Rather than crush the clothing industry, the Maidan uprising acted as a spur for Kiev’s young creatives. Maxine Boersma meets the designers putting Ukraine on the style map
The words “fashion revolution” have added resonance in Ukraine. Following the country’s own Maidan revolution in February 2014, a pro-European uprising which resulted in the removal of the Russian-leaning President Viktor Yanukovich, the personal has become political. In the newly charged landscape, wearing the national colours of blue and yellow or sporting a vinok (flower garland) headdress announces you as a proud Ukrainian, not just a follower of fashion.
In the time since, Ukraine’s fashion community has been having a revolution of its own. After joining crowds on the Maidan — the hub of unrest — a new-wave movement of young designers and collaborators is bringing fresh iconography to Ukrainian style. Ironically, it’s a style far removed from the cross-stitches of the country’s traditional embroidery or vyshyvanka that has seen a resurgence on the French and Italian catwalks. These designers are adopting new patterns that are far from folkloric.
Plenty of these names are represented at Ukrainian Fashion Week in Kiev, which runs until Wednesday. The event is a triumph of their tenacity: many designers struggled to keep their businesses afloat in the aftermath of the Maidan revolution; others have had to fight negative perceptions about the country. Together, they are bringing a positive message about Ukrainian identity to the world’s buyers, and fusing old and new ideas.
Daria Shapovalova is the curator, blogger and former television presenter credited with putting Ukrainian design on the map. The 27-year-old has been instrumental in promoting Ukrainian design talent, most notably through her initiative Mercedes-Benz Kiev Fashion Days, a twice yearly showcase of design talent founded in the aftermath of the revolution to help Ukrainian designers find global stockists.
“It was always important for me to elevate the image of Ukraine and I am glad we did it through empowering designers,” explains Shapovalova. She is wearing a drop-waisted pale pink dress by homegrown designer Anna K: “Now we have Ukrainian names showing their collections in New York, London, Milan and Paris, and Kiev has become a capital of eastern-European fashion.”
She describes these new designers as belonging to a post-Soviet generation for whom social media has provided urgent inspiration. Many of them came to the world’s attention after the 2014 revolution, explains Shapovalova, bringing with them an alternative insight and an upbeat point of view — far removed from wars, corruption and prostitution — as well as a job-creating industry. She describes Ukraine as “a feminist country” with a powerful tradition of manufacturing. It is also strategically close to Turkey, and its fabrics, and to the fashion capitals of France and Italy.
One of her most significant successes has been Anna Kolomoyets, the designer known as Anna K (or Karenina), who became the first Ukrainian to present a collection at New York Fashion Week last month. At only 20, she was also one of the youngest.
Anna K launched her brand four years ago, following a modelling career. Her quirky sculptural silhouettes and slogan T-shirts quickly found a following, and hers was the first Ukrainian brand to be sold in the French fashion boutique Colette. As of this week, she is also stocked on the ecommerce site Avenue32.com, and today her Kiev-produced clothes are sold in 40 stores in 25 countries. In New York, her “Guest from the Future” collection was dedicated to “modern millennials” and featured one dress of precise white and peach checks, reminiscent of a painting by the Ukrainian-born artist Sonia Delaunay.
“My clothes are for those who are not afraid to look young, no matter what their age is,” explains the designer, who was born in Kremenchug, and attended art school before enrolling at Kiev National University of Technologies and Design. “To be funny, innocent and brave, to admire fashion and everything about it — that is how I see the ideal Anna K girl. It is a mix of Alice in Wonderland and Pippi Longstocking.” She plans to open two own-brand stores this year.
Julie Paskal has a background in architecture and design and her clothes are known for their minimalism. She now has 50 stockists, including Liberty and Dover Street Market, and also launched on Avenue32.com earlier this week. This month she held her first show in Paris, featuring her signature laser-cutting technique. Paskal, aged 26, believes the trauma of the Maidan events ultimately helped shape her business. Following the crisis, during which seamstresses were too afraid to go outside, she established a sewing factory, Schwetz, in Kiev with her partner Vladimir. She now shares production there with other designers.
“Schwetz is not only a factory, it is also where designers develop their collection, from sketches to production to export and lookbooks,” she explains. “We provide the means for consistent output. It’s a place to be creative without the burden of running your own studio.”
Paskal’s biggest hurdles have been the shortage of local fabric suppliers and production facilities with highly trained staff. Scaling production to meet demand, exporting in high volumes and securing a dedicated team to expand the business have also been tricky.
Based near the Olimpiyskiy stadium, designer Masha Bekh, 29, who studied with Shapovalova, sees her work as being worn by “independent, international women in their thirties and forties”. She, too, has had problems finding seamstresses. Meanwhile, 27-year-old Kostya Omelya, a lawyer by background, is wowing a celebrity clientele with his Omelya line of sporty, simple, androgynous clothes; a new collaboration will see his sweatshirts, dresses and oversized T-shirts stocked in the football club Dynamo Kiev’s stores.
With her sights set further afield, Anna October drew her first fashion sketches at eight and went on to study fine art in Odessa. Now 25, the designer is determined to conquer the US market. Already stocked in Browns, Matchesfashion.com and Selfridges in the UK as well as stores in Hong Kong, Seville and Lagos, she says her business grew fourfold between August and October, when girls began Instagramming pictures of themselves in her clothes with the hashtag #annaoctoberladies. Other clients and buyers took notice. She describes her floaty, romantic dresses as offering freedom for women and a new emotional experience — clothes that “let you escape from your castle at night”.
Like Paskal, October sees each of the challenges she has faced — from battles with customs about imports from France and Italy, to having to source leather abroad — as having been forces for good. The biggest obstacle she has overcome so far? Delivering a collection during the Maidan crisis.
“That period was definitely the hardest for all of us,” she says. “But it helped to prove our position as a customer-orientated business as we didn’t delay or make any cancellations — all the buyers received their orders. Considering we were able to produce good quality clothes and deliver them during the revolution, in peaceful times, when everything works properly, we can make amazing things happen.”
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