Far from home, Ukrainian fashion designers showcase their creations

LONDON — For Ksenia Schnaider and her fellow Ukrainian fashion designers, the show must go on despite the war in their country — or precisely because of it.

For much of the last year, Schnaider and her team of seamstresses toiled in their Kyiv studio, even as air raid sirens, drone attacks and power outages took over their lives and made production almost impossible.

Schnaider, 39, fled Ukraine with her husband and young daughter when Russia invaded her country in 2022. They found a temporary home with a British family in a peaceful corner of southern Ukraine. England. But she hasn’t abandoned the fashion business she founded 12 years ago, splitting her time between the UK and Kyiv, where all her clothes are still made against all odds.

“My team needs that sense of normalcy: they told me they want to go to work and have something to do, to support each other, rather than staying hidden at home,” she said.

“We want to show the world that we don’t give up.”

On Tuesday, she and two other Ukrainian fashion designers presented their latest designs in a joint show at London Fashion Week, which hosts Ukrainian Fashion Week as the war drags on and the industry Ukrainian fashion has nowhere to settle.

In the final, they lost while carrying a Ukrainian flag signed by three different military units. Some of those soldiers have died since signing the flags, she added.

It’s a poignant moment that the designer both expected and dreaded, because it is so emotionally overwhelming.

“It’s very hard (…), but of course it’s important to show our unity. We are no longer competitors, we are all united to work for our victory.

The creation continues

Since the start of the war, more than 60 Ukrainian fashion brands have presented their products in cities like London and New York to “create, in contrast to the destruction caused by Russian aggression,” according to Iryna Danylevska, founder and director of Ukrainian Fashion Week.

“Ukraine continues to live. Ukraine breathes, fights and creates,” reads a note on every seat at Tuesday’s fashion show.

“Our London Fashion Week show is another opportunity to tell the world about the value of freedom and the price we pay for it.”

Schnaider, who has dressed celebrities like Dua Lipa, wonders how they can continue. “But for me, it is important to continue producing in Ukraine, to support its population, its economy.”

The catwalk may seem a million miles from the battlefield, but fashion is just one facet of a massive national effort to tell the world about Ukraine, raise funds and raise awareness opinion to what its population is experiencing.

United24, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s official fundraising platform, was behind designer Ivan Frolov’s fashion show at London’s posh Bulgari Hotel on Saturday.

A powerful platform

Frolov, who rose to fame after Beyoncé chose his designs for her recent Renaissance tour and concert in Dubai, knows the power of a celebrity fashion moment and how it can help Ukraine’s cause.

“For me, fashion is not just about clothes, it’s like a very powerful media platform that can sometimes spread messages better than any other industry,” explained the 29-year-old designer.

For its latest show, black-and-white images of Ukrainian singers of yesteryear and a historic video of Kyiv in bloom in summer served as the backdrop for a collection of breezy dresses, sumptuous silk and lace gowns and crystal-encrusted corsets.

Frolov recognizes the apparent incongruity between his romantic vision and the war ravaging his country.

“It is a great challenge to continue doing my job at a time when our soldiers are dying every day on the front line,” he said.

“We cry every day and we continue to sew evening dresses for celebrities and for our customers. Of course, we are waiting for Ukraine’s victory, when we can wear these dresses, he added. But right now, this is the only way we can show how strong we are. Ukraine is a young and beautiful country, with great talents.”

As a reminder of how difficult the production conditions for his clothes were, Schnaider placed special labels on each finished piece. Its customers can scan the tag with their cellphone to hear the sound of an air raid siren.

Difficult conditions

When the war broke out, Schnaider had a team of about 50 people. There are about 20 left, some working in its central store in Kyiv, others packing, producing and shipping its clothes to customers. When the sirens sound, his team puts down their tools and runs for cover. Work has already been interrupted for hours, even all day.

Last winter was particularly hard, when electricity was reduced to just two hours a day, she said. She and her colleagues would try to cram all the work and daily tasks into these precious hours, before returning home to “sit in the cold and complete darkness.”

“It was very depressing, but we kept going and joked that it was the best time management,” she noted.

Other workers and small businesses in Kyiv are as determined as she is to maintain a normal situation, she said.

“In the cafes, the mornings following the drone attacks, everyone was saying: ‘Let’s drink more coffee’ and insulting Russia,” she said.

“They’re all saying, ‘Let’s do it, let’s get back to work.’”

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