Art has always been a means of human expression, unlocking the inner thoughts and feelings of society and the self. From the graffiti of the Berlin Wall to the songs of Bob Dylan in the ‘60s, art has a way of capturing the social and political atmosphere of the world around it. At its best, it is often found at the heart of great protest and pain, fuelled by extreme actions and emotions. Kiev is a living, breathing example of this.
It’s fair to say Ukraine has had a bit of a rocky past. The land has changed hands a number of times in the last few hundred years. Eventually becoming territory of Soviet Russia, the country soon found itself stuck in the middle of the biggest political feud of the 20th century: East vs West. The end of The Cold War gave Ukraine its first real taste of freedom when it split from Russia in ‘91.
A young, independent Ukraine looked forward to a life extending West, 2013 saw an unfortunate step back towards Russia. Plans in the making with Europe were abandoned in favour of tighter ties with Putin. Peaceful protests lead to not so peaceful protests and soon violence broke out between the police and the public; a revolution was on the cards. After altercations with the Russian military and a couple of botched elections, a ceasefire was eventually called in the January of 2015 and Ukraine, reeling from the conflict, began working back towards Europe.
The people of Ukraine bore witness to a rebirth of explosive creativity rising out of the ashes of the social and political turmoil. The struggle for their place in the world led many to question just what that meant. This search for identity evoked incredible developments in the Ukrainian fashion scene and fuelled the rise of illegal raving.
Disillusioned, the people of Kiev found themselves jobless and thrust into a financial depression. Victims of the failures of older generations and with little stake in mainstream society, the youth turned to a new subculture centered in what they knew best - partying. CXMEA, a techno rave night created by vigilante Slava Lepsheev, gave the youth of Kiev a place to drown their sorrows. An “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die” attitude encompassed the generation. CXEMA gave them the freedom to dress and act as they wanted, without the authority of a system that had failed them.
With only 3 or 4 events being thrown every year, the raves are packed into the late hours of mid morning, heavy techno blasted out into a sea of vintage sportswear and animalistic dancing. Take a look at i-D’s mini-doc on the scene here.
Out of the creative explosion, Ukraine’s fashion scene has also started to flourish. Fabric became cheaper to produce in Ukraine than in China following the financial fallout, making it easier than ever to produce clothes in the country. Most importantly, however, young designers now find themselves in a unique position. With a cultural identity in such anomie, they are able to reidentify themselves, drawing inspiration from a complex and treacherous past, and a future full of hope and aspirations.
For a lot of designers in the Ukraine, fashion has become about trying to capture this unique circumstance. Reminding the world of the history and struggles of what it means to be Ukrainian while showcasing the immense creativity they possess and the exciting things to come out of the battle-scarred country.
Ukraine’s own, Anton Belinskiy is one such designer making waves in the fashion scene with his own unique take on Eastern European style. “Poor But Cool” can be seen stamped on a number of his creations, encompassing the attitude of Ukrainian creatives - they may not have the liberties that many in the West take for granted, but they are certainly competing with the best in the creative field.
Belinskiy’s work doesn’t try to ignore the recent conflicts in the Ukraine; he addresses it head on with bold artistic statements. Ukraine’s past isn’t forgotten in his designs; pixelated traditional floral prints have become a trademark of his work. It’s this raw drive to not forget the past, whilst remaining focused on the future that is making Ukraine a country to keep our eye on.
Kiev’s story is testament to the message which underpins CMMNTY: that community, art and fashion can coincide in authentic, honest expression. Fashion does not have to be dictated from the top down; it can be a grassroots movement, an organic collaboration of creatives united under a banner of freedom of expression and social responsibility.