It has been almost a year since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, leading to immense suffering for millions of people who have had to put in strenuous efforts to protect their families and livelihoods. The fashion industry in Ukraine is known for its wide range of offerings including luxury, bridal and outerwear. However, it has undergone significant re-organisation during this period due to frequent power outages that hampered production, communication difficulties and destruction of cultural monuments. Despite the adversity, these brands have made all efforts to remain resilient by transforming and restructuring their businesses.
Despite the pain and uncertainty, Yana Olenich, founder of the eponymous womenswear label Olenich, says she is stronger than before. Five designers reveal how their personal and professional realities have changed a year ago. “Unity and resistance are ingrained in us.”
The day-to-day life of Gudu creative director Lasha Mdinaradze (who grew up in Georgia, but now lives in Ukraine) doesn’t look much different to him. The country’s emotional state has changed drastically, says Mdinaradze. As Kyiv, its art, its raves, and the people he finds endlessly inspiring, are being torn apart, maintaining a sense of routine has become imperative to his psychological well-being.
Coming to terms with blackouts is still a challenge, but it’s easier to accept considering the conditions faced by Ukraine’s defenders. That’s what drove my creative output and made me focus on making smart upcycled denim and patchwork pieces that tell our stories. There’s even a joke going around in Ukraine about how we’ve beaten procrastination; there’s no time for debating decisions, everything needs to be done right away.
Mdinaradze’s decision to stay in Kyiv was an obvious one—“how could I be in a secure place and tell my team what to do?” He believes that the collective spirit of Gudu has been its most powerful asset as the Ukrainian fashion industry is gaining global recognition. “Our visibility has attracted new buyers, which has brought more customers,” he claims of their increased popularity, supported by exhibitions in New York and Budapest. “The things that scared us before now give us joy. We have goals and we are working hard to achieve them.”
It’s Ienki, it’s Ienki
Since the outbreak of war, Dima Ievenko, founder of this 7-year-old outerwear label, has been based in Milan. Other members of his team are scattered around the world and can be found living in Europe, the US and Canada. Ievenko reflects positively on his label’s ability to adapt and reorganize themselves during a turbulent time. Despite the danger surrounding them, they were able to maintain their staff levels – something which he is very proud of. They specialize in creating optimistically prismatic and technical puffer jackets and have even had the honour of kitting out members from Ukraine’s National Antarctic Scientific Centre. “It was a scary time” says Ievenko, “not just because of potential threats but also for our business success.”
Prior to the war, Ienki Ienki was based in Kyiv. Nevertheless, they have now shifted their production operations to safer areas, such as Ternopil and Cherkasy. In October 2022, the Ukrainian staff of this brand had to confront huge problems arising from nation-wide power blackouts caused by Russia’s actions. According to Ievenko, “Our factories experienced only two to three hours of electricity each day – one hour in the morning followed by a long period with no electricity until another hour at night.” The company has consequently bought and fitted generators that run on diesel fuel. For Ievenko, combatting the circumstances means persevering in designing new products. As he puts it,” This is our battlefield.”
There are six
After her clients fled a war-torn country, Kyiv-based Julia Bogdan, the woman Olena Zelenska turns to for easy-chic tailoring, has moved private fittings online. It has been challenging for a designer who learned her craft from her craftsman father, not being able to interact with her loyal customers, who view Six’s trademark business-cool suits as a form of armor against the world.
It took two months for Bogdan to adjust to the new digital reality and to set up tech-first atelier skills that enabled him to present Six pieces with his usual level of precision from behind a computer screen. Julia is proud of her team’s unwavering dedication and loyalty, seeing as none of them have left Kyiv in spite of the conflict. This united spirit has permitted Bogdan to successfully honor all orders despite the difficult conditions prevailing in Ukraine, something only a few businesses have been able to do which has reaffirmed for him Six’s relevance in the world of fashion.
“We realized that we were worthy of being represented in Europe and we had a lot to show,” says the focused businesswoman, who is using pop-ups in London and Paris to highlight Six’s expert sewing. “We feel seen, heard and respected,” Bogdan asserts, and hopes the same for her peers. In her opinion, it is only the beginning for the Ukrainian fashion industry. It is a time for discovery, and we cannot afford to miss this opportunity.”
In February of 2022 war broke out, prompting Yana Olenich from Odessa to take a daring 300-mile journey alone in her Range Rover, and after three days she arrived at a place of safety in Greece. Longing for home, she made the journey back to Ukraine that same summer and is currently based in Kyiv – the city where her seven-year-old womenswear label’s design atelier is located. “Kyiv’s unshakeable strength drew me back,” Olenich shares via email due to lack of connection and electrical outages; “I had an overwhelming need to be with my team, family and friends. Accepting their sorrows and joys as if I had sworn them a solemn oath.”
Olenich’s resilience is truly admirable; she approaches the difficult tasks presented to her and her team, such as designing a collection by candlelight, and enduring long winter days without heat or running water, in a positive manner. “It feels like I’m gaining a superpower,” she says. The brand’s fall 2022 collection expressed homesickness, while Olenich’s upcoming spring 2023 offering celebrates the relief of ‘arrival’. Entirely produced in Ukraine and featuring breathtaking campaign images from the Kuialnyk Estuary near Odessa, this collection showcases traditional Poltavian handmade embroidery set against an ultra-modern monochrome colour palette.
“Living in your native country is very fulfilling despite all the difficulties we are facing as a nation. We have been brave enough to decide we need a new adventure, a new project that will involve the Olenich universe in some way.”
When Masha Popova arrived in Odessa at 11 years old, having grown up by a railway depot in Podilsk, she could not have predicted the acclaim she would gather. In September 2022, her debut catwalk show during London Fashion Week showcased her Y2K style decorated with denim and influenced by motocross – a reflection of the melancholic mood she experienced when war broke out.
Popova—a 2020 graduate of Central Saint Martins and a beloved figure among Insta It-girls such as Dua Lipa and Bella Hadid—was pleased to find buyers and press taking her seriously. Her collections of skilfully warped and distressed denim, metallic biker jackets and bleached micro miniskirts have been picked up by 13 international retailers, including Dover Street Market for spring 2023. This year, she returned to Odessa, planning to stay with her family while working on the production for her upcoming fall 2023 line which will be an evolution of her current offering. Despite the ongoing conflict, Popova’s parents have grown accustomed to it over time.