Ukraine has been in the forefront of international thought a lot recently (and not for particularly pleasant reasons), but its reach has extended far beyond the front page—whether you were aware or not, the Ukrainian influence has fully arrived in our closets. Think that groovy boho embroidered peasant blouse was nationless? Think again. Whether it’s festival girl du jour Alexa Chung, wearing an embroidered peasant shirt hailing from the Eastern European region with a pair of denim cut-offs, or the Slavic red patterns on the runway at Valentino spring 2015 couture (complete with models sporting traditional braid crowns), Ukrainian traditional costume has knowingly and unknowingly permeated fashion for years, and now the spotlight on the country’s aesthetic is in full swing once again. Only this time, it’s hailing from the motherland.
The sudden rise and appreciation of Ukrainian traditional dress on an international level can be credited to Vita Kin, the designer of the eponymous Vita Kin, who uses the name for the traditional Ukrainian blouse, a vyshyvanka, in her label’s Instagram handle. Recently, the designer has become an international sensation, with local fashion fixtures like Asya Mkhitaryan wearing the designer’s version of a zhupan (a traditional Ukrainian jacket) to Paris Fashion Week, while street style stars like Anna Dello Russo and Leandra Medine are taking the bucolic style from the countryside onto Western asphalt. “Ukrainians have a unique method of decorating clothing with embroidery, and that’s always impressed me,” says Kin about her designs via email. “I adapted this ancient heritage into a modern context, adding a seventies vibe, when clothing was more relaxed and friendly. It’s a bohemian eccentricity in a very luxe execution.” That execution is her distinctly modern translations of the straight-from-the-village vyshyvanka in shades of marmalade with crude scenes of birds and flowers in a thigh-skimming sky blue dress, or in a full length frock replete with Gzhel style embroidery soon to be sold on an international platform (courtesy of Matchesfashion) and in Kiev-based concept stores. For a bit of context, a few years ago the idea of a Ukrainian citizen wearing traditional costume on the street was considered costume at best, a dowdy faux pas at worst. Flash forward to this month, where due to the quick rise of requests, Kin is overwhelmed with interest, and can no longer accommodate individual orders or samples for shoots.
The recent frenzy over Kin’s designs aside, it’s worth considering whether the rise of Ukrainian traditional costume in fashion is more than just au courant street-style bait. Historically, Ukrainians have attempted to separate themselves from the perception of their country as only “Little Russia,” especially now, when the political state is one of unrest (from the demonstrations in Maidan square to Russia’s invasion of Crimea). There is a school of thought that the recent use of Ukrainian dress isn’t just a fashion statement, it’s a unifying statement. “I think that all type of vyshyvankas are extremely beautiful and I am proud to see people wearing them, but to me fashion in the sense of culture is not about obvious references,” says Mercedes-Benz Kiev Fashion Days creative director Daria Shapovalova, “I think [traditional dress] is connected to the fact that Ukraine is experiencing this moment in politics.”
As for those “not so obvious” interpretations of Ukrainian natural dress, they exist in the avant-garde frontier of Ukrainian fashion. There is Karavay (a label beloved by Ukrainian editors) who keeps their clothing classic, dotting the arms and bust of a black diaphanous gown with delicate Slavic-style embroidery of flowers, or translates the traditional pattern onto a tight, curve-skimming zip-up dress. There are also the more abstract interpretations, like those from Ukrainian designer Ksenia Marchenko of Ksenia Schnaider, who pixelates and enlarges traditional Slavic patterns, sometimes while still utilizing typical curve-emphasizing Ukrainian silhouettes. “Being inspired by Ukrainian traditions is huge trend now here. Our prints from spring 2015 and fall 2016 were our answer to the situation in Ukraine, revolution and war,” says Marchenko. “When designing prints for our collections, [design partner] Anton Schnaider was thinking about the perception of Ukraine in global minds. The idea of uncertainty of all things Ukrainian is transferred through the use of blurred traditional Ukrainian ornaments.” But one thing that is decidedly still in focus, at least when it comes to Ukrainian fashion? Traditional roots are here to stay, whether it is in Kiev—or Paris.