Tomorrow marks the 22nd year of Ukrainian Independence. Coincidently, the country has been making quite a name for itself in the fashion industry for its features on Style.com and own Fashion Week. We spoke with a stylish Slavic trinity to see why this post-Soviet country should be celebrated as the next big fashion destination.
It is 2006 in Ukraine: I’m 17, smoking a cigarette with my friend who is wearing a shirt with a suspicious-looking "Channel" logo. I’m crushing on the guy next to me in knock-off Adidas track pants and Matrix-style sunglasses. A woman briskly walks by wearing shiny white leather boots with sky-high heels, zebra-printed leggings, and a cheetah-pattern coat with silver embellishments. It seems like this country has an obsession with brand names and shiny objects: even our thin cigarette packs read “Glamour”.
Fast forward six years later to October 2012, when I found myself in a very different Ukraine than the one I experienced while chain-smoking next to a provincial bazaar: I was at Mercedes-Benz Kiev Fashion Days, photographing street style for Women’s Wear Daily. Surveying the attendees dressed in a mix of Ukrainian and Western designers, it seemed as if the influence of pallid Soviet Union uniforms and the animal print combinations from the influx of Western culture in the early '90s had faded. Out with the glitz, it was apparent that a new generation was conquering the fashion scene and making Kiev, Ukraine a fashion capital in Eastern Europe. I snapped away.
The “little country that could” is now a force to be reckoned with in the fashion industry. Over the years, the country has been loosely translated to mean “on the edge of something big [Russia]” and has been overshadowed by Russian culture. Yet, Ukraine has been successfully cultivating its own identity in the fashion world since the late 2000s.
The country’s transition into a new generation of fashion started when Kiev-based journalist Daria Shapovalova launched a television show in 2007 called “Fashion Week with Daria Shapovalova”, in which she interviewed everyone from Anna Dello Russo to Christopher Kane, airing in both Russia and Ukraine. “The first big step for fashion in Ukraine was probably when my TV program was released, because we were the first to say that fashion was not a ‘social life’”, says Shapovalova. “People thought that a ‘social life’ was fashion, but it is only part of the fashion world.” In 2010, she launched Kiev Fashion Days, which became Mercedes-Benz Kiev Fashion Days in 2011. “We decided to launch Kiev Fashion Days because a lot of young designers approached us, wanting an international platform.” Her site, fashionweek.kiev.ua, launched in 2009, is one of the sole providers of fashion news in Ukraine. It features interviews with local designers and personalities as well as foreign journalists: In April, it ran Shapovalova's interview with the New York Times' Cathy Horyn.
Shapovalova has also created unique programs to support Ukrainian designers, such as Fashion Scout Kiev and Design It. Fashion Scout was originally founded in London and Paris to give designers international exposure. “We are representing the whole Eastern European region with Fashion Scout,” says Shapovalova. “It is open to all of the designers from all Eastern European countries.” Daria and her team are also responsible for fostering partnerships with Vogue Italia’s contest DESIGN IT, a sub-program of Fashion Scout Kiev. Designs and lookbooks by Ukrainian designers are judged by a senior Vogue Italia editor.
International programs like Fashion Scout have helped to launch Ukrainian designers, including Odessa-native designer Anna October, onto the international stage. When I viewed October's collection in October 2012 in a pop-up showroom in Kiev, she told me that she was sleeping on her couch in her production studio back in Odessa. A year later, she is showing her collections in showrooms in London thanks to Mercedes-Benz Kiev Fashion Days and Fashion Scout, and says she has received a “big response.” Her collections are now sold in concept stores and have been featured on the sites of British and Italian Vogue.
In May, the country received its own Vogue, an important recognition from the international fashion community. From a cultural angle, Gareth Pugh and Prabal Gurung both cited the Ukrainian Amazonian community, Asgarda, as an influence in their Fall 2013 collections. A few months later, Shapovalova took the opportunity to travel to Lviv with Masha Tsukanova, the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue Ukraine, to interview the leader of Asgarda. She later published her experience on Style.com’s newly launched “Fashion Map.”
“I decided to work with an international audience and speak in English to be more recognized in the fashion world because when you are doing something for only Ukrainian television, it is too small,” Shapovalova explained. Additionally, Shapovalova is a video director for NOWFASHION, covering fashion weeks and helming their Fashion Insiders series, in which she interviews everyone from a buyer from LuisaviaRoma to the calligrapher of a Balmain invitation.
Even the modeling world in Ukraine has transformed. Still famous for exporting leggy girls to the US and European runways, the Ukrainian modeling industry is becoming smarter and more refined. Alla Kostromicheva, who has walked for Alexander McQueen and has shot campaigns with Steven Meisel, is also the founder of the Kiev-based modeling agency, K Models. “After a year, we have about 30 models. We really wanted to do something different than what market has already. I teach girls everything that I have learned — unfortunately I didn't have anyone to help me understand how the business worked,” says Alla. “In this business there are a lot of hard moments, so I want them to be ready to understand what they need to go through to make it in the business.” Aside from her modeling agency, Alla is the face of Mercedes-Benz Kiev Fashion Days.
Ukraine has come a long way since 2006, and even since 2012. I still remember helping Anna October shovel her collection into a taxi two hours before her show. She was alone and without a team, peeking out from under her dresses in the back seat, telling the driver to hurry up so she could prep her models. It took a little while, but we finally got there.
Ukraine may still mean “on the edge of something big”, except now it's not Russia--it's fashion.