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Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.

‘Our Creativity Is Impossible to Kill’

As Ukraine faces its darkest hour, its fashion community is asking the wider industry to act.
Anton Belinskiy Autumn/Winter 2020/2021 fashion show at Paris Fashion Week.
Anton Belinskiy Autumn/Winter 2020/2021 fashion show at Paris Fashion Week. (Getty Images)

Anton Belinskiy, a designer who was shortlisted for the LVMH Prize, is with his grandfather, mother, sister and her baby near Bykhov Military Base in the central Ukrainian city of Vasylkiv. “Just a few kilometres from us, there are explosions, the whole house is shaking,” Belinskiy told BoF. “We pray because we must be strong and support each other. The most important thing is that we are all together right now.”

Days ago, Belinskiy’s studio and production hub in Kyiv was fired upon. He has given no thought to his next collection. “Today, I just want my family and my friends to be alive, and the skies to stop bleeding,” he said.

Anastasiia Martynenko, head of NGO Zero Waste Society, spoke to BoF as she fled with her eight-year-old daughter to the Slovakian border. She, like many outside of the country, has been astonished by the way Ukrainians have mobilised to resist the Russian forces that have invaded their country.

The night before she and her daughter left for the border, she visited a local school in the country’s west and saw teachers making camouflage nets for the army out of old clothes. “Almost everyone is involved in a way. Some people who can’t take guns in their arms stay home and help in the way that is possible for them,” she said. “Some of my colleagues from the NGO are getting medicines into the cities that are occupied at the moment and at the front lines … food as well, because food is almost finished.”

“I just want my family and my friends to be alive, and the skies to stop bleeding.”

Food is on the mind of Julie Pelipas, too, a former Vogue Ukraine fashion director and founder of upcycled suit brand Bettter. She is now in Paris, having left Ukraine in the week before the bombardment began with her husband, children and mother, but much of her family remains in the country’s east. “My family is in danger … they are surrounded and there is no way out, so they stay in the bomb shelter and they are in danger of running out of food and the electricity is cut so they are cold and it’s horrible,” she said.

Wanting to see people and honour the legacy of Off-White founder Virgil Abloh, Pelipas went to the brand’s show on Monday night and came away hurt by the lack of acknowledgement of what was happening in her country, not from the brand, she stresses, but from the fashion community in attendance.

“There are few that realise the scale of the tragedy that is happening. There are others that won’t even speak to me, they turned their heads because it’s out of their comfort zone,” Pelipas said, adding that she returned to her hotel room and cried for hours later that night.

But that’s not all Pelipas has been doing. Along with another Vogue Ukraine alum, Sonya Kvasha, former creative director of the title and co-founder of Baby Production, a creative, casting and production studio, as well as their friend Olya Kuryshchuk of 1Granary, they are working on an online platform that will connect requests for help from inside Ukraine with those outside of the country who are willing to offer support.

“Production has stopped, nobody is thinking how to produce a collection, they are sitting in shelters under bombs,” Kvasha said. “There is no work going on, my collection was supposed to be launched Thursday, but of course that is cancelled, production is destroyed and all the forces that I have I direct to helping people,” added Pelipas, noting that they will be contacting major brands for financial support.

Designer Lilia Litkovskaya, speaking from Milan where she escaped with her two-year-old daughter on the first day Kyiv came under fire, is about to leave for Paris where her label will be part of Tranoi’s showroom and hopes to continue with an exhibition showcasing Ukrainian creativity planned before the war.

“The fashion community has to unite together to show that it won’t stay silent,” Litkovskaya said, pointing out that fashion brands can reach an audience of millions. “They have to call for sanctions on Russia. The fashion community is so powerful, these influencers can show millions [of followers] that Russian propaganda isn’t true, they have to show their followers the true situation,” she said.

Many Ukrainian fashion insiders echoed this sentiment. The most important thing people can do to help right now, they say, is to use their respective platforms to keep attention focused on the crisis.

“The fashion community has to unite together to show that it won’t stay silent.”

Some however, including Dima Ievenko, founder of Kyiv-based outerwear brand Ienki Ienki, want more than talk from the fashion industry. Ievenko, who is currently in Milan and trying to get his 120-strong team out of the war zone (all but six of his team remain in Ukraine at the time of writing), wants the fashion industry to impose its own sanctions on Russia, cutting off the country from the global industry as other major Western companies have done.

“There are catastrophic things happening now. We need to talk and take action,” Ievenko said. “Luxury brands should close their directly operated stores, franchisees should break their contracts. Brands at Paris Fashion Week should all follow the Armani show in Milan and make their show in silence, at least.”

Vogue Ukraine’s fashion editor, Venya Brykalin, who by a stroke of luck flew out of the country for Milan Fashion Week hours before flights were grounded, says retailers in Russia are mobilising, signing onto a collective letter addressed to Western brands, asking them not to sell merchandise in Ukraine via Russian-owned showrooms, or manage PR for the Ukrainian market from Moscow-based agencies.

Vogue Ukraine itself put out a statement Tuesday calling on “all international fashion and luxury conglomerates and companies to cease any collaborations in the aggressor’s market effective immediately.” The statement mentioned several of Vogue Ukraine partners, including LVMH, Kering, Richemont, Prada, Chanel, Hermès and Dolce & Gabbana specifically.

“There are catastrophic things happening now. We need to talk and take action.”

“[It might be] naïve to expect brands to cut off the hand that feeds them… I’m not sure demanding that brands leave Russia will be very effective,” Brykalin said, though he also warned of the moral consequences for those that pursue business as usual in the Russian market. “You can keep doing your business there but this is a nation that will be a total pariah now and if you want to make money from that you have to think about your actions as well,” he said.

Russian designer Yana Besfamilnaya told BoF that many designers there, too, are watching with dread as they see the crisis escalate.

“Russian designers I know, we are all scared, everyone is in shock, people are in a panic. It feels like the situation is getting worse by the minute,” she said. “My grandfather is from Ukraine, many of my friends in Ukraine … are now in bomb shelters, we cry and pray together with the whole world.”

Although concerns for sheer survival dominate the immediate term, looking ahead, large fashion companies and industry organisations could be well-placed to help Ukrainian brands and designers with support funds, mentorships, donations of machinery, materials and more.

“I know designers have put almost all of their resources into new collections they were planning to bring to Milan and Paris, now those resources and samples are frozen, probably not going to get to the showrooms, probably not going to get ordered, not going to get shipped. In a financial sense, many of them are broken right now, so they could use some breathing space,” Brykalin said.

Though no one knows how long this crisis will last, those with whom BoF spoke have unshakeable faith in Ukraine’s capacity to recover from the current situation, including its fashion industry.

“I hope this war will stop and we can go home and start again,” Litkovskaya said. “Our creativity, our bravery, our energy — it’s impossible to kill.”

Additional reporting by Daria Labutina

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