Ksenia Schnaider is a force to be reckoned with. Not only because she is one half of the powerhouse duo, behind the eponymous clothing brand, which she established with her husband Anton in 2011, by seeing design through a sustainable lens, and working to the philosophy ‘design minus design’. But because she is a Ukrainian designer, who along with her team of women back in Kyiv, has worked against all challenges, both personal and professional.
To develop a sustainable and noteworthy, Autumn/Winter 2023 collection, she conceived garments with the intention to “transport the wearer to a place of happiness and joy, if only for a moment”, underneath air raid sirens and blackouts, which was ultimately presented at London Fashion Week. In doing so, Ksenia Schnaider, has powerfully demonstrated, the resilience and resourcefulness of the Ukrainian people.
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At the beginning of your last interview with Metal, back in 2019, you introduced your brand which you founded with your husband Anton in 2011, as having very much started because of the “incredible feedback and demand for your clothing”. As a result of the ongoing war in your home-country of Ukraine and both the personal and professional challenges you’ve endured as a consequence, how would you introduce us to your brand today?
It’s a really interesting question, because I think my answer hasn’t changed much. As a brand, it stands on the same values, responsible design, sustainability, up-cycling, new creative ideas, new silhouettes. But me as a person, I think I’ve changed a lot and my team also, we’re still in the process of not only changing, but accepting new realities and challenges. I think in the future, it will influence my work, but for now my brand, which is ten years old, is my ground which I can stand on, because it’s something stable in my life, when everything is unstable and uncertain. So, I try to not change my brand much now, I try to stick to it, maybe in the future, as I’ve told you because I’ve changed inside, it will shape it. But for now, we’re just trying to keep the brand’s DNA and for our new collection, presented in London, we just used all of our significant techniques, our style, and we tried to show what we can do the best, what we achieved during this time.
Is there a mantra you use to overcome such challenges?
To be honest sometimes, I don’t have any power. I’m emotionally so down, I cannot even open my computer and read some emails, but I see examples of people from my country who are fighting and they are in much worse conditions and situations, because I’m in a safe place. And that’s what’s inspiring me, they are examples of such people who are really brave and strong. And this inspires me to not just lie down, but to get up and work, because with my work, I can help those people, I can donate, I can earn money, I can send something useful to them. So, I think that during this war, I found for myself, a new motivation, a new meaning to my work. In previous times, it was just my desire to create, to express myself, now I’m trying to think about how it can influence people and the good I can do with my designs. That’s why I just say to myself, some people feel worse than you, and you just need to do what you can do the best. And also work, is my escapism from this dark moment, when I start working, I just forget about everything, because it’s a moment when I’m concentrating on my routine, it really helps.
I was thrilled to see, that you presented your Autumn/Winter 2023 collection, alongside two other Ukrainian designers Frolov and Paskal, at London Fashion Week as part of an initiative launched by Ukrainian Fashion Week to aid its designers. Can you tell me about the development behind your presentation and the emotions which drove it?
Myself, Frolov and Paskal, were residents of Ukrainian Fashion Week for ten years, we’ve been showing there because it’s our home-country. They reached out to us and explained about their initiative to show Ukrainian designers all over the world, because we cannot have our own fashion week now, we are organising collaborations between fashion weeks globally. And we had such an amazing opportunity from London Fashion Week, who provided us with a time slot to show our creations alongside other brands, I was really surprised and inspired by such a proposal. I was really happy to not do it by myself, I had two colleagues with me, because it’s really stressful and a huge responsibility to not only present your brand, but represent your country in such times. So, it was good that we were together because we could discuss and collaborate with each other to make, the whole show, perfect.
This was your first physical runway show since the staging of your Spring/Summer 2019 collection which you presented in Kyiv. How did you feel about this?
I felt like I was celebrating something. I felt wonderful that day.
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Where did you work to put it together from?
I was here in Sussex; I have a small studio here where I can work from. So here, we developed bags, shoes, some accessories for the show, and then I went to Kyiv in Ukraine because both my team and production are there and they are still working, I was with them for two or three weeks and we finalised the collection, the final fittings and finishing elements I did in Kyiv, and then I took the collection with me. I would say it was created in the UK, but produced in Ukraine, all of the accessories they were produced in Ukraine, we just sent sketches and had Zoom calls with the production team, so everything is made in Ukraine. I think it’s really important to produce in Ukraine, because there are a lot of people there who don’t want to leave their homes, they decided to stay, and I think it’s my responsibility to support them and provide them with work so they can earn money. That’s why my and the other two brands, all produced in Ukraine for London Fashion Week, and time was very tight, it was very stressful, but I’m very happy that we did it.
What do you think of the role of design in today’s climate?
When the war started, it was the beginning of Paris Fashion Week, but yet it was the sixth or seventh day of the war, and we were all living in bomb shelters underground, hiding, because it was a really intense time, with constant shelling. Some people, they didn’t change clothes for seven days because it was impossible to get home, it wasn’t safe to stay at home. For me, knowing some people weren’t changing clothes at all and some people were dressed up every hour for street style in Paris, and it was in front of me in one feed, I think it was very frustrating for me to see both realities, it was like a parallel world. I even did a post on the brand’s account because it’s okay to dress up of course, and we fight for the world when we dress up, we don’t want to live in a world where it’s not possible to do so, but I think it needs to be more meaningful and people should not only show off, and feed their own ego, but they should also think about other people. For example, when I saw someone dressed in blue and yellow in a street style photograph, for me it was a ray of hope, it was a really uplifting picture. You can use both your clothes and fashion week as tools by making both not only mediums to sell, but mediums to influence.
It’s explained that once the war began to spread to Western Ukraine, you made the difficult choice to flee the country, first trying to cross the border into Poland before making your way into Hungary. Since then, you’ve moved across Europe. Is this a collection which you saw as an opportunity to embrace your Ukrainian nationality or do you believe it to be something you have always, and will always carry with you?
In this collection, I have some silhouettes from the Ukrainian national costume, for example the wide leg jeans, were inspired by the traditional wear for the Ukrainian army, but this was a garment from 300 years ago, so it’s a very old piece of clothing which I used as inspiration. I also have a lot of blue and yellow in my collection, but it’s easy for me because I work with denim which is blue, and when I add some yellow, it already works. So, I have some, but I don’t want to also speculate on this, because I don’t think it's the right time when the war is still happening, I’m sure I will do more about Ukrainian costume and our traditions, but I want to make it from a peaceful state of mind. There are some details influenced by my Ukrainian nationality in this collection, but these are ones where you cannot immediately say it’s about Ukraine, they are my small, intricate touches throughout the collection.
During the first two months of the war, you shut down production in Kyiv, whilst your team only re-started manufacturing in May 2022. What stage do you regard this presentation as representing?
Now we are operating I would say at 100% possible. Possible is the right word here - because we are facing decline in orders and falling sales, blackouts, air raid sirens, threat of shelling - but we are very motivated to continue to work. And this presentation was the manifesto of our work.
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How did the design, production and manufacturing elements come together to assemble it?
Everything was produced in Ukraine and brought by me to London. Then we worked on a casting with amazing Julia Howe, and on the presentation with Blonstein company. The Mac cosmetics team was responsible for no-make up make-up and Toni&Guy for hairstyles. Everyone on the backstage was very supportive and helped me a lot during a very stressful London fashion week.
Let’s talk about this collection, you’ve expressed that “It’s not only a celebration of joy and positivity but also a powerful symbol of resilience and resourcefulness – it was designed during the air raid sirens in Ukraine. Despite the challenging circumstances in which the collection was created Ksenia Schnaider managed to infuse it with an air of hope and positivity. These pieces manage to transport the wearer to a place of happiness and joy if only for a moment.” Do you believe by translating your experiences into this presentation, it’s ultimately become a more personal one?
I think so, yes. We said it was an example of bravery and resilience, because all of the clothes were made in Ukraine, by people who stayed there during the whole war. So, it’s an example, that you can be creative, you can work in any challenging circumstance. And I really want to inspire young designers, people who think that they have some boundaries, they cannot start their first collection, they cannot do something, because they don’t have money or they don’t have good connections. We are an example, we don’t have electricity, lives are under threat, there are so many boundaries we have, but we all decided, I mean it’s always a question of your personal choice and desire and your personal decision, will you do it or not. And we decided that we would do it, so we just overcame everything and made the collection. I hope that people will see it, who live in the same place and think that, if these guys are doing collections during war, I will do it here. I really hope that it will help at least one person in this way.
It sounds like you were very determined to do this, were you surprised by how strong your aspiration was to put it together?
I was inspired by my team, because they all told me that they would stay in Ukraine and work, they said please provide us with work, we need to do something otherwise we will go crazy, because if we are staying home and watching TV, it’s really devastating but if we are working with friends, it’s something stable in our lives. My team are all women, and they are really strong women, because they all have kids, most of their husbands are serving in the army now. So, I’m so inspired by them, they are an example of the ability to work, because with all of the collections, we have a lot of difficult hand-crafted items, for example skirts or blazers made out of ties, or some patchwork, it takes a lot of time to produce. What I’m trying to say is that they inspired me, I was inspired and I decided that we have to inspire others.
A word which you believe is best reflective of your Autumn/Winter 2023 presentation?
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This is also a collection which also for the first time, incorporates women’s accessories, designed by your husband. Can you tell me about this process, what made Ksenia Schnaider take the leap?
At the beginning of the war the Stella McCarney team reached out to the Ukrainian designer community, and they said that they had some deadstock materials, it was PU leather, so not actual leather, but it was sustainable leather. So, they donated, a huge amount of such materials and around 10 Ukrainian designers received something from Stella McCartney, and we received such material. We received it in Paris, and we never did accessories but when we saw this material, we realised that we couldn’t do clothing out of it, because it was a really strong material, which is good for bags. And that’s how we decided let's do bags, why not, we have this material let's work on some samples, maybe it will work. It was our starting point to be honest, because we always were in the space of wanting to do accessories and having ideas for this. But you know when you’re running a business, especially during war, it’s very hard to launch a new line, but when we received such materials, we decided to try it. We sent them to Ukraine and the manufacturers made samples for us, it was a really long process because we discovered that for example when we produce clothes, we need at least two fittings to make everything perfect, with the final samples, there are one or two fittings and then it’s done, you can mass produce. But with bags, we had around 20 samples because it’s something, when you see if, there are things you want to improve, for example its weight in your hand, there are so many details, you never know, but you have to work on them to make it perfect for everyday life. The process took around nine or eight months to finally have the bags ready, and I’m really happy they were ready right before London Fashion Week, so we could show them to the audience, and the reaction was really good.
Do you believe this presentation to be very much both a personal and professional victory?
Yes, definitely.
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