have to talk about the war,” she says. “But in Pristina [the capital], that feeling of the war, it’s kind of gone. There are a lot of bad things here, like the fact that we don’t have visas. But there are so many young people, and I think the new generation is really fashionable. There are good vibes, in general.”
Because visa restrictions prevent so many people from traveling outside the Balkan region, blogs and social media have become one of the only ways for young people in Kosovo to tell the world about their country. Fashion bloggers, in particular, are fighting to regenerate the country’s image abroad; whereas international media features Kosovo as a dead end, undermined by high unemployment, violent anti-government protests, and mass migration, Saraqi and Citaku unveil a different side of Europe’s newest country. On their Instagram accounts, they set street style shots against a local backdrop, giving their international followers a look into daily life in Pristina — one that's filled with, like many other major cities, parks, nightlife, and flea markets, and is not consistently plagued by conflict. With no established bloggers inside the country to look to for inspiration, though, Rita and Bleranda are exploring unmapped territory. But they aren't just tasked with educating Kosovo, its companies, and its people about how this world works — they're tasked with using their platforms to sway outdated international opinions of Kosovo: that the country is no longer gray and war-torn. Even more critical than changing outward perception is what they're doing internally: helping establish an identity through style in a place that is currently working to create its own cultural existence through artistic expression. It's that power that reminds the people of Kosovo that the country has such potential to be a style hub, an artistic influencer, and as Saraqi says optimistically, “a happy place."