Part of a series in collaboration with 1Granary
Words by Abigail Southan
Yulia Kondranina has always designed with one thing in mind: “I feel that most women are driven to buying new clothes because they just want to be beautiful,” says the womenswear designer. Fashion’s need to destabilize convention and perpetuate newness can result in a detachment between the wearer and the art, creating an exhaustive cycle of trends that outrun the reality of our own wardrobes. Kondranina is one of the rare few to look beyond these short-term hypes. “I’m not afraid to be judged,” she assures me.
The Russian designer came on the scene in 2012, graduating amongst Craig Green, Helen Lawrence, and Rottingdean Bazaar’s Luke Brooks. Her ethereal depiction of showgirl fringing was fascinating; thousands of intricate layers resulted in spectacular, kinetic clothing that didn’t so much as shimmy but flowed. Her namesake label carries collections with that same graceful knowingness, something that looks simple in its sheer beauty but is actually very complicated in its assembly. Kondranina herself exemplifies this sentiment. She is simplicity, femininity, and elegance in one. Sitting calmly in her Stoke Newington studio, she’s dressed in a black blazer and jeans, with natural waves in her dark bob and a fresh, makeup-less face that is full of youth. She smiles wryly when she says, “I am probably a bit older than you think.”
Her career actually began back in 2000, at the Moscow State Textiles University. “That was 17 years ago. We barely had internet!” she recalls. Unlike probably every other design graduate, you won’t see a single internship on her resume. In a sense, Kondranina has done it on her own, with her no fuss and frills way. Between her BA and MA, she worked for three years as a designer on the high street in Moscow, learning the practicalities and realities of consumerism and clothing – as opposed to ‘fashion’. “It was literally mad. You do all the collections one after another, I had 12 or 14 capsules going at the same time.”
This work was a far cry from the creative cocoon that is Central Saint Martins but Kondranina will admit that “it was good training because you actually see how it’s done in real life.” What she took away from the experience helped her to get down to earth, steering away from the artistic illusions that drive designers to vanity projects. “I saw what people like, what sells, what their taste is. To be honest, I’m still observing what people like. You can design whatever you want to design, but at the end of the day, they might not buy it. That’s just how it is.”
Someone who believed that the designer had the potential to sell almost anything was her MA course leader, the late Louise Wilson. When realizing Kondranina was working part-time as a consultant at WGSN to fund her studies, she stepped in. “In the lead up to the final show she was calling me like, ‘why are you not here? You have to be here.’ I didn’t sleep all night, I was crying because your collection won’t be ready.’” The solution was to pull a three-week sickie at work – Wilson’s idea. “She asked me how much I earnt a week and then she raised that money for me. It was amazing.”
The graduate collection landed her interviews at Givenchy and Saint Laurent but her Russian passport became too much of an obstacle to overcome. “You know maybe I should have gone to work for someone before I started my own brand, but the documents made it really difficult. And then I was here, in London, and I was feeling like, ‘this is my dream, this is why I came to this country.’” So, naïve in one sense and brave in another, she began Yulia Kondranina.
The risk paid off and she won the Fashion Scout‘s Merit Award in 2013 – the prize was £25,000 and fully sponsored catwalk shows at both London and Paris Fashion Week. (Previous winners are Mugler’s David Koma, Phoebe English, and Eudon Choi). And soon, the stockists followed: Selfridges, Opening Ceremony and Dover Street Market in New York. “Everyone would say to me ‘you have to do more commercial collections.’ So, I did, and then we started selling…”
Kondranina admits she had to bend a little; past collections have been patterned and punkier, with strapping, neon brights and even utilitarian eyelets. Here you see the clash between creativity and commerciality kick in, the strive to sell whilst remaining true to your brand. “You know what,” she muses. “It’s not that you do something you don’t want to do, it’s just that you’re testing it, to see what people’s reactions will be.” She sold to the epitome of commerciality, none other than Kim Kardashian. The social media maven was spotted in a Kondranina creation from autumn/winter 14, purchased herself from Opening Ceremony. When most designers would be pleased to capitalize on this fact, Kondranina has seemingly ignored it.
It’s this integrity that makes Kondranina so refreshing. She’s come full circle, believing in beauty above buzz. Longevity. And with that, she has arrived at her signature aesthetics. The timeless silhouettes offset by an element of natural bohemia, a sense of how the real woman would dress, not adhering strictly to one code or another. Spring/summer 18 sees un-ironed gauze fabrics and slick satins sliced to showcase elegant hints of skin, easy unfinished seams and undulating, asymmetric hems adorned with trailing wisps of tassels – a subtle nod to her first fringe collection. They’re all decoration to her standout pieces; the pleated pants, hourglass outerwear, and bias-cut dresses which both idealize and adhere to the body’s natural curves, the ones that showcase her impeccable pattern cutting skills – perhaps a rarer trait that it should be in today’s fashion world.
“Those quick hot trends, they disappear really fast,” Kondranina reminds me. “When it comes down to it, maybe we don’t need that much clothing, just several good pieces that are substantial and special to you. I hope people who buy my clothing think it’s something special.” And there’s no doubt that it is. She can’t bear to outsource her production, so each garment is handmade by Kondranina and her fellow perfectionist in crime, Emma Kasyan. Inevitably, it can be tough to hit up two seasons a year, let alone indulge in Pre-Fall and Resort.
Is time of the essence then? “I think for the last three years it has been taking all my life. At one point I started having problems with my husband because he said I am not interested in anything apart from my dresses.” A little enlightenment came when she “dragged” him to see Dior and I. “He turned to me at the end, and he said, ‘I think I finally understand what you are doing’ – it took him three years!” Raf Simons has that effect on a lot of people.
Like Simons, Kondranina wants to fight the fashion cycle. She is looking to pursue a slower way: perhaps pulling archival pieces and reintroducing them into new seasons, removing herself from the rat race and committing herself to craftsmanship. Seeing what sells best, seeing what women love. It could be just the breath of fresh air that fashion needs.