Kyiv stakes its claim as a capital of fashion, art and culture
When the pandemic forced fashion weeks around the world to go digital with their runway presentations, the future of physical events was thrown into doubt, with many raising questions about the relevance and media impact of in-person shows. Certainly, there was some truth in the issues highlighted by those who used the opportunity to criticize the often unsustainable excesses of the golden days of the catwalk. However, there were also those who fervently defended physical shows as events imbued with an added value that would be difficult to substitute. Somewhere in between these two camps arose multidisciplinary creative platform "Kyiv Art & Fashion Days," an initiative that blends culture, fashion and emerging talent, all while shining a spotlight on the art scene of a charming capital city about which many in the industry are still woefully ignorant.
"This platform venture is essential for this kind of country. Designers from Ukraine and Georgia look to Paris and Milan, cities that are very saturated with offers," explained the founder of the creative project, Sofia Tchkonia. For the entrepreneur, who is also head of MBFW Tbilisi, "we have to leave this mentality behind," so as to create spaces on "alternative scenes" that don't suffer from the same pressures as cities with more consolidated reputations in the global fashion industry, scenes that can generate movements and energies that are more daring and alternative.
"We have to make people come to these places, discover the local scene and get closer to the creativity of its designers. These talents must be discovered and we have to support them so that they can find a way to present themselves to the world," said Tchkonia, who, following "the success" of its debut, intends to expand the project in its second edition next year.
From emerging capitals to experiential events
This idea of searching for new hubs for the sector was also touched on by filmmaker and creative director of the "Liberatum" cultural platform, Tomas Auskas, during a conference organized at Kyiv's impressive Tsum department store, where he highlighted the potential of "the vivacity of cities that are currently less developed as fashion capitals," such as Kyiv, Tbilisi and Mexico City.
Further to this, in light of the effects of the pandemic, designer and associate professor at Parsons School of Design, Keanan Duffy, pointed out that the crisis could be an "opportunity to rethink" the way in which the industry is run and understood. "Success in fashion still seems to be linked with scaling and selling more products, but, in my experience, artistic collaboration and not being afraid of failure are totally fundamental," he added, emphasizing the value of creativity as a positive response to times of change.
Although Vena Brykalin, fashion editor of Vogue Ukraine, believes that the challenges facing local design are considerable and that Paris, Milan, London and New York will maintain their privileged status as fashion capitals, she insisted on the importance of change after the pandemic. "The big brands will continue to organize immense shows, but emerging labels shouldn't compete in this environment, for questions of budget. They should look for alternatives, either via digital formats or events in emerging cities," she argued.
This niche market of emerging fashion capitals has become Tchkonia's specialty, and her success lies in concentrating talent, developing synergies and creating appealing partnerships with the tourist operations, gastronomy and history of these cities that are less known to the media. The idea is not to create small, peripheral fashion weeks, but to launch platforms for experiences and interactions capable of stirring up curiosity and interest.
The magnetism of Kyiv
"Kyiv is a magnetic city. It attracts creative people and unites their energy into a single, powerful current," mused Georgian designer Lasha Mdinaradze, who is more than familiar with the breath of fresh air that blows through the city's art scene. His love story with the Ukrainian capital, its golden domes and its architectural relics of the Soviet era dates back to 2015, when he chose the city as the base for his brand, Gudu.
His label is characterized by empowered tailoring that brings together references to art and music. Its collection for Spring/Summer 2022 was presented at the historical museum dedicated to the work of Ukrainian humanist Taras Shevchenko, a location that could have been merely anecdotal had it not been for the fact that it established a series of stimulating contrasts that set the tone for the event.
At Gudu, irreverent designs featuring logos reinterpreting the Bolnisi Cross were blended with flashes of nocturnal moodiness that made inevitable references to the city's mysterious fashion club, known only by the name of the street it is located on: Kyrylivska. An heir to Berlin's Berghain, the establishment reflects the enthusiastic and cosmopolitan creative scene of emerging Kyiv. "This event speaks about how art collaborates with fashion and vice versa. It is a great opportunity to bring together different artists in a single platform," added Mdinaradze.
Elsewhere, the Georgian designer's compatriot, Irakli Rusadze, founder of minimalist brand Situationist, also made reference to his homeland with the presentation of his Fall/Winter 2021 collection at Tsum, which featured hand-woven accessories and paid tribute to the traditions of the mountainous region of Svanetia.
Lake Studio, a nature-inspired brand led by the duo of Anastasia Riabokon and Olesya Kononova, presented its own multidisciplinary fusion in the Suzir'ya theater, where it hosted a see-now-buy-now show. The star attraction of this event was a performance from the Dakh Daughters collective, which mixes dialects and instruments with reflections about female identity.
"Our brand is a symbiosis between culture, contemporary art and intellectual fashion," said the designers of their rhythmic and vibrantly folkloric show, explaining that several of their collections are collaborations with artists, illustrators and jewelers. "Our main motivation for taking part in this event was supporting an unprecedented initiative and calling the attention of the public to contemporary art," continued the pair, emphasizing the "educational principle" that their brand has always cherished.
This objective corresponds with that of Avangarden Gallery, where an exhibition fused together traditional Ukrainian music with a dialogue between textile artist specialized in graphical tapestries, Oksana Levchenya, and artisanal brand Guina Project. "By bringing together artists under the same banner, we want to show the modern Ukraine, which is stylish and a little daring, which honors traditions while also challenging them. The Ukrainian aesthetic is always fresh and relevant, despite having its origins in the past," theorized the organizers of the exhibition, which examined the contrast between folklore and the vanguard which informed all of the pieces on display.
This perspective is also shared by traditional tailoring brand Litkovskaya, which mixes designs for modern women with traditional elements passed down through four generations of tailors. Its founder, Lilia, is also the creator of a line that reclaims ancestral carpet-making techniques in order to produce unique coats and jackets, a project that aims to preserve the crafts of the Carpathian Mountains and create jobs for women in the region.
Among the poppier offerings, stand-outs include Frolov, a couture-to-wear brand that has won over A-list fans with its corsetry and artisanal embroidery, as well as Valery Kovalska, a designer who founded her namesake brand in 2010. Responsible for looks sported by Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B and Charlene of Monaco, the independent designer specialized in modern tuxedos and seductive dresses is one of the most internationally renowned figures of the young Ukrainian fashion scene.
"The brand became famous abroad first, which helped develop the business on the local market," explained Kovalska during a tour of her showroom. In particular, she highlighted the brand's strong sales in the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates, two markets which are mentioned over and over again when local designers discuss their major buyers.
The post-Soviet vanguard
Avant-garde and politically-engaged fashion was represented by Georgian art and fashion collective The Fungus, which hosted a performance piece that played with the limits of mainstream fashion. "Clothing is one of the most significant elements of human self-expression. In patriarchal, traditional and often discriminatory countries, clothes become a form of protest and take on the meaning of armor." This was the message explored by the collective in its works, which criticized the industry's "exercise in discreditation." "Fashion takes inspiration from queer and underground cultures and subcultures, but often limits itself to taking the form without its context, so that the main content of queer culture is silenced," said the group.
Counterculture also made its presence felt in Hrishnytsia, a new art fanzine launched by photographer Julie Poley. Aiming to subvert pre-established ideas, the artist, an important figure in the new wave of Ukrainian feminism, chose to organize an irreverent presentation at Star Rhino, one of Kyiv's most emblematic strip clubs. Instead of women performing for the male gaze, however, the club's stage was overrun with liberated drag queens, tattoo artists and sporty dancers, all of whom infused the space with a new meaning. Here again, Kyiv's cultural scene showed how it intends to reply to conservatism and the oppression of women and other minorities: with liberation and innovation.
Now, with the renewed threat of Russian military deployment following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukrainian talent has an even greater challenge to address: continuing to grow despite the turbulent political situation. The necessary guts and fighting spirit are in no short supply. Quite the contrary, they seem to be at the root of this bubbling artistic scene's captivating personality.
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