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Mar 17, 2014
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Ukraine Fashion Week shows unbroken spirit as war looms

Mar 17, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine - The lights dim, mournful music comes on and a stick-thin model struts assuredly down the catwalk: no, this is not New York or Milan, this is Kiev.

The threat of war in Ukraine might be on everybody's lips but walk into the Mystetskyi Arsenal art complex and you might as well be in an episode of "Sex & the City".

Iryna Dil AW14/15

Pretty young things in stiletto booties, red-lipped and decked out in the latest trends, mill about exchanging gossip, a voluminous leather tote or trendy little clutch in hand.

Ukrainian Fashion Week kicked off on Friday and will showcase over 40 local designers over six days.

But with Russian forces at the border and Crimea threatening a break-up of Ukraine, organisers and designers insist they are trying to send a message to Europe and the rest of the world, as well as to people at home.

"We thought of postponing Ukrainian Fashion Week but when the Crimea situation began we knew we had to do it now," Iryna Danylevska, co-founder and organiser of the event, told AFP.

"We need to show the outside world that we're unbroken and that we're strong."

Far from living in a fashion bubble, Danylevska and many others working at Ukrainian Fashion Week, including designers, were actively involved in the Maidan movement that helped topple Ukraine's pro-Moscow government last month.

They helped get the protesters' message out and worked in hospitals, Danylevska said: "They don't live in the clouds, they live here on the ground."

- Protests as inspiration -

Amid the stylish crowd, accessorised with flowery hairbands, elbow-length leather gloves or chic capeline hats, there is a mood of defiance.

"The situation in Ukraine doesn't mean everything has stopped and is not working in Ukraine," said Fashion Week co-founder Oleksandr Sokolovsky.

"We want to show that in Ukraine it's not war, that Ukraine's still alive," added Natalia Kamenska, half of the designer duo Kamenskakononova, now rebranded as Lake.

The female duo - which long hesitated to take part in Fashion Week and drew up designs in just a couple of weeks in the middle of their Maidan activities - presented a somber collection with the word "Duty" spelt in capital letters on several pieces.

The show's sound design - industrial noise - was a tribute to the protests, an attempt to make people "feel something because this noise, you can feel it inside," said Kamenska.

Designer Liliya Poustovit - whose clothes are sold in Italy, Switzerland and Russia - sent her own patriotic message with a collection in pale yellows and blues, the colours of the Ukrainian flag.

"A lot of designers were inspired by Maidan, by the spirit. A lot of tragedies happened there so it's logical that it influences what they do," noted Anna Pashkova, a fashion editor for Ivona, a Ukrainian lifestyle and entertainment news website.

- No celebrities, no parties -

Two Ukrainian designers had to pull out of Fashion Week after the months of protests disrupted their work, and foreign designers were forced to stay away due to the escalating situation, according to the organisers.

But for the industry and for designers needing to sell their wares, it was vital to hold this 18th edition.

"We have a country full of people who have a huge talent and we need to show this," said Danylevska, who hoped to capitalise on the entire world media's presence in Ukraine.

"It's important to show that Ukrainian fashion is a stable business like in every other country in the world" and to reassure partners "that it's possible to work with us," added Sokolovsky.

In view of the political situation, glitzy events were scrapped from the programme, he said: "Celebrity parties went out of the schedule and we just kept the professional event."

But for many, Ukrainian Fashion Week was still a welcome opportunity to get their minds off the frightening situation unfolding live on television.

Mila Borodin, attending the event for the first time, sipped a cocktail with a friend and considered purchasing a few accessories.

As a girl with a billowing white cape rollerbladed by, she was adamant that holding Fashion Week was the right thing to do: "Everyone is looking to relax with this whole situation. Life goes on."

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