How Fashion is Responding to The War in Ukraine

This morning—just moments before embarking on writing this—I succumbed to stocking up for spring fashion and purchased a pair of Kenneth Cole’s legendary Kam sneakers—yes, the white leather ones with a gold stripe at the back, that every stylish celeb and fashionista seemingly owns. On the product page was a note that with every purchase, Kenneth Cole donates $0.99 to United Help Ukraine, a nonprofit sending first aid to Ukraine. 

Right after making the purchase, it hit me that $0.99 is such a teensy donation—can’t Kenneth Cole, with those sneakers selling like hotcakes, donate more for the cause? 

It has now been almost four months since Russia plowed into Ukraine, killing hundreds of civilians and causing millions to flee the country in search of asylum. The invasion began on the second day of Milan Fashion Week in February, and focusing on something as frivolous as fashion while the world churned in turmoil came off as being blatantly ignorant. Gigi Hadid put this strangeness into words on Instagram, announcing on March 6 that she will be donating all of her earnings from Fashion Week to Ukrainian relief. Sister Bella Hadid soon followed suit, later joined by other models like Kaia Gerber, Vittoria Ceretti, Kiki Willems, and Francesca Summers. 


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A post shared by Gigi Hadid (@gigihadid)

Priority has since shifted to not whether, but how, the trillion-dollar industry will use its sheer size and massive audience to make a stand against Russia and provide aid to Ukrainian refugees. LVMH has risen to the challenge, pledging €5 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross. “Only the Brave” Foundation, which owns Maison Margiela, Marni, and Jil Sander, is working with the UNHCR to help displaced Ukrainians. Chanel has contributed €2 million to relief funds. Giorgio Armani held his Milan Fashion Week show in silence, and Pierpaolo Piccioli offered an exaltation to the people of Ukraine at the beginning of the Valentino Fall/Winter 2022 show. 

Fashion conglomerate Kering, which owns the likes of Gucci, Balenciaga, and Saint Laurent, was one of the first to openly pledge on Instagram a “significant donation” to the United Nations Refugees Agency. While Gucci has given $500,000 to the UNHCR—with more brand donations incoming according to Kering CEO François-Henri Pinault—it was Balenciaga’s exceptional efforts that stood out. 

Balenciaga FW2022
Courtesy of Balenciaga

Aside from wiping and entirely dedicating its social media channels to the conflict and making a donation to the UN World Food Program, designer Demna Gvasalia referenced the horror of the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine by unleashing a snowstorm at Balenciaga’s Fall/Winter 2022 runway show. As models prepared to brave the snow, strong, blustery winds and flashing lights that appeared to mimic bombs, all set within an enormous snow globe, audience members outside the glass held onto blue and yellow t-shirts that had been left on every seat. Attached to each was a note from Demna, who himself had fled Georgia at the age of 12 during the country’s civil war:

The war in Ukraine triggered the pain of a past trauma that I have been carrying inside me since 1993, when the same thing happened in my home country and I became a refugee forever. Forever, because it is something that stays inside.

At the start of the show, the audience listened to a recording of Demna reading a classic Ukrainian poem from the writer Oleksandr Oles, as a prayer of strength for Ukraine. Models bent against the wind carrying heavy leather trash bags added to the severity of the show, yet at the same time appeared to mock the inflated grandiosity of the industry. At that moment, what was originally conceptualized as a commentary on climate change turned into a forceful stand against the war. 


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A post shared by Balenciaga by Demna (@demnagram)

Still, Demna felt that a statement-making runway show and notes of sympathy were not enough—not really doing something about it. Taking serious action, Balenciaga has shut all its stores and halted online sales in Russia, joining the ranks of Chanel, Burberry, Cartier, and Hèrmes, plus high street brands like Zara, H&M, Mango, Nike, and Asos, to include luxury goods in sanctions. This happened after Vogue Ukraine urged fashion brands to place embargoes, in the same vein as Condé Nast suspending all publishing operations in Russia. “Showing your conscience and choosing humanity over monetary benefits is the only reasonable stand one can take in confronting the violent behavior of Russia,” wrote the magazine on Instagram. “Moreover, Vogue UA appeals to the global fashion industry to not keep silence during these dark times as it has the strongest voice.”


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A post shared by Vogue UA (@vogue_ukraine)

In contrast, luxury brands Bulgari, Omega, and Rolex are taking their time in pulling out from Russia, capitalizing on the reported scramble by Russian oligarchs to preserve their savings by investing in luxury goods. Luxury watches and fine jewelry serve as a store of value, known to appreciate and maintain high resale prices even amid currency dives and financial meltdowns caused by war. 

In an interview with Bloomberg, Bulgari group CEO Jean-Christophe Babin heralded the brand’s jewelry as a “safe investment,” admitting that “In the short term it has probably boosted the business.” Babin added that they are sticking around for the people and not for the “political world.” Splitting the two sentiments, and, in doing so, failing to take action against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, reads like a lame excuse. 

How can brands like Bulgari ever, now or in the future, espouse social or ethical credentials when they are apparently unwilling to act beyond the profit motive? Choosing to keep their hold on the lucrative luxury market in Russia comes across as especially blasé at a time when other jewelry brands are making bold statements in solidarity with Ukraine— Tiffany last month announced a pause on buying Russian diamonds, and Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Pandora have left the Responsible Jewellery Council (the watch and jewelry industry’s ethics and standards body) over the group’s refusal to cut ties with Russia. Being unable to commit to a strong moral position in the midst of global unrest, at a time when buyers demand it, paints a dire picture of the Italian jewelry house. 

And the public does not let such insensitivity slide. When Fast Retailing chairman Tadashi Yanai originally announced that Uniqlo would stay open in Russia as the brand does not make political comments, the company was lambasted on social media and a “boycott Uniqlo” hashtag went viral. Seeing that shoppers do not make light of their beloved brand taking an impassive approach to international conflict, that decision has since been reversed. 

The same happened when WeWoreWhat founder Danielle Bernstein used the war to plug her brand. Page Six reported that the influencer, with 2.8 million followers, posted shots of herself in a bikini with the caption: “​​When I say you can do both, I truly mean it. You can post about fashion and post about world issues. You can raise awareness for your new collection while also raising money to give back.” The post received major backlash and was later edited. “Performance activism, is quite literally, the death of change and reform,” aptly responded one commenter.

Taking in this zeitgeist amongst its politically-engaged consumers, we can only hope that fashion houses will up their efforts and do more for Ukraine—like giving more significant donations per purchase, pledging a percentage of their profits this season towards charities that help Ukrainian refugees, and releasing capsule collections or items with profits dedicated to Ukraine. Brands that have not made it clear if they are stopping sales in Russia, like Puma and Ralph Lauren, should pull out post-haste and shout it aloud on social media. Bringing luxury sales to a grounding halt in Russia, and, in turn, taking a hit in revenue in the name of making a stand, weighs so much more than the fashion industry being apologetic for its own existence. 

The absolute least the fashion conscious can do—action that can make a difference—is to support fashion houses that have stopped all sales in Russia, and those that are donating proceeds from sales to help Ukraine, like Minimalist NYC. There are also brands releasing collections dedicated to Ukraine, with 100% of the proceeds going to humanitarian organizations and charities dedicated to supporting Ukrainians affected by the war. These include Brit jewelry brand Misho Designs, a dedicated necklace from Made by Mary, and a chic wave sweater from Edify

We laud Demna for how he forced the fashion set to stop and ask questions, both of ourselves and the industry, and salute brands that have forsaken profits and shut stores in Russia, but a majority of fashion brands need to do more and do it now. This is a time for the fashion industry to live up to its claims of social responsibility, to answer a call for guts and glory, as the war shakes the industry out of apathy and into action. 


Shantila Lee

Shantila Lee is a New York-based fashion journalist and editor. She is a contributing writer at The Urban Watch and has previously worked with StyleCaster, ELLE Malaysia, and Marie Claire Malaysia. She has many opinions about whitening creams, and can typically be found baking kickass brownies and binge-watching old episodes of The X-Files.

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