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Ukrainian fashion: style on the frontline

Strutting down the catwalk en masse, the models almost resemble a row of marching soldiers. Then the camera cuts to a runway strewn with metal fencing, men and women ending their walks by throwing themselves to the floor as if they have been shot. The YouTube video, titled Ukrainian Fashion Against War, even shows the well-dressed fashion week attendees wearing jumpers bearing the words “Stop regime”. Clearly the militaristic overtones of Kiev’s annual fashion event aren’t a coincidence. This is Ukraine fashion week’s unified response to the political events of the country over the past six months.

That Ukraine fashion week – which culminated on 20 March with a closing party at Kiev’s Vogue Cafe – still went ahead under the looming shadow of Russian occupation came as a surprise to many. But from Kinshasa to Tehran, fashion often finds a way to shine through the cracks of political turmoil. In Ukraine, where a second fashion week begins today, the relationship between the fashion industry and the protesters is particularly close.

“Ukrainian designers are very courageous,” says Inga Vyshnevska, founder of Ukraine fashion week. “Most of them were actively taking part in the Maidan protests. They were producing bullet-proof vests and helping in the kitchens, bringing food, water and medication. Naturally, they were not able to forget these experiences when it came to their collections.”

Aleksey Zalevskiy - Runway - Ukrainian Fashion Week Spring 2014
Designer Aleksey Zalevskiy incorporates fences into his show during the Ukrainian fashion week, during which models fell to the floor as if they had been shot Photograph: Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA

“We would never stand aside because of the events happening in our country,” says Vyshnevska. “Ukrainian fashion designers, through a very difficult time, have managed to produce their autumn/winter 2014 collections. For them and for all representatives of fashion in this country, it was our duty to carry on.” Forty shows, 2,000 guests and 200 journalists later, the event can be classified as a success.

It’s a good sign for Daria Shapovalova, creative director of Kiev Fashion Days. The theme for the four-day event (which, according to Shapovalova, has a more international focus than UFW) is #fashionforpeace. Shapovalova sends over a bombastic press release: “Ukraine’s fashion activists have proved to the world that their work deserves acknowledgement and … Ukrainian brands are reliable fashion partners. This is the new face of Ukraine that Maidan has been fighting for. New fashionable European Ukraine here and now, which is going to emerge as a completely new European Ukraine.”

Her positivity is not without context. Last year Masha Tsukanova, editor-in-chief of Vogue Ukraine, told fashionista.com: “About 15 years ago, after the fall of the Soviet Union, we started to have our first boutiques. Six years ago, we got our first luxury shopping street in Kiev. For the last five years, the market has been rapidly developing. New retailers are coming and brands have finally become interested in the country … I think it is a high time for us to come to the market.” The capital now has a well-known luxury fashion “concept store”, Atelier 1, which sells Comme des Garçons and Junya Watanabe, and Prada launched its first shop in the country in 2012. This market transition, from the local small-trade boutiques to international luxury brands, has been a great source of excitement for those within the Ukrainian fashion industry.

“It’s a country that really is just beginning its foray into fashion,” says Susie Lau, a fashion blogger who has previously profiled Ukrainian designers on her Style Bubble blog. “As such a young country, I like the way they’re approaching fashion in that they are in touch with their traditions – folkloric dress, national costume, etc – and that parlays into their work. They have a fresh view on fashion that isn’t yet saturated with trends dictated by the fashion capitals. It’s still very idiosyncratic.”

Ukraine fashion in London
Design by Paskal, Lara Quint and Krasnilnikova, some of the Ukrainian designers who showed at London fashion week earlier this year

Ukrainian designers Anna October and Julie Paskal are flourishing names, having been introduced to the international fashion week crowds in Paris and profiled by the Financial Times and Vogue. A showcase that followed in Florence this January was “super successful, we were like celebrities in Florence”, according to Shapovalova, and was followed by another at London fashion week.

“About five years ago my team began; I started to travel to other fashion weeks, spreading the word, promoting my country,” says Shapovalova. “I remember being at Milan fashion week and news from Ukraine was everywhere. I was thinking: ‘I am living in a great country and all people know about are the problems.’ I try to change a little bit, but all I can do is change fashion. But fashion can be a way of hope for people. We are one of the biggest countries in Europe. Forty-eight million! At one time we produced a lot of the garments for the Soviet Union, so we still have the factories and manufacturing infrastructure to produce fashion on a large scale. That’s the idea – to get bigger.”

Ukraine fashion: Anna Wintour in Paris
Ukraine fashion: Anna Wintour in Paris Photograph: Daria Shapovalova

Unfortunately, the growth experienced in the Ukrainian fashion sector since 2007/2008 has been hampered by bureaucracy. Most native designers are desperate for Ukraine to join the EU to modernise the customs system. In an interview last year, Anna October said: “We don’t have a VAT system and it makes it a problem working with shops. Being within the EU also makes me hope that corruption will somehow end.” October was forced to reuse material from a previous collection for her AW14 show, because border closures meant she could not import any new fabric this year.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. “All of us have been living in constant stress for the last four months. During this time we have all been deprived of our personal lives; each morning we have been starting by reading the news. All day long we read news. Before we got to bed we read news.”

Even the relentlessly upbeat Shapovalova has her doubts. On the eve of Kiev Fashion Days and the hecticness that it brings, she allows a moment for reflection. “I really hope that the whole tension in the country won’t ruin the fashion business, which just started to develop in Ukraine. That is the biggest challenge of the whole situation – small business is on the edge of death in Ukraine, and we must do everything to save it.”

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