When the first rockets fell near my house in Ukraine on February 24, 2022, I packed my family’s life into two black suitcases. From my own large wardrobe, I chose two pairs of jeans, two hoodies and a warm down coat. Just before leaving the house, I ran back to my bedroom and threw in a red lipstick and my favourite perfume, Lancôme’s Magnolia Rosae. It was irrational, I knew. Already, the lives of my family—my husband; son, 15; and daughter, 9—were divided into before and after the bombs. But later, friends told me of similar impulses. One had selected six silk scarfs; another packed a pair of high heels and a short skirt. Under the influence of almost unimaginable fear, we grasped for our favourite things.
Our family fled to the countryside. Ukrainian women generally take pride in their appearance, but in the first weeks of the war, we didn’t care about how we looked. We sat in bomb shelters in the same clothes day after day. Our celebrities appeared on live broadcasts without makeup, their eyes full of tears. One famous Ukrainian actress said in an interview that she did not take off her black hat for the first two weeks of war.
The panic and chaos intensified. All shops were closed for two months; it was possible to buy only some food and medicine. In eastern Ukraine, where hostilities were active, most shopping centres were bombed. Shop owners tried to save their clothes by transporting them to safer cities and offering pieces at deep discounts, but there was no demand for fashion. All the luxury brands—Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton—left Ukraine. European retailers like H&M closed up shop, too; they couldn’t guarantee safe conditions for their employees and customers. Ukrainian designers struggled: all the airports were closed and transport companies were afraid to work in such extreme conditions. Many designers started creating patriotic clothing or sewing uniforms for the military. This was supposed to be a festive year for our country’s once-vibrant fashion industry, celebrating 25 years of Ukrainian Fashion Week. Overnight, it crumbled.
War is like an everyday suit that you put on every morning and that gets heavier and heavier during the day.
With so much loss around us, the loss of fashion may seem minor—and compared to how much so many have suffered, of course it is. But fashion is also a symbol of hope. I noticed this last summer when the war situation calmed down a little. During that period, I felt a great desire to wear beautiful dresses in bright colours. I bought a pink dress, a yellow linen suit and a green swimsuit with a voluminous flower. (My husband was skeptical until I told him, “It’s bright clothes or pink hair.”) I knew, of course, that I wouldn’t be visiting the seaside during wartime. But wearing those clothes helped me reconnect, in a small way, with the person that I had been before the bombs started dropping.
Last fall, a more aggressive phase of the war began. Russia now often fires at our energy facilities, so we live constantly without light and heat. Sometimes the lights go out very suddenly. If you arrive to a meeting in an unironed suit or with unkempt hair, everyone understands. Very warm clothes that are not easily flammable—that’s what’s important now. My friend told me that she bought beautiful, warm pyjamas so that if a missile flies at her house during the night, she will feel beautiful at the last moment of her life. It sounds absurd, but war is absurd. It’s like an everyday suit that you put on every morning and that gets heavier and heavier during the day.
Sometimes my friends and I indulge ourselves with tokens from an earlier life. We meet in a safe café, put on dresses and give each other sincere compliments. During these sweet meetings, I realize that, although our eyes have lost some brightness, we have become stronger. We learned to live in the here and now—we know there might not be a next day or next year.
At night, when my kids are asleep, I take out my fragrance, the one I packed a year ago that awful morning before I could imagine how much pain and grief my country would go through. Head bowed, I inhale deeply, and remember. That scent is the smell of freedom—and of peace.