Lviv designer Oksana Karavanska has been one of the biggest names in Ukrainian fashion for over a decade, but despite TV fame and demand for her distinctive look across Ukraine she has resisted the temptation to move to Kyiv and continues to split her time between the capital and her native city. After setting out on her own in the then-embryonic world of post-independence Ukrainian fashion in the early 1991s, Karavanska has become a regular headliner at Ukrainian fashion week, a star pundit on the country’s most popular fashion TV show and the owner of her own flagship boutique on Kyiv’s central Khreschatyk Street. Typically for Karavanska, the Kyiv boutique is decorated in giant floor to ceiling prints of Lviv skylines, capturing the essence of timeless Lviv in a particularly fresh and modern manner.
Is there such a thing as a specific Lviv style?
I think in general people in Lviv are moving closer and closer to more general European styles of dress, but there is still definitely something that could be termed as a Lviv look. Lviv has always had a sense of dress that stands out from any other European city in the way accent is placed on beautiful but not necessarily fashionable things. Whenever I am on the jury of a fashion show I can usually guess which designers are from Lviv just by the feel of their collections. 99% of the time I’ll be right. Lviv designers love to use very complex and very beautiful features. The intricate elements are often symmetrically aligned and done to an academic model, with far too much attention to detail. Sadly, fashion in Lviv is not an industry, which prevents its development. A designer should be an artist, but it is also important to remember that we work in an industry.
Where do you go when you want to capture the soul of Lviv?
To feel the enchantment of the city I love to stroll on the small cobbled side streets around Rynok Square. When I was a student in Soviet times we used to have to pass through the neighbourhood on our way from one university class to the next, and it was not uncommon for us to disappear into one of the coffee shops on Armenian Street for a few lessons. The coffee was wonderful, even then.
Do you ever imagine what you would have done if the Soviet Union hadn’t collapsed?
To be honest I count myself very lucky that I was born when I was, because it has meant that I have spent my adult life in independent Ukraine. I really don’t know what I would have done in the USSR. In the final years of the Soviet era I was working in a state textiles company and already working on my own clothing ideas. I was offered the opportunity to enter my designs in a fashion show to be held in Estonia, which by that point had already declared independence. As a result of this the party bosses intervened and informed me that it would not be a good idea for a Soviet citizen like me to participate in a bourgeois capitalist country’s cultural life. When the Soviet Union collapsed I was among the first people to register their own fashion brand. People were shocked when I simply gave the brand my own name. “No! You can’t do that!” they told me.
You are best-known today as a fashion adviser and panelist on TV. Did your Ukrainian language fluency help in winning you a prime time position?
My Ukrainian language skills are important for my TV work. Not everyone in Ukraine speaks so fluently and so it is often an advantage for people from Lviv, where we have a proud Ukrainian- language tradition. More and more children are growing up now all over the country who are being educated in Ukrainian, and this is creating a record new generation of Ukrainian speakers.
What kind of reaction do you get from people when you tell them you are from Lviv?
I have noticed that Lviv is getting more and more well known. People I meet in Europe have often heard a lot about the city and know that it is a very beautiful place.
What do you miss about Lviv when you are in Kyiv or elsewhere on your travels?
I miss the Lviv pace of life. In Kyiv I spend half my time in traffic jams or waiting for people in traffic jams, so although in a practical sense everything is in Kyiv, the Lviv mentality is an essential element in my lifestyle. In Lviv people buy my old collections, not this year’s new stuff but always last year’s. Next year they will be buying this year’s clothes, and they are not even any cheaper. This is simply Lviv’s conservatism. I love Lviv, but it is conservative.
What have been the most important changes to have occurred in Lviv since 1991?
On the plus side I would say that Lviv has become a genuinely European city with a beautiful, restored historic centre that is bright and colourful. On the negative side we have also not been able to give talented people a chance to grow and develop in independent Ukraine. That has meant that a lot of clever people have left the country and those who’ve replaced them have not always been of the same caliber.