Meet The Ukrainian Designers Breaking Ground At Berlin Fashion Week

Berlin Fashion Week kicks off next week with contemporary innovations and sustainable solutions cascading across the city from January 16 to 21. It’ll be a left-field few days and this year, it will debut four powerful and peerless Ukrainian designers breaking ground with every pleat, crinkle and cut. 

Nearly a year on from the tumultuous institution of the Russian invasion and seemingly inconceivable fully-fledged war on Ukraine – its indiscriminate blitzkriegs, its commission of barbarous war crimes, the atrocities and horrors of Bucha and Mariupol, its utter ugliness – the tragedy has persisted. But if history has taught us anything, we know that rising triumphantly from the rubble there will come solidarity and fortitude amid its culture. Ukraine and its people have suffered the pains of sacrifice and the joys of survival; for 31 years it has stood unified and on its own two feet, and for the future it will fight for its freedom. These designer’s will too, by raising awareness with their work, designing clothes for Ukrainians in their time of need, uplifting communities and more. 

Here, we sat down with Kristina Bobkova, Irina Dzhus, Lilia Litkovska and Jean Gritsfeldt as they put the final touches on their BFW collections, to delve deeper into their work and why showing in Berlin is such a benevolent and instrumental experience for themselves not just as individual designers but for their resilient homeland as well. Ukrainian liberation and the support of its creative industries is a cause we should all be behind – none of us are free until we all are.

BOBKOVA BY KRISTINA BOBKOVA

  1. Can you talk us through your collection for Berlin Fashion Week? 

“The collection is entitled Mriya – meaning “A Dream” in Ukrainian – and it’s about our collective desire for peace and for the revival of the country. I’ve been working on an image of a present-day Ukrainian woman, translating this paradoxical balance of strength and fragility that became her characteristic traits in these times, into the language of clothes. That’s why it’s all about high contrasts: tender lace bras and dresses symbolising femininity and heavy knits speaking about seeking comfort. On the other side it’s rough army-looking blazers, belts with heavy buckles and high-thigh Cossack boots representing the courage of those women who joined the military. I also wanted to bring to attention some elements of the national costume, and my signature loose-fit shirt dresses allude to the traditional women’s undershirt, vyshyvanka, but acquire a contemporary look.

“Upcycling is the centre of attention in this collection, as never before, though it’s always been an important part of the brand’s philosophy and we already reuse the textile leftovers of the production to minimise production waste and create beautiful new things from what we already have. This time we used upcycled lace for the patchwork-technique dresses and skirts, and knit leftovers to decorate sweaters and knitted gilets. An ancient Ukrainian technique of hand-weaving in thick colourful threads – used in the villages to make decorative carpets – is presented in sweaters, coats and shoes.”

  1. What does it mean to you to be able to show your work in Berlin amidst the stark turmoil in your home country? 

“Germany became my country of adoption since the beginning of the full-scale war in Ukraine. I immigrated to Marburg in mid-March of 2022 with my two children and from where I was managing all the operations of Bobkova from a distance – though regularly travelling back to Kyiv to coordinate our atelier. After years of regular runways at Ukraine Fashion Week twice a year, we managed to set up our debut fashion show in Berlin last September with the help of Ukrainian Fashion Week who assisted the brands with showing their collections on the platforms of various fashion weeks worldwide. This opportunity was a blessing for us, as Berlin is an important spot on the international fashion calendar, with an exceptional level of professionalism in every detail. 

“The collection was very well received, and we were honoured to be attended by the key German media and opinion leaders, like the legendary Vogue Germany’s Christiane Arp who praised the collection and became a big fan of the brand. I’m now sharing my Ukrainian heritage and aesthetics to speak about our culture and Ukrainian fashion to the whole world. It’s my mission.”

  1. What is your vision for your brand – past, present and future?

“I launched my namesake brand back in 2000, witnessing the development and rise of Ukrainian fashion that was at zenith before the war started. Bobkova saw stable growth with regular fashion shows twice a year at which I was mastering the art of creating a mindful and timeless wardrobe with my benchmark aesthetics of discreet femininity and luxury minimalism.

“In 2022 we concentrated all our forces on growing worldwide sales and visibility. After the show in Berlin, we presented the SS23 collection in New York at a special Fashion Week event and also in Paris where Anna Wintour discovered the brand at a Ukrainian designer showcase.

“Our global strategy is largely dedicated to developing inclusivity and gender-fluidity, which we contribute to by inviting models of all ages, nationalities, genders or sizes to participate in the runway shows, campaigns and visual content. Growing in Europe, UK, USA and Asia continues to be our priority, but for the near future, I’m dreaming about the revival of the Ukrainian market as my country and our Ukrainian clients are essential for the brand – and for my heart. I’m constantly in contact with our regular clients there, researching what Ukrainian women need and want in these hard times and trying to fulfil their needs and desires. For me it’s crucial to keep supporting them with my clothes, made and thought for them, on an everyday basis, whatever is happening in our lives.”

  1. How do you maintain this vision/purpose day in and day out?

“My atelier is still based in the Podil district of Kyiv, and although I was often advised to relocate the production to Europe, I would never do that. For me, it’s essential to sustain workplaces for my team, the same people I’ve been working with for years. Everyone on my team has someone in their family who is now fighting the war, which is why it’s important that the people who have stayed in Ukraine be able to continue to find work. It’s also about supporting the country’s economy; to help it move forward. 

“Working there is incredibly difficult for my employees at the moment: the electricity is constantly going out because of the Russian attacks, and there is often – when the temperature is below zero – no heating and no water. I recently bought a 100kg generator and sent it to Kyiv to support my team in their daily routine. That’s what I can do from here. 

“In the new collection there will be lots of handwork, more than in any previous one. But it’s also dictated by the circumstances: when there are blackouts going on, it’s practical to concentrate on manual craft because the machines are out of power. The items will feature voluntary ‘raw’ details as unfinished stitches to emphasise these forced pauses in work that they’re facing.”

  1. Who would you say is your greatest inspiration or hero, and why?

“In 2023 my only answer is Ukrainian women. They are my true heroes because they’ve demonstrated strength and bravery in the midst of these horrible days and months of war. They are all role models; the women who’ve managed to maintain their family lives and work despite the difficulties, who have joined the Army to defend their country, and who became volunteers to help people in need. At this very moment, Ukrainian women are the coolest and the strongest in the whole world!” 

DZHUS BY IRINA DZHUS

  1. Can you talk us through your collection for Berlin Fashion Week? 

Dzhus AW23 is a collection of complex-cut multifunction pieces, ranging from outerwear to accessories, and is designed to serve diverse purposes, weather conditions and dress codes. The transformation of the Autumn/Winter looks pays tribute to the drastic changes all Ukrainians have faced under circumstances they could control. Having survived, they gained strength, understood what mattered most, and became more future-oriented.”

  1. What does it mean to you to be able to show your work in Berlin amidst the stark turmoil in your home country?

“Berlin is known as a cultural crossroads, rich in style traditions and open for infinite experimentation. In this city, respectful of high quality standards, sustainability and the importance of self-expression, everyone will find a perfect shell for their inner world. Every Kyiv-dweller would admit that Berlin is somehow a lookalike and has a similar vibe of freedom. For me personally, the German capital has been a life-changing experience.

“Participation in BFW has been a long-dreamed of opportunity to showcase Dzhus products to a wide range of industry professionals and find potential collaborators among the audience. I believe Fashion Week will provide Dzhus with a completely new direction for business and creative development, as we aim to broaden our representation within the European market.

“Now that my Motherland is suffering from nonstop Russian terror, I feel it is my duty to keep drawing the world’s attention to this tragedy as well as celebrating the unbreakable power of our people with my allegorical creations.”

  1. What is your vision for your brand – past, present and future?

“At the beginning of Dzhus’ journey in 2010, I mainly focused on the visual aspects of the brand and the implementation of my ideas. As I developed my vision, I started prioritising our customers’ comfort and the practical matters, including the quality of the materials. The shift began in 2013 when we got an order from The Hunger Games movie; although it was very flattering, it indicated to me the fact that my designs lacked wearability. But I’d always wanted to make conceptual clothing and not theatre costumes, so I began to pay much more attention to the utilitarian potential of our clothing. Now, my biggest joy is seeing Dzhus worn by real people. Speaking of our designs in particular, our principles are not going to change – innovation, transformability and conceptual approach will always lay at the core of Dzhus’ creative philosophy.

“There’s no need to say again that the war has divided every Ukrainian’s life into a ‘before’ and ‘after’. In the past, I didn’t focus on my own identity as a Ukrainian – to me, those things were so obvious that it seemed unnecessary to communicate. But everything changed on February 24th. When I recovered from the first shock, I realised how important it was to share our identity with the world and include it in our self-representation on both personal and professional levels. 

“Now that almost a year has passed, I wouldn’t say it is possible to get used to war, but I’m no longer that shocked or disoriented and seem to be ready for bold actions. We’ve relocated our HQ to the EU (along with keeping our Ukraine-based production active) and I feel so motivated to create with double effort now. My aim is to extend our international stockists list, to provide our soulmates all over the world with an opportunity to discover, try and feel our creations in the most convenient way.

“I also feel it’s my mission to popularise the cruelty-free ideology we communicate through our clothing. By presenting our animal friendly garments to the audience, we stress the necessity of being humane and future-oriented in the now. By producing ethical and sustainable fashion products which are then worn by intelligent and open-minded personalities, I aspire to prove that it is possible to look edgy and avant-garde, yet remain in peace and harmony with nature.”

  1. How do you maintain this vision/purpose day in and day out? 

“Nowadays, fashion carries a mission of bringing awareness when it comes to the key social and environmental processes. It should educate, encourage self-improvement and suggest innovative solutions for relevant problems via humane and life-affirming media.

“Our pattern-making innovations help minimise customers’ shopping and create a versatile wardrobe using just a few variable garments. In my opinion, unified items with unprecedented adaptability and functionality is an innovative solution for the problem of overconsumption, with a focus on creation, not limitation. I’m convinced that such smart alternatives are the future to the fashion industry, which is now experiencing a crisis of quantity over quality, facing a problem of stock and clothing waste utilisation. To reduce the production impact, minimise leftovers and avoid unsold stock, we use a ‘made-to-order’ format. Sustainable packaging is also crucial to us: our clients receive their orders packed in a transformer tote that can also be worn as a tank top. With such solutions, I aim to prove that ethical design has nothing to do with boring and aesthetically limited garments, but succeeds in being playful, variable and highly distinctive.”

  1. Who would you say is your greatest inspiration or hero, and why?

“My countrymen and country-women in particular. They have lost everything and had to embrace new hypostases of themselves in order to survive and save their beloved ones. I want to portray those superheroes and their inevitable metamorphosis in a symbolic way.”

LITKOVKSA BY LILIA LITKOVSKA

  1. Can you talk us through your collection for Berlin Fashion Week? 

“The collection, Vesnianka, pays tribute to traditional Ukrainian spring-greeting songs, explores the beauty of life and its stages, and links “coming-of-age” not only to one’s own individual development, but to cultures and nations as a whole.”

  1. What does it mean to you to be able to show your work in Berlin amidst the stark turmoil in your home country? 

“Obviously, it is an opportunity to speak louder to the new public, share our vision and show that light always conquers darkness no matter the circumstances. I like Berlin and our feelings seem very mutual; the openness and support of people I’ve met here is tremendous. It’s always very precious to find the souls that speak to yours with the same language of senses.”

  1. What is your vision for your brand – past, present and future?

Litkovska is not just a fashion brand, it’s a philosophy. Our designs are meant to encourage others to explore, try, identify, experiment and stay true to themselves. That is why the brand’s label is covered by a blank white one, meant for the garment owner’s name, as he or she breathes life into it, creating history by wearing and styling it in their own way. It’s a great happiness to see that our creations are given new life we may have never considered.”

  1. How do you maintain this vision/purpose day in and day out?

“By exploring, trying, identifying, experimenting and staying true to ourselves.”

  1. Who would you say is your greatest inspiration or hero, and why?

“Ukrainian people. They’re the heroes of now. It amazes me how we still manage to keep all this love, kindness, and respect, as well as the desire to work and help others, and to keep strong after going through so much pain and darkness.”

JEAN GRITSFELDT BY JEAN GRITSFELDT

  1. Can you talk us through your collection for Berlin Fashion Week? 

“On the heels of my fashion show in Kraftwerk last year, which was one of the first artistic messages from Ukraine since the invasion, my presentation of Born in Kyiv, Sculptor of Love, follows as a continuation of that protest and statement. The initial version of the collection was supposed to be presented as part of Berlin Fashion Week in February 2022. But due to my living circumstances having changed drastically, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, I was forced to re-realise the statement my collection would make. So the collection was reworked. Now, it articulates a playful form of protest art because inhumane systems will only be overthrown by the transformative power of love and energy – people will reach for their inner light and the purity that flows through the debris of the obsolete. 

“My work is supposed to awaken the most loving version of yourself; your inner superstar. My fashion overcomes the obstacles of fashion. It is bold, never-too-formal and full of individualism. The looks of the collection seem almost anarchical. I use corduroy, linen, wool, synthetic fur, silk, and chiffon, combining floral patterns with military prints, thick fringes with sequins, ruffles with embroidery and tend to distort classic silhouettes. I use pop cultural references and deconstruct them – my imagination knows no limits.”

  1. What does it mean to you to be able to show your work in Berlin amidst the stark turmoil in your home country? 

“It is a great honour for me to be a part of this showcase. Now, every famous Ukrainian, especially with German heritage like in my case, is an ambassador of freedom and independence in the world, with the mission to draw attention to important topics.”

  1. What is your vision for your brand – past, present and future?

“We are starting a movement; designing a better future. It is the message of celebrating life, freedom of choice, lightness and playfulness. No planet? No party. So, we create our products with smart technology and use as many sustainable and recyclable elements as possible. The result is a thoughtful collection of everyday party wardrobe pieces, making sustainable choices without compromising on style.” 

  1. How do you maintain this vision/purpose day in and day out? 

“It’s impossible to take a step forward without rethinking the past. It is a bridge to the future or, as I call it, the transformation of youth. Ten years ago and still today, my work is permeated with the same ideas: thoughts and dreams about love, struggles and freedom in art, desires and self-expression. It’s about finding yourself and your faith in tomorrow.”

  1. Who would you say is your greatest inspiration or hero, and why?

“The collection is a tribute to the energy of the Ukrainian people – their unbreakable spirits and resilience, fed by a force that permeates everything: love.”

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