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a fashion revolution: how ukraine’s designers took on paris

Days after the massacre in Kiev, a group of Ukrainian designers were counting the hours from their showroom at Paris Fashion Week. That was until Sarah Mower stepped in.

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As the women’s shows set sail last February and once again occupied the minds and bodies of fashion folk around the world for four entrancing weeks, a revolution was brewing in Ukraine. Overwhelmed by the workload of the fashion weeks, my colleagues and I had all but forgotten the escalating tension in the Eastern European country until news of the massacre of protesters in Kiev dropped like a terrifying wake-up call, making fashion week seem like some kind of surreal parallel universe. Sarah Mower MBE of US Vogue had been following the situation closely for months via emails with her friend Daria Shapovalova, the organiser of Kiev Fashion Days. In Milan, Sarah told me about her concerns for the group of talented young designers she had met through Daria, and what the political conflict could mean to them professionally. A few days later in Paris, she took me to see Julie Paskal and Anna October – two of the Ukranian designers, who were up for the LVMH Prize – and what had merely been a CNN news story to me suddenly became reality.

“They had come to Paris to sell and were marooned there while their families were back at home,” Sarah says, months after the shows. “Julie has a child and was really terrified, and yet they got into the LVMH showroom, and there they were, meeting everybody from Delphine Arnault to all the designers at LVMH and all the press. And they…” Sarah pauses. “God, how they did that without falling apart I just don’t know.” Speaking to Julie and Anna and the other Ukrainian designers in the showroom, and realising how the situation in Ukraine was affecting these modern, Western-minded, well-spoken, and very talented young designers, was upsetting and scarily enlightening all at once. We spent the rest of the evening watching CNN at Sarah’s hotel, trying to process the experience. “We worked without any days off, and news from the barricades was heard from every corner of the studio 24/7,” Julie Paskal recalls, now back in Kiev. “It made a real moral and emotional impact on us.”

Coming from the Western world, a part of you automatically assumes that fashion created outside our discerning borders won’t be up to scratch. What made the situation in Ukraine seem so much closer to home that night in Paris was the fact that Julie and Anna’s work could just as easily have come out of London. Inspired by the architectural Suprematist movement of the 20s, Julie’s autumn/winter 14 collection for her label PASKAL turns skyscrapers into perforated, milk-white garments, creating a kind of futuristic Modernism that doesn’t look like anything else, while Anna October has carved out her own slightly gloomy and very intricate niche of what Mower calls “non-flashy, elegant party dresses”. “What really surprised me was that they’re all completely fluent in English and highly educated, all from art school backgrounds,” Sarah notes. Back in Paris, I couldn’t believe how incoherent the mentality of these designers and their work was with the appalling events happening in their homeland.

As designers, Julia and Anna and their peers from Kiev don’t just stand out in the industry for being Ukrainian, but also for being an all female designer community. During the major protests in February, women made up a predominant part of the frontlines in Kiev. “There was this real sense of female equality, which we don’t have here. I don’t know if it stems from their history of communism. They’re politically strong and motivated, and literally ready to go out and fight on the barricades,” Sarah says. Julie tells me her country’s female empowerment is a question of history and necessity. “Ukrainian women are truly emancipated and brave, and actually very dynamic in their activity. For ages women were working even harder than men and now the situation is probably similar. I’m not just talking about housewives, but about girls and women that have to work to provide for their families, sometimes without husbands or help from the government.”

While the shows marched on in Paris, the situation in Ukraine was changing by the minute. Concerned for the designers’ wellbeing and the future of their businesses, Sarah arranged a last-minute reception in their honour. “I called all the people I know and I was astonished that they all came, even though it was on the spur of the moment. That’s one good thing about our industry: it can be very supportive,” she says. That night, all eyes in Paris were on Ukraine for all the right reasons, and for the designers it meant way more than just a few hours in the spotlight. “I was talking to Anna Wintour, who told me the latest news from Ukraine,” Julie recalls. “For me that was a critical moment. That’s when I understood the whole situation: that finally everybody knows Ukraine is not Russia. I was happy because I was representing my country in Paris. Everybody was talking about Ukrainian heroism, everybody was sympathising and worrying about our fate. I’m proud to be a small part of my great nation where we can defend our right to be free and happy.”

For the designers, Sarah’s reception provided a brief moment of escapism, but also a beacon of optimism for the future of their labels, and for their country. “We aim to build the new image of our country internationally though our work. And now is a very good moment for that,” Anna October says. She tells me the reason Ukraine produces fashion talent of Julie’s and her calibre is the same reason they put on such brave faces back in Paris. “We are very passionate about what we do, and there’s something in our mentality that makes us strong and forward-looking,” she says. “When your country is on the brink of war, it is the worst and the best pressure simultaneously,” Julie notes. But for the Ukrainian designers, success isn’t just a question of flourishing creativity in times of hardship, but also a question of their country’s future economic ties, which could determine their commercial viability on the Western market. “Which is why I was so delighted to get an email from Julie this morning saying her collection has been bought by Colette,” Sarah says. “Those girls are so, so, so determined. They really deserve to succeed.”