Ahead of Ukrainian Fashion Week, Culture Trip caught up with designer Irina Dzhus as part of our Behind the Seams series.
Kiev will play host to the best of Ukrainian design this month, with SS18 fashion week kicking off alongside the better-known event in New York. But while the latter may pull in larger brands, Kiev is sure to attract ample attention, as the international community continues to be bewitched by Eastern European design.
Irina Dzhus, whose eponymous label DZHUS will be showing at Ukrainian Fashion Week this season, is an example of home-grown talent that has made an international impact. Her astute and artful clothes marry strong, architectural forms with a philosophical and thoughtful design approach. In the midst of getting ready for the SS18 show, Irina Dzhus took time out to talk to Culture Trip about building a brand, the politics of fashion and what the landscape looks like for new designers in Ukraine.
Culture Trip: Your clothes transform the human body into new, distinct forms. How did you become interested in this aesthetic?
Irina Dzhus: Since I studied at art school, the biggest challenge for my creativity was an not having a specific focus. I have always needed a starting point for my fantasies, and some limits, which I could develop my ideas within. With its inevitable dependence on the human body and all its peculiar properties, apparel design has always been a perfect way for me to express myself as an artist. Exploring anatomy allows me to imagine endless ways of interpreting the structure of the human physique, through the cut of my designs.
CT: Are there particular sculptors and architects that you are influenced by?
ID: Although art and architecture are my great passion, specific creators rarely inspire my work. My ideas are mostly derived from the complex structure of the ambient, ideas around imperfection and nature’s impact on man-made objects.
CT: Your work covers themes such as nihilism and the structure of the earth, where, and what, do you begin with to make these large themes central to your design?
ID: The themes I get inspired by are very dialectical. Once I discover the ways in which the crucial points of my inspiration object or phenomenon interact with each other, and what impact it is supposed to have on their explorer, I embody the same principles and communicate the same concept with the apparel I create. For example, in my AW17 ‘Tectonic’ collection, the methods I used explored how transformer garments can be modified to interpret the ways our planet’s relief changes infinitely throughout its existence: the ground surface stretches and gathers, the lithospheric plates shift, divide and reunite – the same can be applied to the construction elements. In regards to nihilism (my AW16 line’s concept), it wasn’t a theme as such, but rather my general approach to fashion and popular culture nowadays.
CT: What materials do you enjoy working with and is there anything new that you plan to experiment with in the future?
ID: I mainly use natural fabrics and knits. I love cotton, linen and wool. The distinguishing feature of all the fabrics I choose is their peculiar texture, often with distressed finishes. Sometimes I opt for synthetic textiles, but only to create statement, industrial details. Speaking about the ethical aspect of fabric sourcing: all DZHUS products are made of cruelty-free materials and are vegetarian-friendly.
CT: Is fashion a political medium for you?
ID: I’m not interested in politics in general and I don’t believe in any political force that has ever existed in my country. Besides that, design takes all my time and energy: I can hardly cope with my personal needs, let alone focussing on analysing politics. There are people who are much more talented at doing that then I am, so I prefer to let them get on with it.
CT: How do you approach the challenge of building a new business without becoming commercially-led?
ID: Finding balance between creativity and business has never been easy, but for me it’s very interesting to maintain the unique concepts that DZHUS is recognised for and also ensure wearability of the garments. When I’d just released my early collections, I struggled with which direction to move the brand in, and how to develop it. DZHUS has lots of followers, but this popularity didn’t influence the sales; our audience tends to admire the designs but not buy them.
Eventually I got an order from The Hunger Games‘ stylists team. However, I realised that – although the level of this collaboration was very flattering and I was happy to make some pieces for them – costume design wasn’t my ambition. What I wanted to create was an intellectually designed, ready-to-wear brand that independent, spiritual people would wear in their everyday life. Since then, I’ve changed the course of DZHUS’ identity and presentation so that our products have become completely utilitarian, while also featuring unique cut concepts, to ensure that our followers can wear them.
CT: Can you tell us about the changing nature of Ukraine’s fashion landscape?
ID: A few years ago, when the global fashion community became interested in Ukrain’s emerging brands, they tended to have a quite naïve approach to working in this industry. The concepts they aspired to communicate internationally used to be quite desperate and they often carried political statements. Since then, the fashion scene in Ukraine has commercialised significantly: many brands now release internationally competitive products that are stocked at the world’s leading stores, while managing to keep their distinctive and authentic spirit.
CT: From an outsider perspective it seems that all eyes are on the Ukrainian fashion scene, does it feel that way within Kiev?
ID: We just don’t feel the borders now. Every product can be easily communicated to the global audience, and ‘made in Ukraine’ no longer sounds confusing to them. I also often notice that buyers will be especially interested in us because DZHUS is a Ukrainian brand.
CT: What is it like to launch a label in Ukraine? What are the challenges?
ID: Mass manufacturing is very cheap in Ukrainian factories, but when it comes to high-end apparel, not many industry professionals have the appropriate skills; serial production of exquisite garments isn’t our country’s tradition, unlike in Italy, for example. Designers either have to launch their own production, which is unaffordable for many people at the start, or order manufacturing at expensive ateliers, which results in very high pricing of the products, decreasing the new brands’ chances to make a breakthrough in the international fashion industry. This makes it difficult to attract local customers too, as the Ukrainian clientele is less affluent than Western European or American customers.
CT: What are you most looking forward to at Ukrainian fashion week?
ID: The DZHUS SS18 show will take place at a unique location: an austere antique hall with a half-ruined wall, which will be part of our performance. I’m very excited to share this atmosphere with our dear guests.