“Fashion is communication with the world – it shows we are strong and can keep going,” says Ukrainian designer Iryna Kokhana, who had to relocate to London when war broke out.
She is currently showing her designs at Paris Fashion Week, seeing it as a chance to highlight not just her brand, but also her country’s resilience.
“Each of us is fighting,” she tells the BBC. “It is to show the indomitability of our people, our talents, and our ability to create even during the war, when everything’s just falling apart.”
Kokhana is founder and CEO of the label Chereshnivska, which is based in Lviv, near the Polish border.
When Russia invaded in February, she was showcasing at New York Fashion Week so wasn’t in Ukraine – but her employees and family were.
“My sister was sharing videos and photos of people running in the street, it was really bad,” she tells the BBC.
“They couldn’t get any money from the banks, they were queuing at the ATM, so I was sending them money from abroad. I tried to help each person.
“For the first five days, it was just about surviving. Doing simple things like getting money, tickets, finding a car to get somewhere.”
Kokhana’s workshop in Lviv closed for a couple of months, and she decided to stay in London, where she had some contacts.
But her business is now up and running again, after some employees decided to return home.
“Some people decided they couldn’t stay abroad any more, they started coming back” she says.
“Everyone has really different situations, but some just couldn’t cope in a different country after being forced to leave.”
So she is running her label from the UK, having relaunched her website, changing the Ukrainian currency to sterling.
Her work, along with that of other Ukrainian designers, is being promoted by US fashion strategist Jen Sidary, who was previously head of sales at Vivienne Westwood America.
“Thanks to Jen and showcasing in New York and now Paris, we get immediate attention,” the designer says.
They are both in the French capital, along with the other Ukrainian designers promoted by Sidary, and their excitement is palpable.
“It’s so amazing to be here,” Kokhana says. “This is a big opportunity to show what we’re doing and be around all these other brands.”
Some of the other designers echo this, with Oliz adding: “Being part of showroom in Paris means already the cultural victory to be heard and seen worldwide.”
Another designer, Frolov, says it shows the “outstanding work of our team, who created this collection in Kyiv, despite war, constant sirens and shellings”.
For Sidary, it is also a chance to help Ukraine, something she “never thought” she would end up doing.
In April she set up Angel For Fashion, promoting some of Ukraine’s top designers, with the continued support of the USAID Competitive Economy Program.
Her interest in its fashion was sparked before the war – during the Covid pandemic.
“A friend of mine living and working in in Kyiv invited me to visit him and his husband. I literally wasn’t working due to the pandemic, so I bought a one-way ticket to Ukraine.
“My friends and family thought I had lost my mind,” she laughs. But when she discovered Ukraine’s fashion industry, she was hooked.
“I didn’t even know, from my almost 30 years in the industry, that there was this talent lying in this country,” she says.
She decided to start promoting Ukrainian fashion, and then when war broke out, it became a mission for her.
The quickest and most effective way to do this was to set up her website, which now has “35 of the best, most elite Ukrainian fashion brands on one platform,” she says with pride.
“They’re pretty incredible – Ukraine’s designers really embraced sustainability long before a lot of other countries. And their attention to detail is unprecedented. They can produce their collection and deliver it to you in two months or even shorter.
“Working in fashion, it normally takes six months to get your goods… in Ukraine they work really hard, as we can all see from what’s happening on our televisions, right?”
Sidary currently has a waiting list of about 70 designers keen to feature on her website, but explains that as a start-up they still have “limited resources”.
As for what she gets out of this new line of work, she says: “It feels so good to be able to do this, and help Ukraine in a way that most people don’t have the opportunity to.”
Chereshnivska was founded in Ukraine in 2016 – a unisex brand, it features bold designs with eye-catching prints, many of which are drawn by their creative director Anastasiya Rozova.
Kokhana explains that their work tells a story.
One set of outfits on their Instagram page is described as showing people going from “vulnerability and anxiety to acceptance and struggle”.
Kokhana adds: “We just wanted to show how Ukrainians felt when the war started – panic and strong feelings – people were scared. We show this as bright colours, people couldn’t decide what to do next.
“After that people, people started doing their regular things, even during the war. Drinking coffee, meeting friends. It’s also scary that every day there is bombing by Russians, but we decided to show it through prints of the smoke and the explosion and the dark and black tones.”
The brand is unisex because Kokhana believes that “everyone wants to be an equal” and she embraces the “freedom to be yourself and to wear whatever you want”.
Her big passion is for it to be eco-friendly, which includes using recycled materials, organic cotton and green printing technology. The aim is to have 50% of their production made from recycled items by 2024.
Living in London means she can travel, but she doesn’t find it easy.
“It’s totally different,” she says. “In London, you have a lot of opportunities for business and for learning, and a diverse society. But you know, it doesn’t feel like home.”
She adds that it is “really expensive”.
“I’ve considered a few times going back to Ukraine, but I’m just really happy that I have an opportunity with Jen to be here, and keep going and to find opportunities abroad,” she adds.
She is also really cheered by seeing “a lot of Ukrainian flags, even in cafes, you feel supported”, she says. But she explains it’s “not so easy to make business” in the UK, which has financial challenges of its own at the moment.
However her motto for her current situation is simple.
“We have to keep going – that is the important thing,” she adds. “There are a lot of nice people around in Ukraine and abroad that want to support us, you just need to ask.”
Ukraine Fashion is showing at The Good Six Showroom in Paris from 1 to 6 October 2022.