Wednesday, May 31, 2023

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    An Interview With a Ukrainian Designer Stuck at Milan Fashion Week

    On Wednesday, Ukrainian outerwear brand Ienki Ienki, which is known for its luxe quilted down jackets, presented its Fall-Winter 2022 collection at Milan Fashion Week. On Thursday, the brand’s founder and designer, Dima Ievenko, woke up at 5:20 a.m in his Milanese hotel room, checked his phone, and saw it was full of messages from family members, friends, and employees in Ukraine. Ievenko, who lives and works in Kyiv, was bleary eyed and exhausted from several nights of fitful sleep. But the messages couldn’t have been clearer: “It started. Oh my god, it started,” Ievenko recalled reading. Russia had launched a full-scale invasion into Ukraine.

    Immediately, Ievenko’s primary concern went from selling a collection to figuring out how to help his 120 Kyiv-based employees, as he told me over the phone Friday evening in Milan: “I’m with every person constantly on the phone, asking where are you, what’s happening.” Some of his employees, he said, have fled Kyiv and are trying to get to Poland. Many others appear to be staying in the city, which is reportedly under increasingly heavy Russian bombardment. Ievenko has spent nearly every waking hour since the invasion began trying to help them find safe places to stay. “It’s very clear: if you can leave, you leave,” he said. “But now, there is no other option.”

    Ievenko is one of several Ukrainian designers who are now inadvertent refugees from a war they didn’t expect. And they’re stuck in the middle of a fashion industry spectacle that, as far as they’ve seen, hasn’t acknowledged the horrifying conflict happening not too far away. (Ievenko’s flight from Kyiv to Milan took two hours and forty minutes.) “Here in Milan there are tons of people, the weather is beautiful, the COVID restrictions are not that high, and people are dressed up for the street style,” he told me. “And we are going in between them in a completely different reality.”

    The situation is, of course, incredibly personal for Ievenko and his fellow Ukrainians in Milan, and the situation is changing rapidly. But so far, events in Milan suggest that the fashion world is not going to let a war spoil shows and parties planned months in advance. There was no acknowledgment of the invasion at the massive and star-studded Gucci and Prada shows, which wouldn’t necessarily seem like a huge deal—fashion show-goers, to say nothing of multinational luxury brands, have never been great at tactfully acknowledging political or humanitarian crises—if it hadn’t been reported that Italy was attempting to carve out an exemption for luxury goods from the EU’s next round of sanctions against Russia. (The Italian prime minister’s office issued a denial this afternoon.)

    One might expect the tone to change in the coming days. In the past several years, Ukraine designers and brands have been a quiet but growing presence on the international stage. Ienki Ienki is among the most prominent, having been stocked at the likes of SSENSE and Bergdorf’s for several years, but Kyiv-based brands like Frolov and 91Lab are starting to make noise as well. This season alone, six Ukrainian designers took part in a showing at New York Fashion Week. According to WWD, many of them are now stuck in Kyiv.

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