A fash­ion­able re­turn to the moth­er­land.

Liz Gu­ber heads to Ukraine and finds that she has changed as much as her home­town.

ELLE (Canada) - - Insider - By Liz Gu­ber

Kyiv, as Ukraini­ans like to spell the name of their cap­i­tal city, isn’t a top travel des­ti­na­tion for most peo­ple right now, but it is for me, and I’d like to think it’s not just be­cause I was born there. This past sum­mer, I went back to Kyiv for the first time in four years, and I was smit­ten with the city in a way that I’ve never been be­fore.

I left Kyiv with my par­ents in 2001, when I was 10 years old. We im­mi­grated to Canada for all the usual rea­sons, like the prom­ise of sta­bil­ity. Although I quickly adapted to life in Toronto, the move gave me a new re­al­ity. Like many im­mi­grant kids, I now speak a bilin­gual mash-up with my par­ents and I’ve formed un­ex­pected habits, like putting Sriracha on my cab­bage rolls—some­thing that is un­heard of in spice-averse Ukrainian cooking.

I’ve only been back to Kyiv six times since my move. My first vis­its were driven by home­sick­ness. I flew home ev­ery sum­mer and then ev­ery other sum­mer. When I went back as an 11-year-old, I was strug­gling with my sta­tus in Canada as the new girl with weird clothes and no friends. At 19, I vis­ited with a se­cret: I hadn’t yet told my par­ents I’d dropped out of univer­sity and wanted to pur­sue a ca­reer in fash­ion. This past sum­mer, at 25, I went back feel­ing a lit­tle more grown-up, with a fash­ion-stud­ies de­gree un­der my belt and the mag­a­zine job I’d al­ways wanted.

While I felt more settled, Kyiv did not. Ukraine’s re­cent po­lit­i­cal clash with Rus­sia over the an­nex­a­tion of the Crimean Penin­sula in south­ern Ukraine has left the coun­try, and its north­ern cap­i­tal, scarred. Kyiv’s main square, Maidan, once the set­ting for my fam­ily’s week­end ice­cream out­ings, had since served as a makeshift camp­site for pro­test­ers. As I walked through it this sum­mer, I re­al­ized that although it looked the same—with its grand foun­tains and glossy shop­ping mall—it didn’t feel the same. A small home­made sign that read “Heroes never die,” posted near the square’s cen­tre, was the only give­away that there had been any up­heaval there. Later, when I went back to see my first home, a typ­i­cal no-frills soviet apart­ment in the leafy sub­urb of Obolon, I met the refugee fam­ily who was now liv­ing there. In­stead of leav­ing the apart­ment empty af­ter a fam­ily mem­ber no longer needed it, my aunt and un­cle de­cided to of­fer it, free of charge, to a fam­ily who had fled the vi­o­lence on the coun­try’s south­east­ern bor­der.

But be­fore I could reac­quaint my­self more fully with the city, I was drawn to the big­gest pull of all: the hand­ful of rel­a­tives who make up my small but tight-knit Kyiv-based fam­ily.

At my babushka’s ta­pes­try-draped flat, I smiled and nod­ded through an awk­ward, if well-in­ten­tioned, lec­ture, the trans­la­tion of which goes some­thing like this: “A wo­man’s child­bear­ing abil­ity is like a wilt­ing flower.” I’m un­mar­ried and child­less, so pro­fes­sional tri­umphs didn’t im­press her much. Then I gave my child­hood cat, Moose, mel­low from old age, an over­due cud­dle. I’d left her with my grand­mother the year I moved to Canada. Frankly, I was amazed that she’s still alive, surly as ever and ready to scowl at any­one, in­clud­ing me, who dares to ap­proach.

Life keeps go­ing for the peo­ple (and pets) you leave be­hind. Later, I met up with Vanja, the boy I used to rollerblade around the block with when he was 12 years old. He’s 30 now and mar­ried and has a young daugh­ter. See­ing my child­hood friend push a stroller around made me feel, for the first time, like my own life might be stand­ing still.

I had an­other rev­e­la­tion. I used to feel a lit­tle em­bar­rassed at the shabby state of the Stalin-era outer sub­urbs on the drive from the air­port to Kyiv’s city cen­tre, but not

this time. I now have more places to com­pare it to— re­cent vis­its to Ber­lin, Tokyo and Syd­ney have made me re­al­ize that with grit comes char­ac­ter. And as I watch fel­low Eastern Euro­pean coun­tries like Slove­nia, Ro­ma­nia and Bul­garia be­gin to gain sta­tus as upand-com­ing It-travel des­ti­na­tions, I now be­lieve Kyiv is wor­thy of being on that list too.

In all my prior vis­its, I never truly re­al­ized how beau­ti­ful the city is. Yes, singing your home­town’s praises is akin to call­ing your child the cutest in the class (not that I would know, my babushka would point out), but the fifth-cen­tury cap­i­tal is a jewel box of art-nou­veau palaces, 100-year-old ver­dant parks and Or­tho­dox churches painted in un­real shades of amethyst and saf­fron.

“Tell me this isn’t Paris,” said my mother one day dur­ing our visit as we reached the top of the 76-me­tre-high bell tower at Saint Sophia’s Cathe­dral. It looks like a wed­ding cake thanks to the white-plas­ter flour­ishes that cover its four milky-blue tiers. The 18th-cen­tury struc­ture dom­inates the sky­line and re­warded us with a 360de­gree view of the city’s his­toric heart. In the square be­low, we could see the stat­uesque mon­u­ment to the Cos­sack rebel Bog­dan Kh­mel­nit­sky. Look­ing to­ward the Dnieper River, we spot­ted the golden pear-shaped domes of Saint Michael’s Monastery. We tried to fig­ure out which way was north, but the city’s an­cient streets don’t fit into a neat grid; they spread out like a web dot­ted with an eclec­tic mix of Stal­in­ist and beaux-arts ar­chi­tec­ture.

Be­neath the city lies an­other web— the metro—with its grand mar­ble and mo­saic sta­tions com­plete with chan­de­liers and escalators so deep that you could read a page of a book on your way down. The metro hasn’t changed a bit since I was young—not the dusty smell of un­der­ground air or the ro­bust sound of the au­to­mated stop an­nounce­ments— but I turned down car rides dur­ing my trip so I could ride on the train’s vinyl benches with the en­thu­si­asm of a kid on a roller coaster. I reac­quainted my­self with my favourite spots, like An­drew’s De­scent, a slop­ing street known for a vi­brant craft mar­ket that ex­tends down per­ilous cob­ble­stones. Here, painted wooden eggs, folk em­broi­dery and even bits of Soviet kitsch, like ham­mer-and-sickle pins and por­traits of Lenin, are up for grabs. I dis­cov­ered new ’hoods too, like the hip­ster-friendly Yarosla­viv Val Street, with its un­der­ground bars and street art, and Vozd­vizhenka Street, a surreal, largely un­in­hab­ited stretch of bright, or­nate build­ings that riff on the neo-Re­nais­sance styles of Old Kyiv. The build­ings here are slowly filling up with cool shops, like Cor­ner Con­cept Store, a bou­tique that car­ries clothes by Ukrainian de­sign­ers. As I browsed, tex­tu­ral, street-smart wares by Elena Buren­ina and colour­ful, light­hearted pieces by Omelya Ate­lier caught my eye.

My Ukrainian fash­ion im­mer­sion con­tin­ued when I popped into the ate­liers of Kyiv-based de­sign­ers with ELLE Ukraine’s ed­i­tor-in-chief, Sonya Zabouga. A par­tic­u­lar highlight was see­ing the de­signs of Vita Kin and Yuliya Magdych, who are spark­ing de­sire world­wide for up­dated ver­sions of vyshy­vanky— Ukraine’s folk

cos­tume. These flow­ing linen blouses and dresses with bal­loon sleeves and op­u­lent flo­ral em­broi­dery are sell­ing out on sites like Net-a-Porter and Matches Fash­ion. Vita Kin just re­cently got her own web­site, but she mainly re­lies on an In­sta­gram ac­count to draw a fan base at home and in­ter­na­tion­ally. “Ukrainian fash­ion has been on the rise now for the past few years, lo­cally and abroad,” Zabouga tells me, ex­plain­ing that 14 Ukrainian brands, in­clud­ing Pous­tovit, Litkovskaya, Kse­nia Sch­naider and Elenareva, set up show­rooms or par­tic­i­pated in trade shows at Paris Fash­ion Week in March.

Growing up in Kyiv, I only saw vyshy­vanky in his­tory text­books or on wait­ers at gim­micky restau­rants. So it’s both strange and delightful to see them be­come a bit of a global fash­ion craze. And it’s not just high-end vyshy­vanky in punchy hues that are pop­u­lar. I spot­ted fast-fash­ion ver­sions in shop win­dows, and I even saw a few brief­case-tot­ing men sport­ing the coun­try’s tra­di­tional em­broi­dery on their shirt plack­ets.

This em­brace of tra­di­tion goes be­yond the sar­to­rial. When I grabbed a ride from a friend, I spot­ted a black, red and white de­sign that of­ten dec­o­rates Ukrainian Easter eggs (or pysanky) on the side of his car. Driv­ing through the city, I no­ticed that count­less bridges, fences and lamp­posts were painted blue and yel­low, the colours of the Ukrainian flag. My un­cle ex­plained that at the height of po­lit­i­cal ten­sions, res­i­dents grabbed buck­ets of paint and went rogue, even paint­ing a cable-stayed roadway called the Moscow Bridge. Be­yond that, I couldn’t get much else out of my fam­ily about the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion with­out in­cit­ing a shout­ing match over dif­fer­ing opin­ions. Still, na­tional pride is high—cool, even.

And that’s the other thing about Kyiv: The city that was once known for its ex­ces­sive, border­line-tacky style (I saw lots of glit­tery leop­ard prints dur­ing my child­hood) is emerg­ing in a fresh light. Zabouga cred­its Ukrainian Fash­ion Week, as well as the Alfa Jazz Fest and the Odessa In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, for rais­ing Ukraine’s pro­file world­wide in a cul­tural con­text, not just a po­lit­i­cal one. Although the diplo­matic ten­sions are caus­ing eco­nomic un­cer­tainty, fall­ing prop­erty prices in the city are mak­ing way for co-work­ing spa­ces, night mar­kets and vin­tage shops.

There’s a luxe in­flux too. TSUM, once a life­less, com­mu­nist-era depart­ment store, is get­ting a high-end makeover. At last sea­son’s Ukrainian Fash­ion Week in March, Natalia Ka­men­ska and Olesya Kononova, the de­sign­ers be­hind the eight-year-old la­bel Lake, staged a run­way show for their sculp­tural wares in TSUM’s hol­lowed-out un­der-con­struc­tion in­te­rior. They gave at­ten­dees hard hats em­bla­zoned with their la­bel’s logo—a fit­ting sym­bol for the city’s dis­rup­tive meta­mor­pho­sis. Even the street style re­flects this shift; one day on Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main boule­vard not far from Maidan, I spot­ted women in Miu Miu flat­forms and sneak­ers in­stead of the ver­tig­i­nous stilet­tos they used to wear.

Girls from Kyiv are called Kyivlanky, and on my last night in the city, as I packed Ukrainian fash­ion finds into my suit­case, I re­al­ized that although I can only claim part-time Kyivlanka sta­tus, it’s the rea­son for my sped-up speech pat­tern and why I’m usu­ally just a lit­tle over­dressed. My iden­tity lies some­where be­tween where I’m from and where I’m go­ing. I’m still fig­ur­ing it out, and it turns out Kyiv is too. n

From far left: Kyiv’s old town, with St. An­drew’s Church tow­er­ing above; the view from An­drew’s De­scent; Maidan, Kyiv’s main square; Zoloti Vorota metro sta­tion; the golden-domed Saint Michael’s Monastery

From far left: A vyshy­vanka by Yuliya Magdych; vyshy­vanky by Vita Kin; tra­di­tional Ukrainian Easter eggs ( pysanky); a look from Elenareva’s fall/ win­ter 2016 col­lec­tion

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