This time last month Ukrainian LVMH prize semi-finalist Anna October was preparing to launch her Fall/Winter 2022 collection, but in the space of two weeks, she’s become a refugee. Now living in Paris, she tells Grace Banks how dramatically her business has changed following Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Two weeks ago, fashion designer Anna October woke up to the sound of explosions, “I woke up in my flat in the centre of Kyiv hearing bombs, those first 24 hours of the invasion I was in Kyiv realising that a war had started and thinking — what would I do, how would I hide from the shots?”. October decided at that moment to flee Kyiv and move to the countryside surrounding the city: “It was a long road to the house in the forest that we left for, but we managed to flee with friends in a car just before tanks came to Kyiv.”.
Since that date, overnight, October’s has been turned upside down – “It’s an animal fear that you experience when you hear bomb shots and see rockets from the window” she says of the Russian bomb attacks that have razed parts of Ukraine to the ground. One week ago she made the difficult decision to leave Ukraine for Paris. “We drove to the Moldova border, then to Romania where I flew to Paris”, she tells me, “after I arrived in Bucharest, I finally felt safe. But every morning starts with checking in with friends and colleagues and family — has everybody survived the night?”. October is based Paris for the foreseeable future — “I just don’t know when I’ll be able to go back to Ukraine” — and working on helping fellow fashion workers in Ukraine mobilise.
Just weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine weeks ago, October had returned from a trip to Peru. A significant part of her creative practice is inspired by travel, and she frequently makes these trips, before returning to start work in her hometown of Kyiv, the only place she has wanted to run her business thanks to the city’s rich history of ready-to-wear design. “I had just come back from a month in Peru and felt very reloaded, rested and healthy”, she says, “I was working on my new website and a big collaboration. Life in Kyiv felt very calm and mellow, I was going to do sports in the morning, then to my office and having dinners with friends and planning future trips.”.
Ukraine’s capital city Kyiv is home to a group of highly talented fashion designers and Anna October is one of the most successful – with global stockists including Moda Operandi, FarFetch and SSENSE. She was nominated for the LVMH Prize in 2014, and in line with LVMH’s recent initiative to support all Ukrainian LVMH Prize semi-finalists will be supported with “access to essential financial and operational assistance.”.
Whilst grateful for the financial support, for October, it is a drop in the ocean, having invested most of her savings into her business. Still, October describes herself as having a fighting spirit “I am planning to save everything, we are fighting with the circumstances to get everything out of the office in Kyiv and to not loose anything. The most important thing to save is people, for everything else I have support of my mentors”. October is in the process of covertly sending the entirety of her Kyiv atelier based stock by post.
She is disappointed by the lack of initiative the global fashion industry have taken over the invasion of Ukraine. “Posting a Ukrainian flag on social media isn’t enough. I want them to think about the colleagues and industry professionals from Ukraine who want to continue working and building their lives in this new reality. My mission is to help creative industry refugees to find jobs and sustain businesses”, she tells me, “this is important to keep the culture growling, since Ukraine is so cool, we have to keep going. To rebuild the economy of the country — it’s our responsibility. And for that we need collaborative support, not condolences.”.
When I ask the fashion industry can do to genuinely help fashion creatives in Ukraine her opinion is practical: “give designers fabric and materials. That’s an important thing that they’re missing at the moment and donating materials would help a lot.”. The language that many social media accounts have used during the Russian war on Ukraine referring to the invasion as a “conflict” have disturbed her. “I want people to speak more on this and realise it’s a humanity disaster we have to stop and avoid in the future, this is not a conflict, it’s a war. And I want people to educate themselves, about the history of Ukraine and our culture and how we are established at the cutting edge of fashion.”.
From Paris, October is now working twenty hour days to simultaneously save her business and amplify and assist other Ukrainian fashion designers. “The fear has morphed into a power” she says, “and this gives me fuel to win. I am a strong woman and with no doubts this will make me even stronger.”. The designer stayed in Kyiv until she felt she had no choice but to leave. “I feel very connected with my land, the people, the nature there, the rich cultural history. My friends and team are my family and I feel strong with them”, she says – “I left to Paris because I can do much more here for my country than there. And of course, I wanted to go somewhere without sirens and bomb shots.”. October is careful to note the horrific price this strength has come at — “ I would never want to get this strength at such price”, she says, “but I am very concentrated now on helping to save people’s lives and their work, so I barely think on emotions, I am healing myself with creating.”.
Over the last few years, Kyiv has become a destination for fashion design and production, with many brands working with a sustainable short supply chain model, designing, sourcing and making their collections in Ukraine. Now, having produced her collections in Kyiv for over ten years, October is searching for a new place to produce her product. “Luckily, our FW22 collection was in New York for fashion week presentations, so we could fulfil orders, but now I am researching where to produce if we’ll not able to make it in Ukraine.”.
Thoughts of what will happen to her atelier in Kyiv should it be bombed are at the forefront of October’s mind. “I have a flexible business model and everything can be replaced” she says, “only the team matters. Of course if I lost all the stock and fabrics — this will be a significant money loss that we will restore, but I can build new operations in other countries, we have been thinking of Estonia and Turkey.”. The way her garment makers are treated in the future is also a key concern – “The new system we will be building will make good working conditions crucial.”. She operates now, she says, with a sense of fearlessness. “I feel the future is strong. I’ll take the courage to bring my biggest dreams and ambitions to life, since there are no fears anymore.”.