Environmental psychology suggests the spaces we inhabit impact our worldview and behavior. If you were to visit Ukraine’s coolest cities – Kiev, Lviv or Odessa – you would find a truly eclectic mix of places: hip coffee shops inside tsar-era historic buildings, luxury restaurants amid socialist apartment blocks, onion-domed Orthodox churches surrounded by car dealerships, and so on. The wild patchwork of contested histories and competing aspirations can seem disorienting at first. However, one adapts to accept this as a different kind of beauty and begins to see magic therein. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche insisted that proximity to chaos could be a prerequisite for great creativity. He called it “giving birth to a dancing star.”
Designer Ksenia Schnaider harnessed this power of stylistic fusion to become one of Ukraine’s brightest fashion icons. Over the last five years her unique upcycled garments have made it into editorial pages of the world’s biggest fashion magazines. Her signature demi-denim pieces are a streetstyle must-have in any fashion capital. In the process she reworks over five tons of sourced textile and denim per year. She has been a sustainability pioneer in the market that is just now starting to catch up. I connected with Ksenia to understand what we could expect from independent brands like hers in 2021 and beyond.
What is your biggest takeaway from 2020?
That you can really find your way out of any situation, no matter how difficult or complex. The truth is that every day there was a new challenge to deal with without government support which designers in USA or EU had. It was a very uncertain time so the number of fears was endless: that the collection won’t be a success, that the crisis might hit too hard and we won’t be able to handle it, that my team might want to leave. My personal difficulty was to be a tough business leader and a free artist at the same time. I have learned the best ways to deal with fear is to work through it.
Who are you working for? Who is the customer that keep you motivated to keep going?
We like to think of “Digital Intelligentsia” as our core customer. It is a young class of educated people engaged in the mental labor. They are intelligent, funny, and live a busy life. They don’t spend too much time on clothes, yet they are in the loop of what’s in and value a self-sufficient modular wardrobe. They want an effortlessly cool look, without further manipulations.
What does the term “luxury” mean to you as a designer?
To me personally, luxury is about craftsmanship. Something that was created by hand has much more value than a mass-produced item regardless of a marketing backstory. An upcycled jacket it is way more luxurious for me than a jacket by any renowned fashion house. The latter could have a thousand copies, while upcycling is unique because it is impossible without handwork.
Should upcycled fashion become more tech-savvy or more beautiful for bigger appeal?
We do this for more than 5 years and it made us realize one thing. No matter how trendy or complex a concept is what people still care the most about in clothes is how an item looks. Clothes have always been about expressing yourself so it’s really important that the technical, upcycling part of the design is made secondary in terms of aesthetics. When it comes to picking out clothes, people will always choose what looks the most beautiful to them.
How does your Ukrainian heritage manifest in your work?
We tap into our heritage sometimes, but we do it in an unusual, more subdued way. For example, we once used classic Ukrainian embroidery motives to create pixel prints. That pattern was an example of ways in which tradition can meet technology. The result is an item that has its roots in folk culture without making it obviously so. We also collaborate with other Ukrainian brands. Right now, we are working on a very exciting project with bettter. It’s thrilling because it is also an upcycling initiative and I can’t wait to share our creations with the world.
What is the ratio of business savvy and creative mystery in success?
It is definitely alchemical. As soon as we tell ourselves “ok, it’s time to level up and think about analytics and business plans” it just doesn’t work. Collections aren’t as strong, and sales aren’t as secure. I think people nowadays can see through calculated efforts. Our customers fall in love with us for our honesty. Just as with everything in life, you must stay true to yourself as a designer. Of course, we aren’t naïve as puppies on the business side of things (and I always advise future designers to keep finances and business processes clearly in check from the very beginning), but the success itself is definitely about 80% mystery.
If you could change one thing about the fashion industry, what would it be?
I would get rid of the seasonal schedules and the pressure to participate in the marketing rally, fashion weeks, magazines, influencers. Designers should feel the freedom to create when they are ready to and present it in a way that is most comfortable to them.
What are your currently reading or watching for fun?
I’m listening to the More Than One Thing podcast about people who are working on more than one thing at a time.
Patchwork as a lifestyle! And what’s on your mind now?
All my thoughts are about the coronavirus pandemic and its influence. When and how are we going back to our previous rhythm? And will we ever? What will be happening next?