The international idea of the eastern European woman is pretty straightforward: she’s a blonde beauty in high heels and a tight dress; a poor but sexy version of Hollywood’s golden age divas.
With conventional, hidebound gender relationships still holding sway across post-Soviet Europe, old-fashioned ideas of femininity continue to reign. But with the rise of a new international wave of feminism that’s as attuned to visuals as politics, that convention has started to shift.
Photographers are exploring the female gaze; artists are addressing women’s rights; and fashion designers are trying to reinvent feminine looks and gender ideas in ready-to-wear. Luckily, eastern European visual emancipation has coincided with a liberation era in fashion in general: it’s now acceptable to swap high heels for Adidas sneakers; Selfridges department store has opened a gender-neutral department; and Celine’s Phoebe Philo has created comfortable chic for the modern independent woman.
Here are four new collections from Ukrainian and Russian designers reinventing the look of the post-Soviet woman.
Pioneers of Russian conceptual design Nina Donis — creative duo Nina Neretina and Donis Pupis — were among the first designers to challenge gender conventions in Russian womenswear. Their signature style includes strong straight unisex silhouettes and a fusion of inspirations: from subcultures and uniforms to music and architecture. Their approach has always been daring for the commercial world of fashion: the look is intelligent rather than sexy, and very sexy because it’s intelligent. The new Spring/Summer 2016 collection was inspired by sports and swimwear from the 1930s, ballerinas and Pierrots, Bauhaus graphics and David Bowie. The Nina Donis girl is make-up free and wears sneakers, but remains a minimalist version of ‘30s sophistication.
Svetlana Bevza is part of the new generation of womenswear fashion designers from Kiev — including names such as Ksenia Schneider, Litkovskaya, Paskal and Anna October, each with their own take on femininity. There is still a classical elegance to her collections but this is femininity seen through the female gaze. Skirts fall below the knee, trousers are wide, the palette is monochrome and the overall effect is an effortless sexuality.
Bevza’s designs are also made for an incredibly diverse demographic: not only young women in their 20s but pretty much women of all ages.
One of the most exciting emerging talents in the Russian fashion scene, Asiya Bareeva is very different from her minimalist counterparts. Bareeva has picked the east as the main direction of her artistic journey and she works with an abundance of prints, complex layering and draping, and a collage-like use of different fabrics. Her designs evoke a modern, multicultural Russia where Buddhist and Muslim communities thrive, albeit overlooked in the current political paradigm. Bareeva operates out of a rich cultural heritage but her approach is no way backward-looking. She’s created a traditional costume from the future: some garments are completely gender-neutral, while others feature sportswear elements combined with silk and embroidery.
Ukrainian designer Yulia Yefimtchuk is no stranger to bold statements: she works with strong, hard textures, slogans and geometric shapes. Yefimtchuk treats the gender question straightforwardly: her pre-Fall 2016 collection only consists of unisex garments. The silhouettes are simple, with patch pockets and belts copied from workwear and long coats that could easily be made by Raf Simons for his Antwerp skinny boys. This is perhaps the most innovative approach possible: not reinventing femininity but simply moving away from the concept of gender.