inside kiev’s underground fashion revolution
To coincide with Ukrainian Independence Day, and 25 years since the fall of the USSR, young Ukrainian fashion designer Anton Belinskiy staged a project that united the city’s young designers, musicians, and artists, to launch his spring/summer 1...
Photography Christopher Nunn
In Kyiv (as the locals spell it, Kiev being the Russian spelling, understandably out of favour now), in December 2013, as the protests against President Yanukovych grew and grew and coalesced around the city's main square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Anton Belinskiy took pieces from his latest collection, a Ukrainian flag, and some traditional items of Ukrainian clothing into the square for an impromptu display, as his own form of protest. The images are serenely beautiful, the model's expression a mix of innocence, steeliness and melancholy, flanked by a barrier of riot police.
In the following months the demonstrations intensified, and what originally started as a protest against the President's decision not to ratify a treaty proposing closer integration with Europe became a large, violent, patriotic revolution against the corruption and venality of the country's political elite and its ties with Russia.
By the time the President had fled the capital in February 2014, amid a vicious clampdown by the country's security forces, whose snipers opened fire on the massed protesters in Maidan, killing over a 100 of them, Ukraine had become a symbol of a new cold war between West and East. Images of the square became a shocking motif that flashed across the world on TV broadcasts and newspaper frontpages. In the aftermath there were pictures of Maidan reduced to a heap of smouldering rubble and ash, interspersed with images of violence, the dead, armed police, activists throwing anything they can at them, activists manning barricades, giant crowds, people draped in the yellow and blue of the flag.
The revolution brought a new government yes, and a promise of a more hopeful future, but also new conflicts with Russia, civil war in the country's east, a financial crisis in which many lost their jobs. The past few years of Ukrainian history have defined by a state of flux, but out of the ashes of the revolution though, a new Ukraine is being born.
In Kyiv, on the eve of the country's Independence Day (a celebration of 25 years since the collapse of the USSR), Anton Belinskiy, fresh from his LVMH Prize nomination, is staging what he's called a One Day Project; a celebration of the youthful creative energy flourishing in the city. "In many ways, the revolution changed every person who experienced it," Anton explains, of the impact the revolution had on his work and life. "It changed everyone who was there, it couldn't not change you, to experience that. I started to love Ukraine more."
This new generation rising up in the city are political (and also patriotic) in the way that everyone in the country has suddenly been forced to be political. Creative, in that crises often breed creativity, and inventive out of necessity; there's few jobs, less money, less infrastructure. The revolution and ensuing crisis seems to have formed them, giving shape to their creative impulse, the conflict has made everything harder, but has allowed them to find something bigger to respond to.
For Anton specifically this has manifested itself in collections that have grappled both with his country's history as well as its present. In a fashion age where the "Post-Soviet Cool" of Gosha Rubchinskiy and Demna Gvasalia's Vetements is a dominant trend, the phrase has a deeper, more insidious meaning in Kyiv, a city engaged in a battle of dismantle its Soviet past and a find a new future, no surprise, with Russia's current occupation of Crimea, and support for the rebels in the Donbass. So in Kyiv they're renaming buildings, streets, pulling down monuments; Lenin Museum is now Ukraine House, and they're planning to pull down the USSR-era friezes that line its outside walls; the Russian-Ukrainian friendship statue is also scheduled for demolition, and is covered in pro-Ukrainian graffiti.
So, taking from history, he's reclaimed the abstract Suprematist shapes and patterns of Kazimir Malevich, a Ukrainian-born Polish artist, usually identified as a bastion of the culture of the early USSR, into his work; and in a time when fashion could be seen as a luxury, he's remained socially engaged, donating proceeds from previous work to orphanages in the country, and using his collections as a rallying cry to the city's youth, using slogans to call out a galvanising messages like "Everyone is an Artist", or "Art Must Renounce Yesterday", or what could indeed be the slogan for the city's scene itself; "Poor But Cool". Even with the political trouble on his doorstep, and all the associated difficulty that means for importing, exporting, and generally running a business, Anton's managed to break out in a way few Ukrainian designers before him have. He showed with VFILES last season, picked up an LVMH Prize nomination, and is stocked across the globe, from LA to Korea.
Despite being of the same generation and from the same geography as Gosha and Demna, it's a more apt comparison to say Anton's clothes bear more relation to the youthful freedom of someone like Simon Porte Jacquemus in their use of shape and colour, and playful, rather than destructive, deconstruction. As Ukraine get's over the worst of its recent history, the immediate danger subsiding (in Kyiv at least) Anton's One Day Project feels like a sign of something more hopeful on the horizon, a feeling aided by the beautiful sunshine that envelops the city during our stay there.
"It's a local story, local in a good way," he explains, of the project's ideals. "I wanted to make something cool for Kyiv, not something worldwide. There's been a growth in music, culture and art here recently, I wanted to connect it all together, the music, fashion, the young generation... Everything we're doing needs to go together, otherwise it's fake."
The crisis and revolution certainly pushed the city's creative scene forward, out of exigency, and there's a unity that comes from shared precarity. There's little room between the underground and mainstream to maneuver in, especially for fashion, where most of those who could afford it often don't shop in Ukraine, and those who do, don't often support Ukraine's young designers.
Fashion education in the country is still based on a Soviet model, i.e. very practical, but not particularly business-orientated, and with little emphasis on creativity or self-expression. So everyone here who's a designer can actually design, cut-and-sew and tailor and make garments, and the revolution provided the shock that galvanised a dormant creativity, but the business side is what is still lacking, although the British Council in collaboration with Ukraine Fashion Week (who also supported Anton's One Day Project) have been working in Kyiv on a project called Fashion DNA, providing workshops and classes for emerging designers.
But there's a freedom to be found in not stretching out towards a commerciality that doesn't exist, something that manifests itself in expression instead. Everyone has something to say now, and are finding various ways to say it. Which is what Anton's One Day Project shows. "The project is a story of friendship," Anton says. "I wanted to bring all my friends together, the people I like and work with and hang out with, I wanted to bring them all together in one project, for one day, as a celebration of the city."
Alongside Anton showing his own collection at the Palace of Sports, he's distilled the city's art, fashion, music underground into a day of activity, that starts in a city bar, Okno, that serves as one of the scene's local hangouts. Okno, tucked into a courtyard in between apartment buildings, is the stage for Subrosa, a newly launched brand by Russian artist ex-pat Sasha Vasin who moved to Kyiv a few years back. The collection is inspired, she states, by memories of school days and hanging out after school. There's an East Bloc Riviera feel to it, a subtle, pastel nostalgia; there are delicate pink oversized jumpers and 70s, almost disco cut suits on boys, and girls in grey and black, baggy hoodies and layered slip dresses. There's wafts on retro Russian pop and French ye-ye tunes drifting out the bar's stereo, add the youthful feeling is accentuated by the models playing ping pong, stopping to lounge around and smoke the pink Sobranie cigarettes left amongst roses on the bar's table, or to drink the traditional Ukrainian red berry lemonade given out to guests.
A different approach is taken by Drag & Drop, another new brand, run by two sisters, Anna and Yulia Grazdhan, but of a totally different ethos and aesthetic. Their presentation, taking place in the city's Fund of Culture, housed in an old, pre-Revolutionary aristocratic palace, a suitable, beautiful, location. Drag & Drop delights in a playful sexy femininity, there are no models, instead the clothes are strewn across the palatial room's furniture, as if discarded in a moment of passion. There's lots of lace and a splatter of glitter, and a romantic, listful, piano soundtrack, but equally there's an interplay between what's hidden and in what's plain sight, beyond the slips and underwear, there are trench coats of the kind you imagine the designers desire you to wear nothing else under. It's about freedom and independence, the sisters suggest, the ability to move from the city's streets to a party to a lover's bedroom.
"The fabrics of the collection matched perfectly with antique furniture and art," Yulia explains, of the choice to host the presentation in the 18th century villa. "My sister and I wanted to showcase the soul of the collection, where we use materials often considered as pompous in a casual, comfortable way." Of Anton's influence she continues: "The project is actually something that pushed us to do this presentation, because this format let us do everything without any compromises, just the way we envisioned everything."
Despite the enviable selection of talent he's chosen to help launch his collection, it's Anton's show, of course, that is the highlight and centerpiece of the day. Staged in a hall of the aforementioned Palace of Sports, a 60s building in Kyiv, built in the style of 30s international modernism; a fitting space for Anton's designs to find their home. The set is draped in ruffled curtains that cast a soft light across the marble-floored space. The main motif of the collection is the rose, as a symbol of fragility and beauty, that flowered across the clothes, in patches and embroidery, on smocks, tunics, shirts, tees, and in two stand-out pieces of simple beauty, jacquard knitted into sweaters.
The rose, for Anton, tells a very Kyiv story. "It's a symbol of youth," he says, "But also, in Kyiv, when there's a graduation party everyone gets drunk, in the squares they go swimming in the fountains, and there's roses everywhere, everyone gives each other roses, roses for students, for teachers, whatever, so the rose is a symbol of the young generation, but also of their graduation."
Beyond this the collection slipped between fragile plays on sculptural volume, and a collision between the utilitarian and the beautiful, and tensions between masculine and feminine. The girls strutting through the Palace of Sports in powerful silhouettes and the men draped in delicate robes. Puncturing these motifs -- a gold suit, gold roses on a little black dress, bright red coats slit right up the back so the whole item trembled as the model strode down the runway -- were a series of t-shirts, hoodies, vests printed with pictures of Ukrainian youth and the cover of a Ukrainian passport, that feel destined for international hype.
"In Ukraine we get passports at 16, and shortly after that young guys graduate from school and have their final year before going to university, entering a new phase of life and coming of age," Anton explains of the passport printed pieces. "The school prom is the essence of this transition, like a ritual of sorts. We experience this day backwards, from sunset to dawn, like every moment of our youth. That's why this time is the most romantic. The rose recurring in prints is a symbol of romanticism, youth, beauty. The prom in summer is also a symbol of blossoming." Hence the roses, too. The passports also tell a more difficult story for Ukrainians today, where visas, even for holidays, especially for work, are hard to come by.
The casting, young girls and guys plucked from across Ukraine and Kyiv's creative scene, were found by an agency Anton supports called Cat B, a kind of Ukrainian alternative to Russia's Lumpen, or Germany's Tomorrow Is Another Day. "It all started with the cast," he continues, "These cool, young, beautiful, people, the inspiration was to bring them together, the people really inspired the collection. The casting shows a new Ukrainian attitude. Mostly, the clothes I design are the clothes that I would want my friends to wear, I want it to become like a uniform for the people of Kyiv."
After the show, as night falls, the crowds head to an arts space on the banks of the Dnieper, as one of Anton's old friends, Masha Reva, who studied at CSM before relocating back to Kyiv, presents a new project with photographer Armen Parsadanov. They took the beautiful girls and boys of Cat B, and on first meeting them, Masha used their bodies as canvases, reimagining them as space for paintings. The crowd from the show mill around; there's a definite influence of Gosha on the way the people, boys especially, dress, though that's hardly unique to Kyiv right now, and maybe makes more sense here than on the streets of East London. There's an inescapable beauty, coolness and energy to the people assembled here, many decked out already in clothes from Anton's collection.
The final element of the day is Lybid Locals, another new brand, set up by a group of Anton's friends (one of whom walked in his show in a gold suit, bare chested, with a homemade Gosha Paccbet tattoo on his chest). Anton, is in a way, a kind of godfather, supporter and patron for the younger generation. His One Day Project galvanising people into activity and realisation of projects, as well as drawing in the spotlight on them.
Backstage, the crew behind Lybid Locals argue and swear at each other in Russian, as they put the final touches to their show. Down on a pier jutting out into the river, they appear, only proclaimed by shouts, and in almost total darkness, lit only by the glares from friendly iPhone lights and flashes of camera bulbs, present their works. Their collection is a brilliant glow of energy and all white everything. They spray paint a flag, before scurrying off up a waiting fire escape, in a kind of anti-professionalist, refusal of publicity, to amused laughter.
Back inside the port building, Slava, the man behind Ukraine's new underground party Cxema, DJs. Cxema is a very-Kyiv-right-now story; Slava lost his job after the crisis, and simply bored of not having anything to do, started putting on parties, in old skate parks, under bridges, islands on the city's outskirts, anywhere he could find room to put up a sound system. Cxema is more than a simple party, but like the best parties, is a form of communal escapism from the world around you. An idea as much as a mere disco.
Which could really sum the scene; engaged in the impact of their work in the world around them, and it finding its place in a brave new world being carved out, finding a semblance of freedom and youth. Things take on more resonance (especially for an outsider) in times like these, so it's not enough to merely do anything, you have to do something. "Clothes get outdated it's the idea that stays with you," Anton says, as a way of finality. "We don't do fashion we do history," he laughs.
Text Felix Petty
Photography Christopher Nunn