Aug 23, 2016
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Vyshyvanka: Ukraine's national costume conquers the catwalk

Aug 23, 2016

Fashionistas the world over are snatching up a must-have item for the "boho chic" look -- an embroidered blouse or dress that is, in fact, Ukraine's national costume and new symbol of unity.

Vyshyvanka tops and dresses decorated with colourful embroidery date back centuries, with styles and stitch designs often codified by region and long believed to protect wearers from evil spirts. - © AFP / Genya Savilov

Fashion bible Vogue wrote in its US May issue that the peasant-style "vyshyvanka", as it's called at home, has "made waves far past the Eastern European country".

It is "this summer's most sought-after item of clothing", proclaimed the Times of London, while the New York Times advised readers to stock up on this "top of summer" fashion.

But this is no passing trend.

Vyshyvanka tops and dresses decorated with colourful embroidery date back centuries, with styles and stitch designs often codified by region and long believed to protect wearers from evil spirts .

And they will be out in force on Wednesday as Kiev holds celebrations for the 25th anniversary of Ukraine's post-Soviet independence.

The style came back out of the closet after Ukraine's 2014 pro-Western revolt pulled the ex-Soviet republic out of Russia's orbit and gave it a new sense of national pride.

Since then, no Ukraine holiday goes by without residents wearing the vyshyvanka.

With many Westerners backing Kiev in its war against pro-Kremlin separatists in the east, a conflict that has claimed more than 9,500 lives, the vyshyvanka has made plenty of red carpet appearances elsewhere and even cropped up at the Rio Olympic games.

- 'At our roots' -

And not just on Ukrainians. Celebrity fans include US burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese and French actress Melanie Thierry, who wore hers at the Cannes film festival, while Queen Maxima of the Netherlands was photographed in a vyshyvanka dress at the Rio games.

"People may think New York City is where fashion is at, but I've got my eyes on Ukraine," said Kelly Osbourne, British singer and daughter of the legendary rocker Ozzy Osbourne in a proud Instagram posting of herself in a vyshyvanka model by Ukrainian designer Yuliya Magdych.

"The Ukrainian people lost a lot when (the separatist) war began" in April 2014, Magdych told AFP.

"What do people rely on at such moments? We rely on our roots. And the vyshyvanka is at our roots -- that is why everybody rushed to wear it."

Magdych, 31, was born in western Ukraine, a predominantly nationalist region that takes a particularly dim view of Russia and was once part of Poland.

She is the first Ukrainian designer to be represented in Britain's high-end Selfridges department store as well as on the online luxury fashion retailer Moda Operandi.

It took time, she said, for people to understand that embroidery was part of the "DNA of Ukrainian fashion".

"Now, it is fashionable to wear a vyshyvanka. It is trendy to be a Ukrainian," Magdych said.

- 'Unique work of art' -

Oksana Karavanska, 50, another well-known Ukrainian designer, says she has received orders for her blouses and dresses from France to Canada and the United States.

"The vyshyvanka has now become a worldwide hit", Karavanska said.

"It is a unique work of art because nowhere in the country can you find two identical pieces. Each village has its own embroidery culture, each village has its own patterns."

Fellow designer Kateryna Levenko, 69, has embroidered the traditional clothing since she was a schoolgirl in her native village in northeastern Ukraine where she learnt the craft from her mother.

She too attributes the worldwide interest in Ukraine's traditional dress to the 2014 revolution.

"The world knew nothing about us until then," Levenko said. "They knew about the Soviet Union, didn't they? But many had not even heard there was a country called Ukraine."

Magdych, meanwhile, has high expectations for the vyshyvanka, hoping it will become a fashion classic like a "Hermes scarf or Chanel ballet flats".

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