Creative resistance - Issue 169 - Magazine | Monocle
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It is almost two years since Russia’s invasion but Ukraine’s creative industry is still going strong. Many Ukrainian designers have had to put their family’s security first, moving away and setting up temporary homes and workspaces across Europe, from Warsaw and Berlin to London. But their commitment to both representing their country’s cultural heritage and supporting their teams and manufacturing partners – the majority of which stayed in Ukraine, eager to continue working –remains their priority.

Here, three brand owners and entrepreneurs tell monocle their stories of displacement and how, against all odds, they have managed to adapt to wartime conditions and continue growing their businesses. 

1
Dressing the first lady
Natalia Kamenska
Stylist and co-founder, Gunia Project

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When Ukrainian designer Natalia Kamenska woke up to the sounds of explosions outside her Kyiv flat in the early hours of 24 February 2022, she lay still in disbelief. “I was half-asleep and didn’t register the noises at first,” she says. 
That morning marked the displacement of millions of Ukrainians from their homes. Kamenska, stylist to Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, and co-founder of fashion and homeware brand Gunia Project, was among them. She made the decision to leave in the early spring of 2022. “I knew that if the whole population got up and left, we wouldn’t have enough resources to resist Russia,” she says. “But I had to prioritise my role as a mother. I couldn’t risk my child’s life by staying, so we left for Berlin.”

This was a familiar journey for Kamenska, who had been splitting her time between the city, where her husband lives, and Kyiv, where her business had been based. This time, though, it was different: surrounded by refugees pulling their suitcases across the platform, the designer thought that she might never get to return home.

A lot has changed since those early, grey spring days. In Kyiv, cafés, bars, restaurants, galleries and factories have reopened, while a record number of businesses have been rebuilt to respond to the realities of the war. “I understood that we could restart when the postal service and taxis began working again,” says Kamenska with a smile. Once settled in Berlin, she focused on restarting Gunia Project’s operation, following calls from her team and network of artisans who were keen to get back to work. Gunia Project’s first post-invasion sale was a series of candles in aid of the Ukrainian army. Soon after, the brand went back to selling its full range of jewellery, glassware, ceramics and clothing. Against all odds, the journey between Germany and Ukraine again became routine.

“At first, it was all a bit of a mess as our production came to a complete halt,” says Kamenska. “The eastern Ukrainian factory that used to source clay for us shut down, so we were searching for another supplier for more than a year.” Gunia’s clay supplier has now reopened but the brand is also looking to find production partners in Europe to facilitate international orders. “It’s our responsibility to keep going,” she says. “Fashion is a vital part of the economy and designers have to continue working to support Ukrainian society and those who protect it. We’re showing that we’re serious about business.”

Before the war, Gunia Project was rising in popularity thanks to Kamenska and co-founder Maria Gavrilyuk’s elegant designs, which often reference folk culture. Today, on the streets of Kyiv, it isn’t unusual to spot people dressed in the brand’s embroidered shirts. Ukrainians abroad recognise one another by wearing the same Gunia Project signatures – a way for them to express their solidarity with Ukraine and support local businesses from afar. Kamenska has also been witnessing fashion’s soft power as part of her ongoing work as Zelenska’s stylist. “In the first days of the war, Zelenska was adamant that she didn’t need stylists or make-up artists – there was no need for it during wartime,” says Kamenska. “But when she had to start travelling abroad to represent her husband, Volodymyr Zelensky, we had to rethink the way she dressed.” 

Retaining the simplicity and sticking to muted colours, Kamenska explains that clothes became Zelenska’s source of strength and a tool of diplomacy. “Nowadays most Ukrainian women will choose a suit for official engagements to boost their confidence,” she says. “I still like to use small details such as brooches to convey messages. A flower is a symbol of returning home, an ear of rye is a symbol of Ukraine and so on.”

Kamenska is adamant about using her resources and international network to continue the conversation and act as an ambassador for Ukrainian culture. “Through Gunia, I feel that I can tell the world about my country, about our traditions and culture. To me, this comes hand in hand with our struggle for independence. There is so much beauty that we must save from destruction.” 
guniaproject.com

Kamenska’s hopes for 2024

“I hope that 2024 is the year that rewards our resilience with a victory. But to achieve this, we need the international community to continue supporting Ukraine by sharing news of what is happening in our country, donating to local charities and, of course, buying from Ukrainian brands and artists.”

2
Fighting for the future
Julie Pelipas
Founder, Bettter 

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Julie Pelipas, the Ukrainian founder and creative director of fashion brand Bettter, sees herself more as a creative problem-solver than a designer. Since launching her own brand in 2020, she has committed to addressing fashion’s overproduction issues and offering solutions – mostly in the form of elegant tailoring made using upcycled textiles that would have otherwise been written off as deadstock. “Deadstock is not a popular topic,” Pelipas tells monocle from her studio in London, the city she relocated to after having to flee Kyiv in February 2022. “I don’t want to confront people, but rather show them that we can create something fantastic and new using what we already have.”

Originally from Mariupol, Pelipas has a background in fashion journalism and used to work in Kyiv as a stylist and Vogue Ukraine’s fashion director. She left her post in 2020 to start her upcycling business and convince the fashion industry to adopt a more regenerative mindset. “There is an estimated $6bn [€5.7bn] worth of deadstock going to waste,” says Pelipas. “The numbers are buried deep in research because brands prefer to keep stock on financial balance, burn it or throw it away.” Her challenge was in persuading the big fashion houses to give her access to their unused or unsold materials.

In the past two years, she has had to face a challenge of a different scale, forcing her to rethink both her brand’s trajectory and her personal life. Having sensed political tension from early on, she moved to London with her two children a week before Russia invaded Ukraine – a decision she says that she took as a mother rather than as an entrepreneur. Still, she found ways to adapt her business’s operations to her new reality: research and development for Bettter now takes place in London and most of the label’s small-batch manufacturing has been relocated to Portugal. Pelipas was forced to shutter her own manufacturing facility in Kyiv but has sourced new partners across the country and keeps 30 per cent of production in Ukraine – something that she is eager to maintain. “Relocating took a lot of energy from us. I promised my team that I would keep them safe and not lower their salaries,” she says. “I’m responsible for 30 people, with some choosing to remain in Ukraine and others relocating.”

The same sense of responsibility has also driven her to take on an unofficial ambassadorial role for Ukraine, using her connections in the international fashion community to raise awareness for her home country and highlight the work of fellow Ukrainian creatives. Through Bettter Community, a non-profit initiative, she offers Ukrainian designers access to her label’s global platform and showcases their work. “I realise how privileged I am to be in London, to see normal life outside my window,” she says. “I had to witness my family go through a nightmare, often with no electricity and little water or food. They can’t erase that horror from their souls. As a nation, we’re dealing with a generation of physically and mentally broken people.”

Even while facing the trauma of the war, Pelipas has kept her business going. Her dedication is paying off: in May, EU regulators pushed to ban the destruction of unsold clothes and a month later, Bettter received the lvmh Karl Lagerfeld prize with a reward of €150,000. “The prize came at a good moment,” says Pelipas. “It was an important push to develop the business further, at a time when we were feeling down and exhausted.”

In the face of war, fashion can often appear trivial but for Ukrainians, dressing well is an act of resistance. “I can’t sit here and be silent,” says Pelipas. “If I give up on Bettter, I give up on myself and that would almost mean giving up on my country. Any person, at some point, faces a decision: are you here to fight or will you give up?”
bettter.us

Pelipas’s hopes for 2024

“In 12 months’ time, I want to be sitting here talking about the reverse situation: the world becoming more peaceful and our industry moving beyond its old ways. Collectively, we have made a lot of mistakes but I have hope that there’s a better future ahead.”

3
Finding a purpose
Mary Furtas
Founder, Cultnaked

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Designer Mary Furtas is the life of any party: sharply dressed in Helmut Newton-inspired blazers or evening dresses of her own design, holding engaging conversations and being the first on the dance floor. A former photographer, she founded her own fashion label just over five years ago in her home of Kyiv and turned it into an international success. “My husband and I had just bought a flat in Kyiv, we were planning a big renovation, we just had our baby and Cultnaked, my brand, was growing every single month,” she says from Warsaw. (She currently divides her time between London and the Polish capital.)

Despite her energy and optimism, she has also been living with the fear of war for nearly a decade. “The conflict has been here since 2014 but no one used to pay attention,” she says. “When it all started, I had lost some friends, so I was hyper-aware of it and when Russian troops started gathering around our borders in the summer of 2021 and then again in December of the same year, I became extremely anxious. I would wake up every day not knowing what to do: will I have to run when something happens? Will they close the borders? Will I survive this, if the currency collapses?” When her fears were confirmed and she woke up to Kyiv being bombed last February, she rushed to the border with her young daughter. After a gruelling 17 hours, they reached Poland. “I barely remember the next few months,” says Furtas. “We went to Lodz, tried Krakow, where everything was too expensive to rent. We then drove to Portugal and from there ended up in the UK. Anywhere we were, we wouldn’t even get out of the house because we would see no joy in anything.”

Furtas started finding glimmers of hope when a Ukrainian logistics company resumed international deliveries and she received new orders on her website. “The momentum was lost: we couldn’t offer the quick deliveries we used to and more than half of international transactions on our site would fail,” she says. “Still, when I saw orders coming through for the first time after the invasion, I felt as though there was a chance that I might survive. Plus, my team in Lviv were telling me that they wanted to continue working. They knew when they needed shelter – there are sirens before every bombing now – and felt that there was no point in sitting at home any more.”

To adapt, Furtas established a UK business entity, relaunched her website and moved her Lviv production office from the ninth to the second floor, so that people can evacuate the space faster. She also established a temporary base in Warsaw, which allows her to drive to and from Lviv every couple of weeks to meet her team, shoot campaigns locally and oversee production. Her recent summer campaign was shot after a sleepless night following threats of a nuclear attack. “Of course, I’m scared every time I go back, but this is about being a team and I’m not going to let my team down,” she adds. “Also having my own workshop means that I can control the quality. I know every stitch; I don’t need to fly to the Far East to make my clothes. It all happens in a compact 150 sq m space. That’s our answer to having a sustainable supply chain.”

Furtas has managed to grow her company’s revenues to $700,000 (€652,000) in 2021. She is expecting further growth and is now plotting to expand into footwear and handbags, as well as launch a second label. “The best thing is to just do something – and I’ve always had this drive to create,” she says. “You’ll never be fully happy when there’s a war, you’re always being dragged into dark places. But you learn to live with this. Today I understand that the most productive thing that I can do is to keep on going and keep fighting. By growing the brand, I generate income and help the economy – and the country.”
cultnaked.com

Furtas’s hopes for 2024

“I hope that the international community won’t shut their eyes to the war in Ukraine or ignore the effect on its own security. There’s a huge increase in propaganda, trying to silence Ukrainians or make us look unworthy of support, so people should keep joining our demands for protection.”

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