Ukraine in the fashion world: national motives on the international catwalk

In today’s world, fashion is not only about beauty, style and comfort but also an opportunity to rethink socio-political processes and global issues of humanity. It is a tool for expressing oneself and one’s position and an integral element of international and national culture.  Fashion does not dictate its rules and laws but reflects everything around us through fabrics, textures, prints, colours, images and coded symbols. Fashion week is not just a week of aesthetic pleasure but a whole year of preparation, artistic comprehension of reality and meticulous implementation of bold ideas into reality.

Ukrainian designers have already become an essential part of this continuous creative flow, and Ukrainian motifs in various interpretations have appeared on the world’s catwalks many times. Read our article to find out how Ukraine has influenced global fashion trends.

Vyshyvanka through the eyes of famous couturiers

Vyshyvanka is an outfit that is primarily associated with Ukrainians. It is our amulet, national symbol and what is more – it is a unique work of decorative and applied art.

Jean-Paul Gaultier was the first global designer to showcase an embroidered shirt on the runway. The French couturier visited Ukraine in 2005 during the Eurovision Song Contest. Impressed by Kyiv’s national cuisine, flavour, people, streets and chestnuts, Gaultier created a collection dedicated to Ukraine, which was presented the same year at Paris Fashion Week.  The sectors of the hall where the show took place were named after Ukrainian cities: Zhytomyr, Lviv, Yalta, Kharkiv, etc. The catwalk was called Kyiv, and the dress models were called ‘Crimea’, ‘Bukovyna’, and ‘Host’.  Most of the clothes were decorated with traditional Ukrainian embroidery.

Anna Wintour, the most authoritative fashion journalist in the world (editor of American Vogue – ed.), claimed that this was the best collection Gaultier had ever created. Later, actress Gwyneth Paltrow graced the cover of Vogue in one of the designer’s dresses with Ukrainian embroidery.

In 2008, the embroidered shirt conquered the Parisian catwalk again: John Galliano, art director of the Dior fashion house, created a collection based on Ukrainian national costumes. The models’ boots were decorated with Hutsul pompoms, and the hems of skirts and sleeves of shirts were adorned with traditional embroidery. Fashion critics called this collection ‘Frozen Ukrainian Brides’. This name was in line with the models’ makeup, created by one of the world’s most famous makeup artists Pat McGrath: light, almost bleached complexion, grey-blue shadows and frosty glitter.

‘We wanted people to cry when they saw it. Our models are a collective image of a bride, a nun and a Madonna. Ukraine has amazing women’s folk costumes. We looked through a lot of literature on the history of these clothes,’ commented stylist Julien d’Ys on the collection.

Galliano has used Ukrainian motifs before, back in 1998. The couturier then designed a collection for Givenchy House with the unusual title ‘The Story of a Ukrainian Bride Who Eloped with Gypsies and a Traveling Circus’. 

In the fall-winter 2008–2009 collection, Gucci’s artistic director Frida Giannini used elements of authentic Hutsul embroidery with geometric ornaments. At the same time, American and British Vogue associated this collection with Russian national costumes. And this, unfortunately, is one of many shameful examples of the blurring of the boundaries between Ukrainian and Russian cultures.

In 2015, the Valentino fashion house demonstrated its vision of embroidery. The catwalk was full of shirts, blouses, dresses and suits decorated with embroidered ornaments. There were also sleeveless sheepskin jackets, affectionately called ‘keptyryky’ by the Hutsuls, and brightly decorated zhupans. Two years later, the brand presented the Resort 2017 collection, again turning to exquisite Ukrainian ethnic motifs.

Modern Ukrainian Amazons

At the American Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2013–2014, designer Prabal Gurung showed a collection dedicated to Ukrainian women soldiers. 

‘He combined the leather outfits of the Amazons from the past with modern military uniforms. Leather clothing and belts, in particular, are symbols of a warrior: our costumes for showcases are also made of leather. Red and black are warrior colours, and khaki stands for law and conservatism. This woman is not afraid of frankness and sexuality because she can stand up for herself. At the same time, she is so strict and purposeful,’ Kateryna Tarnovska shared her impressions of the collection for Vogue magazine.

In 2002, Tarnovska, a kickboxing champion and gymnastics coach, developed the world’s only women’s martial arts school, Asgard. The name comes from the Scandinavian mythical city of Asgard, allegedly created by the Yasi gods. 

In Asgard, in addition to martial arts, girls study music, history, the basics of family life, etc. There is a whole program of spiritual and bodily development, so knowledge is as important as training.

Depending on their rank (from the first to the seventh), the girls train with different weapons: sticks, sickles, chains, swords, and axes. According to Tarnovska, a real Amazon should be able to shoot a bow, fence, sail a boat, ride a horse, and handle all kinds of firearms.

In 2007, the school’s activities attracted considerable attention from foreign journalists: the French TV channel Franse 24 TV and the German TV channel ART TV made a story about the Asgarda, and Swedish reporters began filming a documentary about the Carpathian Amazons.

In 2013, at the fashion designer Gareth Pugh’s show in Paris, models appeared on the runway as modern Ukrainian hermit Amazons. The collection reflected mysticism, a desire for spirituality, seclusion and conservatism. It featured a lot of leather outfits, with black, white and grey colours predominating. 

Neither Pugh nor Gurung was personally acquainted with the Asgard representatives, and all the information about them was found on the global network. However, despite the somewhat distorted image of Amazons, the designers managed to reproduce the essence and principles of this martial art in their collections in a highly subtle, emotional and sensual way.

War dictates the rules of the game

After the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the entire civilised world began to support Ukrainians. This wave of blue and yellow colours, embroidered shirts, and words of support and admiration did not escape the fashion industry. 

‘For many brands, the same post in the colours of the Ukrainian flag became a recognition: yes, there is a war in the world, and we cannot ignore it. The fashion industry has been coming to this for a long time, finally realising that today each brand is an independent media, whose silence will inevitably lead to cannibalisation,’ shares with us Illia Holitsyn, a representative of NFT company CTRL/ART/D. 

In March 2022, the Pantone Colour Institute chose the new primary colours of the year: ‘free’ blue and ‘energetic’ yellow. And the world-famous designer Giorgio Armani presented his collection without music during Milan Fashion Week in solidarity with Ukrainians.

‘Putin’s war must be stopped. Ukraine must bring Ukrainians home, including those from Donbas and Crimea. Putin hates freedom, he wants to erase your identity and dignity. Europe has to help Ukraine win,’ German stylist Frank Wild tells FW-Daily.

He has been openly supporting the Ukrainian people since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, posting daily photos on Instagram in blue and yellow clothes, holding a Ukrainian flag or sunflowers and sending direct messages calling for an end to Putin’s aggression.

The Balenciaga brand also did not ignore the tragic events in Ukraine: at the show in 2022, blue and yellow T-shirts were placed on the chairs for guests, and outfits in the colours of the Ukrainian flag were added to the collection. Balenciaga’s creative director, Demna Gvasalia, is a Georgian who was forced to flee his country in the 90s because of the Russian attack.

‘The war in Ukraine had triggered the pain of a past trauma that I have been carrying since 1993 when the same thing happened in my home country, and I became a refugee forever. Forever, because that’s what stays in you. The fear, the despair, the realisation that no one needs you. But I also realised what is important in life: life itself, human love and compassion,’ Gvasalia shared his thoughts on Instagram. 

The creative director of Balenciaga reflected on his experience as a refugee on the catwalk nine years ago, in 2014: he created and spread the oversize trend. Clothes that don’t fit, as if ‘off my dad’s shoulder’, are the outfits of people fleeing war. They don’t care if it works or not; they don’t care about the style or colour – they are driven by fear and the desire to survive, so they quickly put on the first jacket they find, which may be a few sizes too big.

According to fashion critics, the oversize trend is not going to disappear anytime soon, mainly because of the war in Ukraine. 

‘Brands are no longer afraid to admit that $2,000 dresses exist in the same world as war, death, refugees and disasters. The main fashion influencer of today is Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who appears on the cover of Vogue and in the parliaments of Western countries in a sweatshirt and cargo pants… The Balenciaga & United24 collaboration… has gone down in the history of modern fashion. The sweatshirt with the Ukrainian trident was the first item created in partnership with a country currently at war,’ says Illia Holitsyn.

According to the expert, the war in Ukraine has wholly changed how fashion talks about military conflicts. More specifically, Ukraine as a whole has forced the fashion industry to include the war in its narrative. And although the blue and yellow ‘trend’ is gradually fading, Ukrainian embroidery will never go out of style and will appear on the world’s catwalks again.

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