As war rages on in Ukraine, Paris fashion week continues. Designers are showing their Autumn/Winter 22 collections to press, buyers and front row regulars. They have spent months working on their collections, and this season is essential for many brands in their post-lockdown recovery plans. However, many brands on the Milan and Paris fashion week schedules made no acknowledgement of the situation in Ukraine following the Russian invasion on Thursday 24 February, sending a message of business as usual to the world. Fashion shows in the face of a humanitarian crisis have felt at odds. But as this week draws to a close, fashion has begun to show itself as a critical expression of the times we live in, and its potential to be a potent tool for protest and demonstration.
Giorgio Armani held his show in silence in Milan last week, the only brand on the Italian leg of the European shows to make such a gesture. As the industry moved over to Paris, a select few designers showed solidarity on the runway with Ukraine. A Botter coat by designers Rushemy Botter and Lisi Herrebrugh featured the words ‘No War’, and Coperni dedicated their show on Thursday to Cap Est, their Kiev tailoring manufacturer. These ‘human, beautiful and respectful’ gestures don’t go amiss, says Vogue Ukraine’s fashion editor Venya Brykalin when we meet on Tuesday. Brykalin has been attending some shows, as the only member of Ukraine’s fashion press to have made it over to Milan in the days previous on a chance flight which he says possibly saved his life.
With no time to redesign whole collections in response to the crisis, several designers including Coperni, have instead nodded to the blue and yellow colours of the Ukranian flag in the styling of their shows. As have designers in their final bows, with Koché designer Christelle Koche wearing a blue and yellow flower pin, and Isabel Marant a flag jumper. Guests to Wednesday’s Acne Studios show were welcomed with yellow drinks accessorised with blue flowers. The image of an old woman on a train in Moscow wearing yellow and blue went viral, and my colleague wore their Vetements (now known as VTMNTS) European Union knitted jumper from 2017, which conveys a deeper message of the joint threat Russia’s invasion poses for the rest of Europe and the world. Simply wearing the Ukranian colours sent a message of solidarity. On Friday night, Marine Serre’s show began with a one minute silence.
Many members of the team behind the digital fashion platform DRESSX are from Ukraine. They were quick to launch their Fashion for Peace collection of virtual garments and free AR filters of a Ukranian flag dress, bringing the fashion community together and raising funds for Ukraine. The fashion label and cultural creative community Kultrab, founded in Russia and based in Georgia, is working on the ground, helping to accommodate refugees. Berlin-based media and fashion company 032c relaunched a now sold out t-shirt by the Ukranian designer Anton Belinskiy. The original design features a scan of the Ukranian passport cover and headshots of models from his castings, and the re-edition design reads ‘FREE UKRAINE’. Belinskiy, who is in Kiev with their family, has lost their production resources in Ukraine, so 032c stepped up. ‘Fashion can be a broken mirror or a powerful statement', he tells me over email. On Friday morning, I meet the designer Lili Litkovskaya who fled Kiev with her two-year-old daughter. They are now in Paris, where she was meant to show her new collection. Instead, she erected a hub inside the La Bourse building alongside other designers showing as part of fashion week, displaying the QR codes for 45 of her peers who have not been able to join her. ‘Our roots, our culture, can’t be killed’, she says.
Fashion has historically reflected the times we live in, and been a powerful tool for global communication. Last year, Antwerp’s fashion museum MoMU staged the exhibition E/MOTION: Fashion in Transition. ‘Designers are more and more aware that they have a responsibility towards their audience. The forthcoming months will show whether the solidarity the industry is showing with Ukraine is limited to marketing and communication, or whether brands are willing to make ethical choices. Even if these choices are not in line with their direct economic interest’, MoMU’s director Kaat Debo says. Until Thursday this week, the deafening silence of luxury goods corporations and brands had risked sending the message to the world that fashion doesn’t care, despite over two years of posting black squares and publicising the #METOO movement. ‘Fashion has always been deemed as something very superficial and outdated, and unfortunately what’s missing right now only plays to that stereotype. I think we can do much better than this’, Brykalin had told me at the start of the week, disappointed by what he was seeing. Brands including Botter and Nanushka did open the week with messages of solidarity, and the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode released a statement asking guests to view the following week’s shows with ‘solemnity’. However, it wasn’t until Balenciaga made the Ukraine flag their sole post on Instagram on Thursday that the big dogs followed suit.
Messages of solidarity with Ukraine have flooded the feeds of brands over the last 72 hours. Ukranian designer Masha Batsii has been campaigning against Putin's Russian propaganda, with citizens having no access to Western media. 'One of the most important frontiers in this informational war is the ability to get through to these people. Fashion as a platform is in a very important position to be able to deliver those messages, through relatable emotional and human channels. This is exactly where fashion can be truly art’, she says.
Fashion businesses have also made sizeable donations to organisations including the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency); the Italian fashion federation CNMI, Prada Group, Kering (the conglomerate which owns brands including Balenciaga and Gucci), the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, the British Fashion Council and the Only The Brave fashion group (who own Diesel, Maison Margiela and Jil Sander), are included. On 2 March, the LVMH group released a statement that they have made a ‘first emergency donation of five million euros to support the International Committee of the Red Cross’. When model Mica Argañaraz announced she would be pledging a proportion of her fashion week income to Ukranian organisations, others followed suit, including Kaia Gerber, Bella Hadid, Vittoria Ceretti and Francesca Summers. Global publications including Vogue, i-D and Dazed have also taken a public stand with Ukraine, and pressure from the fashion community on social media resulted in the annual LVMH Prize, which convened in Paris this week, announcing it would be supporting previous Ukranian nominees including Belinsky.
However it was clear that the three trillion dollar industry had to follow their words with sanctions. The popular media platform 1Granary, founded by Ukranian journalist Olya Kuryshchuk, launched an open letter to the industry calling for governments to enforce greater sanctions, with luxury fashion goods absent from the EU sanctions on Russia, echoing an earlier campaign by Vogue Ukraine. ‘Fashion has power. In times of crises, it’s easy to dismiss that power, to call it superfluous, frivolous, tone-deaf, hypocrite, or non-essential. But our supply chains connect countries across the globe, our media reach masses of followers everywhere, our shared language of creativity is universal’, part of the letter reads.
On Friday, the French labels Hermès and Chanel were the first large scale luxury fashion businesses to terminate their activities in Russia. Conglomerates Richemont, LVMH and Kering followed, announcing that they were closing all stores in Russia. ‘There is no “neutral position” - you either stand for the truth or support the war’, say DRESSX. Earlier in the week, Yoox Net-a-Porter, Nike, Acne, Rejina Pyo and the Vanguards Group - which owns brands including Nanushka - had done the same, with the British Fashion Council releasing a statement that no fashion products, according to UK sanctions, can be shipped to Russia. Although Russian luxury consumers make up just 2% of the personal luxury goods market, and sanctions on Russia’s foreign reserves and international SWIFT payments scheme have made it difficult to buy from outside of Russia, many fashion brands still have stores in the country. The resulting spending splurge by the super rich in Russia, as reported on by Fortune, highlights the moral conundrum luxury players were put in this week. Consumers expect brands to take a clear position on political and social crises.
The industry should also be looking at stockholders and investors connected to Putin, just as in football the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich has been forced to sell Chelsea with proceeds going to benefit victims of the war. ‘Fashion - is our cultural mirror. For a brand to choose to ignore what’s happening in Ukraine right now tells me something about their long term value - which is - none’, says Batsii. Thus far, there is an imbalance of personal and corporate commitment to ending the war. As Russia puts the world on the brink of nuclear fallout, the fashion industry needs to stop censoring itself. In the words of Brykalin, ‘You guys are fighting for your own future, you’re going to be the next one.'