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NJAL In Eastern Europe
... follow along as our very own Stefan Siegel goes to Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Latvia and Serbia: Part 3 - Ukraine
Kiev is a mosaic capital. An architectural medley of the old and new, it firmly nods to it’s past while looking to the future – this can be seen as modern, glass and steel buildings are dotted throughout the pale yellow, blue and grey buildings of another time. A city of polished domes and golden spires it is humming with a sense of modernization without ignoring the past. After all it is hard to do that with Батьківщина-Мати – or Mother of the Fatherland, a statue visible from almost everywhere in Kiev. This stainless steel commemoration, standing approximately 106 meters tall, recognizes the lives lost during World War II and acts as a continual reminder of the country’s socialist past. At ground level, Kiev is working feverishly to step out of this shadow.
While their political ups and downs are of continuous global debate, Ukraine has always had a relationship with fashion. From exporting models or stylizing the orange revolution, their relationship has been intrinsically Ukrainian. That is until Kiev native Daria Shapovalova, TV fashion journalist and blogger, helped to launch Mercedes-Benz Kiev Fashion Days. Created to be the first ‘truly international fashion event’ in the country, this event brings together established and emerging designers from all over the world and should not be mistaken with Ukraine Fashion Week.
With airport-pickups in Maybachs, a shiny new Mercedes-Benz car-showroom event space outside the city centre and a sponsors wall covered in every notable Western media outlet or affiliated fashion brand, the message is clear: this new event is a countermove to what has been. The new generation of smartphone clutching, Facebook creeping, SUV driving and typically foreign educated youngsters is taking over. Stepping in as event co-organiser and de facto godfather is Daria’s husband, Kazbek Bektursunov, political advisor to City Hall and the former Mayor of Kiev, Leonid Chernovetskyi – also known for his unordinary administrative and political decisions and announcements that have lately been viewed as "bizarre".
Making my way past sponsors’ billboards and VIP-lounges and fearing the worst, I was glad to find the small catwalk, in the centre of the car-showroom, was here to showcase emerging Ukrainian designers. NJAL’s RCR Khomenko and Anna October opened Kiev Fashion Days with exciting presentations. Khomenko who calls herself the ‘patchwork designer’ enchanted the audience with a playful collection that already sparked interest amongst the attending Ukrainian society.
NJAL’s Sasha Kanevski was one of my personal favourites. An effortless, but highly directional collection, catered to his devoted followers in Kiev and Moscow. The underlying concept of functional wear integrated textiles and fabrics from the military and sports sectors, without losing elegance and minimal design. Further NJAL talent such as Ksenia Schnaider and Yulia Paskal confirmed the creativity these talents bring to light in Kiev, while a duo from Odessa were surely the sensational find of my trip. Co-designers Sasha Stukalskaya and Tania Muino started the brand Jealousy earlier this year and presented fantastic prints – based on Dinosaurs – and wooden accessories that were a truly unique find.
The most humbling and equally thrilling experience was on Monday, once most international guests had left Kiev. Equipped with my fantastic guide Nastya, our driver and NJAL’s phonebook of exciting designers, I had the chance to visit these creatives in their homes, in order to gain a better understanding of their background, their goals but also their difficulties. Only aside the catwalk I was able to understand how they operate, and what they would do to change the landscape of fashion and creativity in their own country.
There was Kiev's superstar, Sasha Kanevski, with his business partner Sergey, operating a small business from a tiny flat outside the city centre or Yulia Paskal, who hosted me in her parents’ kitchen. While Anna October invited us to meet in a shop, and Ksenia Schnaider in a restaurant, due to lack of space or because they lived too far outside Kiev. All these meetings and catch-ups made it hard to justify the lavish lifestyle we international guests were treated to, and I wish we could have spent more time to help these designers to follow their dreams.
In a country where the average monthly salary is €237, I was disheartened to hear the price-tag to participate at Mercedes-Benz Kiev Fashion Days was a "symbolic fee" of €2,500. This covers costs for the catwalk, marketing, PR and the international guest program (hence why NJAL’s Masha Reva was taken off our appointments list as she was not one willing to take part...), but does not include models. I was told by the organisers that the models in return would come cheap, roughly €50 per day for the keen-to-be discovered locals – which explains the difference in models we saw on the catwalk; needless to mention the presence of Ukrainian topmodels when part-time designer Natalia Zinko flew in on a private jet to host the closing show of MBKFW for her brand Abracadabra.
We leave with many thoughts, but mostly with a feeling of excitement that despite the stereotyped, predictable cultural and political environment, the talents coming from Kiev and Odessa are strong; strong enough to develop a new Ukrainian identity based purely on creativity, design and a better future. We will surely lend a helping hand and guide them on their way.