Ukrainian Fashion Designers Show Strength, Plan for Next Year

With the war in Ukraine showing no signs of subsiding and Russian forces continuing with drone attacks and missile strikes on infrastructure facilities, organizers of Ukrainian Fashion Week are already exploring alternative countries for designers to show their collections in February.

The seeming disconnect or contrast between destruction and fashion may appear to be glaring to outsiders, but Ukrainian designers and entrepreneurs are keeping with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s dictum that business owners and employers alike continue to keep their businesses going as an act of retaliation and to maintain as much normalcy as possible. His wife, Olena Zelenska, continues to champion the fashion industry and the design community.

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Determined to maintain their businesses, operations and employee bases as best they can despite the ongoing onslaught, 43 Ukrainian brands made the latest installment of Ukrainian Fashion Week international. Thanks to the support of nine other national fashion weeks, starting with Malta Fashion Week in July, these designers and companies were able to spotlight their spring collections on the runway or virtually. Having just completed its 51st season, UFW is the oldest fashion week in Eastern and Central Europe, according to the organization’s head of international communications Yelyzaveta Ushcheka.

Instead of celebrating its 25-year anniversary this year as anticipated, Ukrainian designers and brands have been waylaid by the daunting circumstances. More than 10 million people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February, seeking safety, protection and assistance, according to the U.N. The recent escalation in fighting has resulted in 40 percent of the country’s energy infrastructure being seriously damaged.

“The brands are still working under missile attack and air raids. Some designers have moved to Europe [temporarily] because they have children. But their companies are still based in Ukraine, and some designers have stayed in Ukraine,” Ushcheka said. “They are still making great collections in these terrible circumstances. They are showing Ukrainian courage and resistance through fashion. But all of the people in Ukraine do not give up. They believe that we will win and that we need to carry on and to work.”

Before the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, hundreds of thousands of people worked in Ukraine’s textile industry, including more than 100,000 in the fashion industry. As of 2018, there were 600 designer brands and 300 mass market ones in the country. However, an estimated 30 percent of design companies have stopped or temporarily suspended operations, due to the war, according the UFW. Most of them are expected to resume “after the victory,” Ulscheka predicted.

Some fashion business owners, like Ruslan Baginskiy, and their respective teams have relocated and have moved production to the western part of Ukraine. Other brands have returned to Kyiv after a short stay in Lviv or Ternopil, such as The Coat and Frolov. Several brands have relocated for the time being, such as Dzhus to Poland and Elena Burenina to France. Those who never left and are still rooted in Kyiv include Vorozhbyt & Zemskova and Andre Tan. Both companies have been sewing clothes and equipment for volunteers of the Ukrainian army, while simultaneously crafting their collections. UFW’s founder and chief executive officer Iryna Danylevska is also in Ukraine.

In addition to seamstresses, there are production specialists, stylists and photographers still at work. “With all of the terrible things that Russia is doing now, they can ruin Ukraine’s infrastructure, factories and residential buildings. But they can’t ruin everything. And they can’t stop the work of the designer. That is why we are doing what we are doing now to get this international visibility and support so that their businesses won’t close. The war doesn’t have the right to do that,” Ushcheka said.

Vorozhbyt & Zemskova was among the Ukrainian brands that showed overseas last season.
Vorozhbyt & Zemskova was among the Ukrainian brands that showed overseas last season.

Through its “Support Ukrainian Fashion” initiative, the UFW is already appealing to additional national fashion weeks, seeking support for Ukrainian brands and designers to participate in the next round of shows that are scheduled for early next year. The organization aims to help Ukrainian designers have a presence at the four major ones in New York, London, Milan and Paris. Some Ukrainian designers did so on a limited basis this fall through a non-UFW initiative. UFW organizers had inquired about participating in New York Fashion Week in September, but the cost of staging a group show was too expensive for the Ukrainian team to cover, Ushcheka said.

International support and distribution are more crucial than ever, given the war’s impact on this year’s sales, she said. While Ukraine’s airspace remains closed to civil aircraft for safety reasons and shipping delays having been rampant in many parts of the world for months, Ukrainian brands have higher hurdles to clear than other international brands. Nevertheless, companies are finding workarounds, through the country’s postal service Ukrposhta and other delivery services. In early September, Ukrainian government officials, the European Commission and the World Bank estimated cost of reconstruction and recovery in Ukraine was $349 billion.

Along with Malta, Ukrainian designers participated in varying degrees in Copenhagen Fashion Week, Budapest Central European Fashion Week, Berlin Fashion Week, Transylvania Fashion Festival, Vienna Fashion Week, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Madrid and Brussels Fashion Week, before winding down last month at Vegan Fashion Week in Los Angeles. Depending on the location, Ukrainian resources received varying degrees of financial support. In some cases, all of their expenses were covered, whereas others could take care of everything but public relations and guest management.

“Unfortunately, some fashion weeks said that they could not support us without money, because they do not have the budget for that. But we are hoping for international support for the coming season,” Ushcheka said. “Now we understand that it will be almost impossible to hold this next season safely in Ukraine in February. We don’t know what will be. We think that next season will be held on the international fashion week.”

Some labels were inventive in their presentations. The Coat made a fashion film in the Pyrohiv Museum of Folk Architecture that was shown during Copenhagen Fashion Week. Gudu, Darja Donezz, Kir Khartley and Sidletskiy were represented in different ways at Budapest Central European Fashion Week. In Transylvania, Apsara, Dima Makeev, Panove and Shèezén held shows, and met with representatives of the European Fashion Council, an organization celebrating its fifteenth year.

Brands like Chereshnivska made certain their spring collections would be shown.
Brands like Chereshnivska made certain their spring collections would be shown.

For example, Nadya Dzyak continues to make its signature plisse in Kharkiv, one of the Ukrainian cities that is facing daily military attacks by Russian forces. As fighting has intensified in recent days, companies are dealing with water shortages, as well as the ongoing problem of rolling blackouts. “Nevertheless, everyone is working in Ukraine. When there isn’t any electricity, they pause. When the electricity comes back, they continue to work. Many manufacturers have been buying generators so they can work, when there is no electricity.” Ushcheka said.

The Coat opted for a digital presence at Copenhagen Fashion Week.
The Coat opted for a digital presence at Copenhagen Fashion Week.

In other Ukraine-related news, United24, an unprecedented platform that connects the Ukrainian government with international businesses to unite people and support Ukraine, has raised $201.7 million with the help of such ambassadors as Demna Gvasalia, Imagine Dragons, Elina Svitolina, Andriy Shevchenko, Barbra Streisand and Mark Hamill. Balenciaga and Bang & Olufsen are two of the brands that have collaborated with the platform since it was started six months ago.

United24 was started six months ago to unite people and rally support for Ukraine.
United24 was started six months ago to unite people and rally support for Ukraine.

Separately, an American footwear company Bearpaw has donated 120,000 pairs of winter boots for people who have been displaced by the crisis in Ukraine. The boots are being distributed to families in five regions of the country by USA for UNHCR, the U.N.’s Refugee Agency. Bearpaw’s home city of Sacramento has one of the largest number of Ukrainian immigrants per capita nationwide — 22,000 as of early August. With winter approaching and below-freezing temperatures and snowfall routine in Ukraine, Bearpaw wanted to support the Ukrainian community, a company spokesman said. The San Francisco nonprofit My New Red Shoes rounded up 1,000-plus volunteers to help process the cargo. Through Airlink and their donor and digital freight forwarding partner, USA for UNHCR received donated transportation and logistics services costs to deliver the boots — which were valued at $9 million retail — in Kyiv and Lviv.

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