Stoicism and optimism.

Vogue Ukraine’s fashion director on work as an act of resistance.

By Venya Brykalin
Photograph by Guillaume Blondiau

Stoicism and optimism. - © System Magazine

Vogue Ukraine’s fashion director on work as an act of resistance.

Listen to this letter written and read by Venya Brykalin:

On 21 February, Russia’s president made a public address to his nation. In an hour-long speech he put forward a bizarre idea about Ukraine and its people: there is no such country or culture, so neither has a reason to exist without Russian interference. In all its glorious nonsense the speech filtered down the Telegram channels that we, in Ukraine, have been using to get our news on what would eventually become a war. In a way, it was the opening salvo of the conflict.

What BS, I thought, as I processed it the following morning. The Vogue Ukraine team was finalising details of my fashion week trips to Milan and Paris, but I wasn’t sure I should go, as the sense of something terrible coming was already in the air. We didn’t openly talk about it, but everyone felt it. Then it clicked for me. If Russian propaganda is trying to erase us and make it look like we don’t exist, like we’re a joke and a historical inaccuracy in some greater imperialistic narrative, what we should do is stand tall and be proud of who we are. We have to show up and be there for the whole world to see.

Usually, going to shows in Europe feels like an extended alcohol-infused business trip. This time it was both dramatic and painful. My plane landed in Bergamo airport in Italy, just four hours before the Russians started bombarding Ukraine. To this day, almost three months later, they haven’t stopped their attempt to erase us, culturally and physically. It’s what we wake up to and go to bed with. It’s in every conversation and every phone call with our families, our loved ones and our friends.

Taking that flight from Kyiv to attend a Max Mara show the following morning changed my life. Because today, I know how privileged I am, writing this letter from a cosy apartment in Paris’ sixth arrondissement that a friend of a friend has kindly allowed me to stay in. I am lucky to sleep in my own bed, to be able to work remotely, and even to have a job.

‘If Russian propaganda is trying to erase us and make it look like we don’t exist, like we’re a joke and a historical inaccuracy in some greater imperialistic narrative, what we should do is stand tall and be proud of who we are.’

Venya Brykalin

Out of all my Vogue Ukraine team I am the only one who hasn’t physically experienced war. I don’t wake up to the chilling sounds of air-raid warnings; I don’t spend my days trying to move to safer areas (there are no safe areas in Ukraine right now); nor do I sleep in the metro stations that people use as bomb shelters. Our art director Sergei did just that. Our beauty editor Alyona spent weeks cooking for military personnel and volunteers in a collective kitchen, while still working online for the magazine. She then switched to cleaning floors; she told me she found it therapeutic.

The stoicism and optimism of the Ukrainian people is contagious, and I’ve never felt so proud. Everyone I know is involved. At Vogue Ukraine, we’ve put print operations on hold, but our brilliant online team has recalibrated the website, running stories on surviving chemical attacks and sexual abuse. My usually perfectly groomed influencer friends are now crowdfunding to buy trucks and equipment for military and defence use. Designers and artists are organizing garage sales and auctions to donate funds to humanitarian efforts.

In early May, my ex-colleague at Vogue Ukraine, Sonya Kvasha, and I launched a three-part pop-up project in a soon-to-open Charlotte Chesnais store in Paris. This space, with its very bourgeois address on the Boulevard Saint Germain, alongside Ralph Lauren and Gucci, has become an entry point to discovering Ukrainian culture. It has handwoven rugs by Oksana Levchenya (a hit with customers); naively painted ceramics by Gunia Project (a friend of mine has put one of the duo’s Easter plates next to his Ai Weiwei); and vibrant linen blouses by Vita Kin decorated with delicate embroidery of the Tree of Life and penises. There is also a sculpture by Maria Kulikovska, a refugee from Crimea since its annexation by Russia in 2014: a soap cast of the artist’s own naked body with brutal traces of gun shots. We sourced the sculpture in a private collection in Munich and drove it to Paris as we heard the first reports of serial rapes and torture in Bucha and Irpin.

We all live a double life now. One is about trying get back to work, talking to people, and getting things done. Another is living through the constant stream of news about wounded soldiers locked in the Azovstal steelworks and the city of Mariupol being wiped off the face of the earth; about mass graves in Vynohradne; and children, handicapped and blinded by missiles, who still have their lives to live, and the thousands who don’t. Yet we keep working – that’s part of the resistance. At Vogue Ukraine, we are now cooking up our next issue. No one I talk to has any doubt that there will be another Vogue issue – and it will be a Victory special.

Taken from System No. 19 – purchase the full issue here.

You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.