SEVNICA, Slovenia >> On days when Melanija Knavs could not play outside or grew tired of knitting her navy blue sweaters, she and her friends would exchange notes along the lines of yarn they strung between their apartment block balconies.
In clear handwriting, Melanija mused about the boys of her dreams.
She could not have seen what was coming. Melanija Knavs is now Melania Trump, and she is one election away from being the first foreign-born first lady since Louisa Adams. She is to address millions of Americans on Monday night in a televised speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
But interviews with her former classmates, friends of her family and others who knew them during her youth in Slovenia suggest that her transformation owes less to chance than to the Knavs family’s determination to seize openings and avoid getting stuck.
Her father, a larger-than-life personality who reminds her childhood friends of Donald Trump, belonged to the Communist Party, an exclusive club whose members sometimes joined because of career ambitions as much as ideology. Her mother, an industrious and striking woman, went from harvesting red onions on her family’s farm to a career in the town’s textile factory. She always found time to make sure her two daughters dressed to impress, sewing clothes for them after her work shift ended.
Melania Trump herself trained her bright eyes on the next thing. Once she left Sevnica for high school in Ljubljana, now Slovenia’s capital, she rarely came back to see her old friends. Once she left Ljubljana for a modeling career in Milan and then elsewhere in Europe, Slovenia receded from view. And once she moved to New York, where she caught the eye of Donald Trump, 24 years her senior, during a Fashion Week party at the Kit Kat Club, she never looked back.
“She tried to find opportunities,” said Damijan Kracina, 46, a high school classmate. “And took them.”
Melania Trump, born in 1970, grew up in this hilly town of 4,500 best known around Slovenia, at least until Donald Trump entered the presidential race, for its medieval castle and annual salami festival. Then, Slovenia was the northern region of Yugoslavia, ruled by Josip Broz Tito, a Communist dictator who kept his distance from the Soviet Union and allowed more freedoms than did other Eastern bloc leaders.
But under Tito, there were clear benefits to being a member of the Communist Party, to which only a tiny percentage of Slovenians belonged. Some inherited membership through parents, particularly if they had resisted the Nazis, as Tito had; others by exhibiting unusual talent.
While it is not clear how Melania Trump’s father, Viktor, joined — available records in Ljubljana simply list him as a member — others from the Sevnica Communist Party mentioned his work as a driver for a neighboring mayor and then for the director of the government-owned textile factory, Jutranjka, across the river, as possible entry points.
While the Knavs, along with Melania Trump, declined to be interviewed about their years in Slovenia, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, Hope Hicks, said that Knavs had never been an “active member” of the party.
Donald Trump, in an interview last month, said he had never discussed the topic with his father-in-law. “But he was pretty successful over there,” he said. “It’s a different kind of success than you have here. But he was successful.”
In 1972, the Knavs moved into a larger apartment in a new housing block for workers of the government-owned textile factory, including Melania’s mother, Amalija, nicknamed Malci. She drew patterns for children’s clothes and later designed them, crossing the bridge to the factory every day in heels.
Viktor Knavs, a traveling car salesman, spent a lot of time on the road. But when he was home, he was noticeable. Friends say he had a jocular personality and a fondness for his Mercedes sedans and his coveted Maserati. Melania Trump’s childhood friends recalled him incessantly washing the cars, but also carrying himself in a self-assured way that now reminded them of Donald Trump.
“Donald and Melania are similar to Viktor and Amalija,” said Nena Bedek, who was close to Melania Trump in childhood, and who added that she was “not surprised” that her friend had married someone similar to her father. “Melania was closer to her mother than her father. Viktor was often away, and Malci and the girls were often alone.”
Social life centered on the school down the block. Melania wrapped her notebooks in magazine perfume ads and kept her knitted sweaters in purple lockers. Friends say that she enjoyed geography lessons in a room adorned with maps of the world, and that she adored art class. The future creator of the QVC collection “Melania Timepieces & Jewelry” made bracelets there. When Tito died in 1980, her weeping classmates threw flowers as a train carrying his body rolled past on the way to Yugoslavia’s capital, Belgrade.
In 1985, Melania left Sevnica, traveling on the narrow roads along the slow-moving Sava River, green from the reflection of the wooded hills, and through coal mining towns on the way to Ljubljana. There she attended the Secondary School of Design and Photography, housed in an arcaded Renaissance monastery.
She lived in an apartment that her father, who had opened a bicycle and car parts shop in Ljubljana, had bought a few years earlier on the outskirts of the city. The building superintendent, Joze Vuk, lived on their floor, and he recalled that Viktor Knavs was displeased that after he had paid for his unit, the government decided to set aside some of the apartments as rentals for construction workers.
“We were all angry because most of the residents were not prepared to invest in the block,” said Vuk, who also owned an apartment. “They were renters of a public property and did not care.”
Viktor Knavs sought to distinguish himself from his neighbors. “He always wore a tie, smart clothes and carried a briefcase,” Vuk said. “You could not avoid noticing him.”
Melania and her older sister, Ines, also stood out, for their looks, their wardrobe and the makeup they put on whenever they left the apartment. At school, Melania kept her distance from peers listening to the Cure or Metallica, Kracina said, and gravitated toward a clique of pop music fans who hung out at the Horse’s Tail bar by the Triple Bridge in Ljubljana.
It was there that Peter Butoln, who prided himself on having Ljubljana’s only metallic blue Vespa, noticed Melania one night among the regulars dressed in bleached jeans and Benetton shirts, drinking Mish Mash (Fanta and wine) and chatting each other up. Now 17, Melania was abstemious and more wholesome than the other girls, he said, and they started dating. He would pick her up on weekends and drive her around on his Vespa, and they would dance badly to Wham in “a nice discotheque” by the cathedral.
Butoln soon went into the army, and, after sending him a friendly postcard in her exact, all-capitals handwriting, Melania started dating one of his friends. “He had a red Vespa,” Butoln said, shrugging.
Melania had also begun a process that would carry her away from Slovenia. In January 1987, the photographer Stane Jerko spotted her and asked if she would be interested in modeling.
She proved somewhat wooden, but “pridna — diligent, obedient,” Jerko said. She told him she wanted to get better. Jerko passed the photographs he snapped of Melania — hair up, hair down, gym clothes, flowing dress — to a Slovenian cultural center, which admitted her to a fashion course for models in the fall of 1987.
Melania’s entire family sensed potential in her modeling. After high school, she concentrated on her career, dropping out of architecture school. (She still claims on her website to have graduated.) On one occasion, Kravs drove his Mercedes to the shop of the seamstress Silva Njegac, hours from Ljubljana, to order leather dresses for Melania that his wife had designed.
In 1992, a year after Slovenia’s independence, Jerko saw Melania on the catwalk at the Grand Hotel Toplice on Lake Bled. Twenty years later, she and Donald Trump dined there with her parents. That day trip amounted to Donald Trump’s only visit to Slovenia.
“At least I can say that I went,” Donald Trump said. When asked if his wife, who he said spoke warmly about her Slovenian youth, hoped for him to see her hometown, he added: “I went to Slovenia. The fact that I even went there was very much appreciated.”
A second-place finish in Jana magazine’s Slovenian Face of the Year contest in 1992 expanded Melania’s ambitions. In a fashion video for a Slovenian label, she wore a skirt suit, exited a plane shadowed by bodyguards and signed papers at the national library. “She was acting like the president of the United States,” said Andrej Kosak, the director.
She would soon Germanize her name to Melania Knauss and become an international model.
These days in Sevnica, where Melania Trump made a $25,000 contribution to a hospital after her 2005 wedding, residents are fascinated by tales of their local girl made great.
The Slovenian news media brings the latest word of the Trump campaign, especially details from a recent article in GQ that revealed that Knavs had, before his marriage to Melania’s mother, fathered a child out of wedlock and then fought attempts to claim child support all the way to the country’s highest court, where he lost. The GQ reporter then began receiving anti-Semitic messages.
“Because of story about half brother Denis, journalist is targeted by anonymous Trump supporters,” read a headline, accompanied by a photograph of a Melania in a plunging V-neck dress, on the cover of the tabloid Svet 24.
Melania Trump’s parents spend much of the year with their daughter and her 10-year-old son, Barron, at Trump Tower in Manhattan or at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., where they enjoy the pool. But they have also brought a whiff of the campaign back to Sevnica, where they now own a handsome house. Alongside the sloping lawn and the beige Mercedes, one finds security guards to turn away unwanted visitors.
In Sevnica, Viktor Knavs has confided in Matej Novsak, his longtime mechanic, and complained recently about Donald Trump’s whiplash-inducing inconsistency.
“‘One time it is this, the other time that,’ ” Novsak said Viktor Knavs had told him. The mechanic said that Viktor Knavs had also said that Donald Trump was unwanted by Republicans and that he did not understand his wealthy son-in-law’s need to pursue the presidency. “‘Why does he have to do it?’” the mechanic said Viktor Knavs had told him.
When told of his in-laws’ bewilderment, Donald Trump said, “They are not the only ones.”
Viktor Knavs is close enough to his son-in-law, five years his junior, to accept his hand-me-downs. A few years ago, Knavs took two of Donald Trump’s leather jackets — one black, one dark brown — to Njegac’s shop in Slovenia for alterations. The sleeves were too long.
Meanwhile, his daughter, who is now a U.S. citizen, has fit well into life with Donald Trump. She has echoed his doubts about President Barack Obama’s place of birth, given his campaign a touch of glamour and domesticity, and fully embraced his extravagant lifestyle.
Mirjana Jelancic, a classmate of Melania Trump’s who is now the principal of their old school, recalled a conversation she had over coffee last August with Melania Trump’s mother. Amalija Knavs told Jelancic that she had asked her daughter what to do with all the sweaters she had knitted as a child. “‘Throw them away,’ ” Melania Trump told her mother, who said she replied, testily, “Come home, pick some out and throw them away yourself.”
Jelancic suggested a compromise. Amalija Knavs now intends to donate those old clothes to a planned exhibit at the school dedicated to Melania Trump, the town’s most famous brand name.