In 2019, aged only 20, Central Saint Martins graduate Yanis Stepanenko staged a memorable catwalk at Ukranian fashion week, setting the bar high for a career as a fashion designer to watch.
The young Ukranian designer presented a fledgling haute couture collection which showed he had already forged a strong identity through his designs and eponymous label YS Couture by Yanis Stepanenko, which draw inspiration from the folklore, fairy tales and traditions of his country of birth. Yanis’s AW24 collection is titled ‘Memory of Past Incarnations’, and continues his homage to authentic Ukrainian culture and heritage, which feels even more poignant now since the advent of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.
Pictured: Yanis Stepanenko
Through his haute couture creations, Yanis combines his love of Ukrainian culture with slow fashion, a sustainable methodology and an injection of ballroom glitz and glamor from his earlier career as a competitive dancer.
Culturalee conversed with Yanis about his love of dance, art and fashion, his cutural heritage and his creative inspirations.
Culturalee: You studied at the Royal Bournemouth Collegiate School and then at Central Saint Martins. CSM has a reputation for being one of the best institutions for studying fashion design, and its alumni include Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo and Gareth Pugh. What was the experience of CSM like for you and what effect did the teaching have on your subsequent career?
Yan Stepanenko:My fashion career had actually started when I was 8 years old, from my professional ballroom and Latin career. Where me and my dancing partner were representing Ukraine on the highest professional level around the Globe and were five times World champions in juvenile and junior categories. So, dancing was a really significant part of my life, which had always kept me in a creative stream. I was involved in dancing for more than 10 years, and it formed my aesthetic vision.
To develop and engage in design, I embarked on my fashion designer career at the end of my career in ballroom dancing. At the age of 15, I started doing Art in preparation for the IGSCE Cambridge examinations. And already at the age of 16, I enrolled at Bournemouth College of Arts, and for 2 years I studied in depth 3 subjects: Art, photography & textiles.
Creating Art objects and pieces of clothing has always been a part of my self-expression and my inner world. From childhood, wherever I was and whatever I did, I always looked for beauty in the outside world and its origins. But, especially in my design, I was influenced by stage costumes, in which I spent most of my life. Therefore, after graduating from ‘Central Saint Martins’ University, I truly understood that the niche of haute couture, in particular the depth and integrity behind every detail – was something that had stolen my heart forever.
Studying at CSM was a very challenging, but at the same time exciting period of time. This was a true moment when I had to go out of my comfort zone completely. And if to be honest, for me 2017 was a breaking point in my life and career…after total disappointments and misbelief, the CSM fashion institute really got me back on track. I started to feel my direction and true mission in life while I was there. Studying Foundation at CSM was all based on tight deadlines and big projects with an immense amount of sketchbook work, and a very short time frame up to a week.
After every project you had to make a public speech and describe your thoughts and journey in depth. Our tutors were quite strict, with high expectations and truly addicted to a particular format of work and style that favours CSM. They definitely weren’t promoting the topic of “boring” High-End couture, and they don’t really favour students that are going against the system and breaking the templates. But I became one of them! Therefore, it wasn’t the easiest path for me to go through. However, my final Graduation project – “Luminous Shine of eternity”, dedicated to Ukrainian authentic culture – really resonated and was feature in the public exhibition. And most importantly, it formed an understanding of my Identity and DNA that I want to promote further in my brand. I finished my course with a Distinction as a result of my graduation project, which was an exciting surprise that cost me 3 months of sleepless nights in the CSM library, with an immense amount of nerves and stress – an experience that will never be forgotten! I am very grateful for this experience and lesson, which formed my character as a strong creative personality.
Pictured: designs by Yanis Stepanenko
You have described the DNA of your brand as a ‘juxtaposition of past and future- futuristic and historical in an innovative and contemporary interpretation’, and you have a sustainable approach. Can you describe the creative process that goes into creating your fashion, and how you make it sustainable?
First of all, everything me and the team create comes from a really deep love of our Ukrainian traditions, history and cultural heritage left by our ancestors, with an immense amount of symbolism through every detail. Which I juxtapose with one of my favorite Victorian and Renaissance époque – these always come as my main points of reference throughout every our collection and mood board. Aristocratism, refined and provocative elegance, handcraft, natural fibres and comfort, with a note of royalty and hidden sexuality – all of this forms an image of the modern YS Couture lady. We stand for intellectual and slow fashion in every item we produce, couture that can be worn and then passed throughout generations. Our aim is to revive clothing that can be inherited and never lose its relevance.
What has been your most moving cultural experience to date?
The last event, which I have just visited literally few days ago in Ukraine, Kyiv, and which affected me immensely, was an exhibition called “Home for Christmas. The Light of Ukrainian tradition.”
Now when we are on the stage of building our cultural identity and fight for freedom. These kind of exhibitions become more and more relevant and very important. As before, most of the population didn’t honour our traditions as much as they do now. However, since the Full-scale invasion of Ukraine, we became more and more conscious as a nation, and have understood the importance of our language and identity, which have been passed through generations to us as one of the biggest gifts, which we have to cherish and appreciate the most. This last cultural experience I visited have once again demonstrated things that really unite us and demonstrate our basic values…values that need to be nurtured, protected and do everything necessary to pass them on to the future generations. To those who will be brought up on our heritage in the nearest future.
What’s your favourite fashion designer/ artist / book / exhibition / play / film / musician?
From the classics, it is definitely Christian Lacroix and John Galliano with a touch of theatrical spirit, artisanal couture techniques and embroidery, and charm of contrasting textures and brightness of colours, that really link up with my personal vision and philosophy.
From the more contemporary brands I really love the vision of couturiers like Stephan Rolland, Dries Van Noten and Jesús del Pozo, Schiaparelli and Nabil Nayal. Those brands really inspire me to create feminine pieces for the contemporary woman, a combination of contrasting elements, traditional and modern, organic and architectural, sumptuous and pure, the most exquisite and avant-garde materials, details and use of prêt-à-couture philosophy.
Artists that really inspire me are Egon Schiele, Jenny Saville, René Gruau, Cornelia Parker, and installation art. All of them create quite striking pieces that really touch my heart for quite a dynamic, sensual and at the same time grotesque approach, combined with a masterly and yet intuitive instinct for the handling of paint. I like pieces with deep meanings and message. Each of them could be easily transferred into print, textile or form for fashion.
Regarding music, I am a true music lover, so I can’t really outline just one in particular, as it really depends upon my mood. But, some of my favourites lately that I listen to and never get tired of are Sade, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, Adele and Florence & the Machine. They always give me energy and create a mood for the whole day, never depending upon the weather or circumstances.
Regarding films, I would really recommend a sport Drama called “Southpaw”- a really motivational movie based on a real story, which shows the tough rampant path, each human-being has to climb through to get on the top of the Olympus. Regarding a favorite book, which became my personal desk bible in the way of making the right decisions and filtering our thoughts in the right direction, it’s “Reality transferring” by Vadim Zeland.
Image courtesy Yanis Stepanenko
It wasn’t until the Metropolitan Museum in New York City started curating exhibitions of fashion designers, with the 2011 Alexander McQueen ’Savage Beauty’, and making them into artistic, theatrical spectacles, that people started to view fashion as an art form on a part with fine art. Do you think Fashion should have equal status as an art?
To be honest, for me as a designer of the slow-fashion movement with a personal Bespoke approach and a deep meaning -philosophy, which I put into every item we produce, I have always perceived Fashion through the Universe of Art. Since only art can really awaken life. I am more than sure, that art without fashion and fashion without art will never survive on their own. Those 2 concepts are interlinked with each other.
However, fine art at the moment is no longer particularly concerned with beauty, so you could say that fashion – which is always about a concept of beauty, whether or not everyone agrees on the concept – is more relevant, more artistic, than the garbage they put out as conceptual. If you look at it that way, fine art may go by the wayside, and fashion, which has a bit more effort put into it, will take over.
Who are the cultural icons who have inspired you most?
Isabella Blow, Andrey Talley, Tilda Swinton. All of them for me are true Icons who I look up to, and could never stop admiring their personality, attitude, character. I love people, with a special flair for fashion. Even though, all of them come from completely different backgrounds…but, what unites them all for me is a very personal and emotional narrative to fashion.
You dedicated your AW24 collection – ‘Memory of Past Incarnations’ – to what you describe as “our indomitable, strong and brave Ukrainian genus, ancestors and their descendants”. As a Ukrainian it must be incredibly painful and difficult for you to see the war between Russia and Ukraine continue. You are paying homage to your country and ancestry in your fashion designs. Are you working closely with creatives in Ukraine on your collections, and do you feel that creativity and celebration of Ukrainian culture keeps a sense of optimism alive in these challenging times?
Yes, definitely! Through over a decade in any wars and calamities, culture and art was the only thing that kept country and optimism of people up and going to fight against the Evil and bring Peace to this world. As this pure, good energy of light and prosperity awakens faith in our hearts. The Cultural front – through various events, pop-up stores and performances gives us an opportunity to reach to the larger auditory of people around the Globe. Outline, as well as convey a certain position, raise money for the regions and territories which have been affected by Russian aggression the most.
I could say that our contribution to the Victory, as cultural figures keeps our brave, courageous, strong and fearless state of mind, keep reviving and glorifying the everlasting beauty of our country, which will never surrender!
Do you have any advice for young people wanting to become fashion designers?
For the young generation, I would advise most importantly to stay open-minded and curious in every aspect of their lives and careers. For me this is the number one key to success. Number two is to never lose faith in the power of their dreams, as you could achieve much more than you think. Keep moving, keep creating – whatever it will take! And if you do it then the world needs it! Maybe not now, maybe not in this particular moment…but, if you create this you have to believe that it will be successful in the future! And three: never be scared to get out of your comfort zone and jump into the unknown. Because this will be your main point for growth and refinement.