Gita Balodis Padegs
Hermīne Matilde Spainis was born into a working class family on March 11, 1905. Her mother’s mother was German; therefore Hermīne’s names, ones she never liked, were of German origin. Hermīne’s mother, Auguste, née Liepa, became a widow and was left with her husband’s surname, Staltmanis. She was widowed a second time, and was left with her second husband’s surname Spainis, meaning “bucket”. Though this family name did not please her, she kept it for the rest of her 96 long years. Two more daughters and three sons were born into the family. Both girls died quite young, and so Hermīne grew up with three brothers.
Although her brothers chose simple jobs, Hermīne (Herma, for short) exhibited a thirst for knowledge at an early age, and worked to educate herself without encouragement or assistance from others. Her intelligence and potential were noticed by teachers at primary school, who advised her to get further education. “I sold my books and with this money entered secondary school.” At that school Herma acquired not only a valuable education, but also found friends who helped her develop a career.
Herma’s mother was a seamstress, who taught Herma to sew. Herma remembered that already at the early age of five she designed and made clothes for her doll, and then displayed them to passers-by at the flat’s window. She also made clothes for herself and thus her appearance caused her to stand out among her peers. Herma’s talent was noticed by her teachers and her friends’ parents. At secondary school Herma’s clothes, looks, inner elegance and bearing offered her greater social possibilities.
While still at school, Herma started serious creative work. She received many orders, at first from friends, then from their mothers, and soon Herma’s abilities became apparent in wider circles. A fashion show of her work took place at hotel “Roma”. After graduating school she hired assistants that did the sewing. She could then devote herself to creative work: the drafting of ideas, the making of patterns, the purchase of fabrics and the fitting of clothes. Herma’s employees included young apprentices – girls from poor families, who were training as seamstresses.
Herma met her future husband – architect Paulis Balodis – in Sece, where they spent their holidays in neighbouring homesteads. Paulis spent his vacations at his mother’s country home in Šteinfelde Manor (later known as Lauri), hosting parties for his friends and colleagues from Riga. Herma summered at her cousin’s homestead “Dailes”, which was located next to Šteinfelde. Herma and Paulis married at the beginning of 1934. A rich and beautiful life began with a happy marriage, children, trips and successful careers. Daughter Gita was born in 1934 and daughter Inta in 1942. They moved to 7 Antonijas street, where “the sun was always shining”, because the building had large windows that overlooked Andreja Pumpura street and not into another building. Herma used this flat partly for her work.
This happy time was very short. When the Red Army invaded Latvia, the flat was commandeered for families of Russian officers, leaving little room for the Balodis family. During this period Herma could not work, because she had neither the space nor the energy needed for creative work. During the German occupation that followed shortly after the Red Army invasion, the family regained their apartment and Herma could work again. However, circumstances became increasingly turbulent and it became necessary to work with only one assistant; finally Herma realized that they would have to leave this home and this life. Strongly urged by her cousin – the owner of “Dailes” –, the Balodis family and Herma’s 66 year old mother left Riga by freight train on September 23, 1944.
The family fled as far from the siege of the Red Army as possible, and decided to stay in southern Germany in Memmingen. Paulis soon found a job at a German architectural firm, and Herma made clothes for German ladies. The fact that the whole family spoke German well was of great help. In Memmingen there was a German army air base, which suffered numerous air raids during the war. After the war it became a Latvian Displaced Persons camp. Although initially the Balodis family was enthusiastic about the camp, soon daily life with five people in a tiny room became too hard for Herma. Her mother had a difficult personality. Thanks to the help of a client, the family was able to move to a DP camp in Sillenbuch near Stuttgart in southern Germany. There were no big barracks in this camp, but consisted of small private houses. Although each house accommodated several families, this was considered to be a “luxury” camp. The Balodis had one quite spacious room with a French window opening onto a garden and a small corridor, which was Herma’s mother’s space.
On March 23, 1949, sponsored by a client, the Balodis family arrived in New York. The sponsors were Herberts and Ziedone Tauriņš, who offered the new immigrants the use of their beach house. The Balodis spent a short time in these pleasant accommodations. Paulis soon got a job at a renowned New York architectural firm, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, though he could work only as a draftsman, because he did not have an architect’s license in the US. The family moved to their own flat. Herma occasionally accepted orders, creating evening dresses for the New York social elite, who were introduced to her by their maids, often former Herma’s clients. Gradually the flat in New York was furnished like the one in Riga – with big mirrors and antique furniture.
Although Herma received several job offers, even from Bergdorf Goodman – a highly respected fashion store in New York – and from fashion designer Valentino, she did not accept them, because she feared that others might copy her ideas. Herma’s aim was to get into the upper echelon of American fashion with a complete collection of her work which would show her ability and uniqueness. Herma strove to organise a fashion show of her work, and she worked long hours with one assistant on preparing it. When Herma was satisfied with her collection, she invited a journalist from Women’s Wear Daily (the leading newspaper of the US fashion world), for whom her daughter Inta modelled this work. Unfortunately the article did not result in the intended success. At that time Herma would have benefitted from a knowledgeable and enterprising manager.
Herma grew more and more depressed about the course of her career, but could not alter its direction. She still accepted a few orders, worked for the family, taught both her daughters to create and make clothes. But the last stage of her career was not successful, for she lacked the necessary understanding of New York’s world of fashion. Clothing is the only thing we take with us on the trip from which we never return. On October 17, 1966, Herma died of cancer at the age of 61.
Throughout her life Herma was the strong, wise and sensible member of the family; friends and daughters’ friends remember her as a noble, elegant lady. Unfortunately she never regained in New York what she had achieved in Riga. With an exhibition at the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation (2007) work by Herma Balodis returned to Riga. This exhibition became her intended, but unrealised fashion show.
The website – Fashion. Garment. Destiny –informs visitors, especially young fashion designers, about the fashion of one Latvian designer from 1925 to 1965. Clothes that can be seen here have been preserved for decades and returned to Latvia, to form the collection by Herma Balodis at the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation.