when kiev's fashion underground took paris
How fashion is highlighting the country's ongoing creative eruption.
Anton Belinskiy. Photography Masha Demianova.
In a large white hall inside Palais de Tokyo, two dozen youngsters are sitting around, waiting, chatting, and hanging out. Some are dressed in workwear-style jumpsuits, some are draped in flowing red and blue satin, some cozied up in voluminous sheepskin coats and oversized puffer jackets. Cold Parisian light pours in though glass panels in the ceiling.
It could easily be any other average gallery space — but somehow it also conjures up memories of the toilets of a very fashionable rave, where in the sharp light everyone around is dressed up, young, beautiful, lost in being alive. It could easily be a party, or even a performance piece — but it's in fact the presentation of Ukrainian designer Anton Belinskiy's fall/winter 17 collection.
Anton Belinskiy has been on the radar of fashion press and buyers for a while now. He was nominated for the LVMH prize in 2015, and has showed with Vfiles in New York. In 2016, riding the powerful wave of Ukrainian youth culture emerging post-revolution, he came up with an idea of the One Day Project, with the aim of showcasing the country's brightest fashion talents, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of Ukrainian independence. Supported by Ukrainian Fashion Week, this season he brought the Kiev fashion underground to Paris. Belinskiy has always been enormously inspired by his peers in his native city, but this time the collection was modeled by a global mix of youth from Ukraine, Russia, US, Japan, and local Parisians. At the presentation, they were supposed to be re-enacting waiting in line, but they inevitably got bored and started chatting, jumping around, checking their phones, engaging in impromptu dance performances — you too somehow ended up involved in their games.
The collection brought together a curious mix of references. There were trench coats and shirts inspired by uniforms, slouchy suits, fuzzy knitwear, a sweater with knitted weed leaf, and a perfect red tracksuit. "We looked at Ukrainian national costume," Anton explains. "Especially traditional, voluminous trousers, in red or blue, made out of satin. It's not really typical for the brand but we wanted to keep it authentic — we used it for trousers and dresses. To some extent it's a very cliché Ukrainian garment but that's why it's interesting to reinvent it. We also took shapes of traditional Ukrainian shirts and blouses and reworked them in thick cotton."
"We called the collection 'Exchange.' The idea emerged from the daily life in Kiev," the designer continues. "The exchange rate of the dollar and the euro are connected to literally all spheres of life in the country at the moment. Wherever you go, you come across currency exchange bureaus with these rows of numbers indicating the exchange rate. We were also thinking about larger, global, ideas, like trade, and the market economy. Then some of prints on T-shirts and sweatshirts are the first hryvnias, the ancient, Ukrainian money that was worn as a necklace with detachable parts."
For the youth of Kiev, flickering numbers at currency exchange bureaus could certainly be a source of frustration. The revolution of 2014 brought hope, change, and optimism, but the Ukrainian currency collapsed with civil war and Russian intervention in the country's politics. The economic crisis hit the creative industries especially hard. At the same time, the idea of exchange also has a deeper meaning. Belinskiy, perhaps without intending to do so, managed to bring up the larger crisis of global capitalism, affecting everyone from Americans to Greeks. In today's world the worth of culture, and even of human life, is often decided by dollar signs — Belinskiy is trying to prove that the value of creativity knows no borders.
It has to be mentioned that it's not the first time Ukraine's burgeoning fashion scene has been showcased in Paris. Paskal has a show on the official Paris Fashion Week schedule, and over 50 stockists worldwide. In showrooms around Paris you can also see inventive minimalism from Bevza, statement coats from Litkovskaya, and edgy romanticism from Anna October. But the energy of the One Day Project feels different: it's not about infiltrating the current fashion system; it's about trying to change it. It's about the possibilities offered by a united, creative, youthful energy, and not about sucking up to the fashion establishment.
This season One Day Project included four designers chosen by Belinskiy: Drag&Drop, who makes emancipated sexual womenswear; CSM graduate Masha Reva's take on blending together art and fashion; the dazzling and edgy glamour of Frolov; and Shura Gang, who makes sexually ambiguous menswear. For a week, the diverse crew of designers and coterie of friends and collaborators took over the space of the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in Paris, with a blue-and-yellow flag flying above the entrance.
Under a rare ray of sunshine pouring in from the Center's large windows, Masha Reva is highlighting a model's collarbone with turquoise marker. Reva, who graduated from Central Saint Martins' womenswear MA program in 2015, wanted to escape the intense pressure the fashion system puts upon young designers and find a more flexible creative path through an artistic practice. Her drawings on bodies of Ukrainian youth were showcased at the first installment of the One Day Project last year, and this time she extended the project to clothes. Practical garments such as trench coats, biker jackets, and jumpsuits feature her recognizable thick brush strokes. "I prefer projects like this much more than being a fashion designer in a conventional sense," Masha states. "I don't want to feel obliged to put stuff out every season. I think you have to make your own rules."
Drag&Drop — a label run by sisters Yulia and Anna Grazhdan — turned the space into a corporate office, with obligatory white board and archaic printer. Drag&Drop is an emancipated, sexual, and witty interpretation of the idea of clothes suitable for office work. It's also a step towards dismantling stereotypes of Ukrainian women, with faux snakeskin, thigh-high boots, and lace elevated from tackiness to effortless coolness. "We used these supposedly tacky materials, which we really like, and which are a part of the stereotype of a Ukrainian woman, but tried to make something more relaxed and sporty out of them," Yulia states. "We also write 'sexy' on garments that are the opposite of sexy, like the oversized sweater or loose leggings, and velour sporty dresses."
The fashion system might be undergoing changes at the moment, but for this generation of designers from Ukraine it's not just about fashion, but about the global order. Ukraine is going through its own painful transitional times; the east of the country is still in the flames of armed conflict, but hopes for visa-free travel to Europe, and even joining the EU in future, are high. In the media, Eastern Europeans are mostly portrayed as poor people coming to steal your jobs (such remarks comes from everyone, from Karl Lagerfeld to Theresa May). But the Ukrainian youth are trying to prove that they're more than the poor-but-cool children of the failed Soviet empire. They shun all kinds of elitism, with their ultimate goals being global connection, equality, and team spirit.
"It feels like the fashion is on the brink of fundamental change, and for the emerging brands, the main thing is the ideas, and the team which can bring it to life. The designer can't do it on his own, it's an illusion," Belinskiy says. In Ukraine, the new wave of designers is rising, and united they have power. "It would be very difficult for us, without the One Day Project as support," Yulia agrees. "Of course we have our own special way for trying to make in in the fashion industry, but at least we're all together."
Text Anastasiia Fedorova