Is it possible to think of fashion or make art when your life—and the lives of everyone you love—are in danger? Hiding in a bomb shelter in Ukraine with her mother, petrified by the sounds of destruction from Russia's nonstop military attacks, Katimo designer Katya Timoshenko tells me that designing is the last thing on her mind.
"Creating clothes is a big part of my soul, but right now, I can't keep track of it," she says. "My focus is elsewhere. … Our main priority is safety." Ukrainians are living through the worst time in their post-independence history, and there is not a single place now in the country that is safe. Though the numbers are not yet known, Ukrainian emergency services have said that more than 2,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the Russian invasion, per Reuters. On Monday, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed 406 civilian deaths, but said the "real figures" are probably "considerably higher."
"None of us could ever have imagined that our country could be involved in such a monstrous war that Vladimir Putin unleashed for his own unhealthy geopolitical ambitions," Timoshenko says.
The designer has been sharing information about the war, and ways to help Ukraine, on Katimo's Instagram. She's also donating money from online sales (since March 1) to Come Back Alive, which funds the Ukrainian army. "We are against aggression and the use of weapons, but now we need to support our soldiers who protect civilians from death," she says.
Her husband, she tells me, has joined the Territorial Defence Forces to fight for their people, along with thousands of fellow civilians. Thousands of Americans, too, have volunteered and applied for visas to join the Ukrainian army.
Since Putin began his attacks on Ukraine in late February, Timoshenko and her mother have spent most of their time underground, hiding from the air strikes. "But between the sirens, we try to provide all possible humanitarian assistance," she says.
Part of her company's team left Ukraine, but some stayed. "Every morning, we make a roll call in chat rooms to make sure everyone's okay," Timoshenko says. (As of Sunday, more than 1.5 million people had fled Ukraine in what is now the "fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II," Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said, per ABC News.) Timoshenko, herself, evacuated Kyiv and is now in the region of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, in a city she does not want to name, due to safety concerns.
Timoshenko's store and coffee shop, Katimo Cafe, are now closed, with all production halted, and yet, she donated some of the money from her cafe sales to volunteer organizations delivering food and medicine to Ukrainians in need.
Before the war began, Timoshenko launched a fall/winter collection of minimalistic slip dresses and elegant, oversized fur coats and ponchos, and was working on a spring/summer collection, which was meant to launch on March 17. "Until that terrible morning when war was declared, I was sure that our spring would be wonderful; the new collection was supposed to be very bright, fresh, and more festive than usual. The main message was the idea that we should learn to celebrate life every day, regardless of whether there is a reason—that we shouldn't save the most beautiful dress for a special occasion, because every new day is the best day," she says. "But right now, in light of all events, that sounds tone-deaf."
When I ask what she thinks of Paris Fashion Week continuing on amid the terrible chaos, she says she's actually proud of how the global fashion industry has responded to the issue and shown support for Ukraine. "Unfortunately, the war in Ukraine is not the first in the world. And, of course, the industry should not stop its work. PFW and other fashion weeks are very important," she says. "We see that street style from fashion weeks turns into demonstrations in support of Ukraine. Several well-known brands are changing the format of their shows as a sign of solidarity with our country. And I think it's very important, and I'm very grateful."
Indeed, designers and models from around the world have voiced their outrage over Putin's attack and donated funds to help the people of Ukraine, while many brands—including Chanel, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Burberry, and Hermès—have suspended their business activity in Russia. Demna, the current creative director of Balenciaga, dedicated his entire fall/winter 2022 show to the cause, saying in a statement on the brand's Instagram, and on cards given to show attendees, that it was an ode to "fearlessness," "resistance," and "the victory of love and peace."
Timoshenko says she and her fellow designers in Ukraine are all very worried about the state of their country, and nearly all of them have been donating to the army, the shelters, and the humanitarian funds. "Someone transfers money, someone sews and delivers warm clothes for soldiers and people who find themselves in a difficult situation. Many are involved in helping to find temporary housing in Europe, coordinating people who are forced to leave in search of safety," she says. "We are all very united now. Ukraine is a country that allowed us to become who we are, and we are ready to give everything we have for the sake of victory and our freedom."
Asked what Western fashion brands can do to help, Timoshenko says: Continue to flood social media with what's really happening in Ukraine, attend protests in your city, donate to local organizations, and give Ukrainian refugees jobs.
Meanwhile, they will continue to fight for their lives. "We are very scared, but we are not broken, and we believe that justice and peace will be restored," Timoshenko says.