Autumn in Kharkiv


An excerpt from Chapter 12 entitled ‘Ukrainian partnership’ of ecodesigner Samudra’s new book, ‘The Freedom of Having Nothing’.

After my encounter with Vitaly and Varia in Kharkiv, the idea of teaming up to develop Art D’Eco has grown to the point where I am on my way back to Kharkiv. By now I can speak a little Russian, with Vitaly and Varia’s patient soviet endurance and endless correcting and my long lists of written words. From breakfast to the last herbal tea at night I am learning at full speed. I don’t have a fixed program for my two months here, apart from wanting to make a collection, but I also want to stay open to where possibilities could lead us.

Varia and I head straight to the secondhand shops all over the city. They have a great system: each day is a different price per kilo for the used materials, ranging from top quality garments and shoes, to slightly lesser quality goods, and further down to stained, faded, or torn materials. Working together is a great time of learning for both of us. Varia makes patterns, grades sizes, alters existing patterns, and so many other technical things I know nothing about. The best discovery is learning how to get maximum use from every piece of fabric: cutting all the stitches along the seams then washing and ironing the pieces out flat.


Vitaly and Varia are in their late twenties, about the same age as me. After years of being together they have become inseparable and what one can’t do, the other can. They love each other very much. To be independent from the family and make an income on their own, Varia has been slowly teaching Vitaly the knack of tailoring. Despite the relentless hardships of their day-to-day living they have chosen to be independent and do what they really love: tailoring. Everything is hand-to-mouth here, an economy of survival. There is no safety net to fall back on: no savings account or health insurance, and any sudden medical expenses create an upheaval. They can’t turn to other family for help because they are no better off. They never say no to any of their private customers while we work on our collection together. During the two months I am here Varia works stoically on a red wedding dress, stitching in countless handmade roses. The satin material is very slippery and her fingers are crisped all the time. But despite all this, Vitaly and Varia are joyful people, always seeing the positive side of any situation. And they are compassionate, understanding, humble, and generous. They are not only teachers and technicians but a source of inspiration in how to endure life without complaint. I have much to learn from them.

Sadly, though, they have also learned resignation. I ask Varia, “What is your dream?”

Nobody has ever asked her this; she is shy and resigned, as many people in the ex-Soviet Union are. Is this fatalistic or just realistic, daring to dream of something else, a future, holding hopes and dreams? None of this is part of the soviet culture. I have to ask her the question again.

“I would like to see Paris, this is my dream. I want to see fashion in Paris,” Varia tells me.

Our collection is taking shape: a gorgeous A-line long skirt from an old coat with matching lace bustier; a series of blouses from bed sheets and tablecloths; an A-shaped dress for a baby, cut from flowery cotton curtains; Ukrainian railway company blankets cut into vests and miniskirts with old Russian kopek coins for buttons; sports jackets with computer key buttons and hoods cut from silver tarpaulin material; a series of parachute fabric bags (one is shaped like a mini padded skirt with huge pockets to keep the buttocks warm in winter; and another a fabric shoulder bag, designed to fit over the front of the body); and belts made from tractor inner tubes with Red Army hammer-and-sickles for belt buckles. Thanks to Varia’s meticulous work the clothes are made with proper lining, overlocked seams, and properly sized. All this is new for Art D’Eco.

We create what becomes our bestseller item for years to come, the Lux bag made from old coats – the pockets kept as a feature – with used shawls or satin pyjamas for the lining, and phone cables for the handles. The textiles are always high quality and sturdy, in real wool or silk; not the cheap rubbish we now find mostly in the West. Making the Lux bag is a challenge, especially the setting up of the four metal eyelets. I have to take all the bags to the top end of Pushkinskaya Street, to the dedushka (the grandpa, as we call the shoemaker). He doesn’t understand our bag, using old coats, or our recycling, and he is reluctant to set up the eyelids. I have no choice, I’m going to have to stay with him and show him how and where to set them up. I put my finger on each spot where he needs to set up the trims. It takes a long time.

Our working conditions are challenging. It is autumn and the temperatures drop quickly. The apartment ceilings are high and it’s too expensive to heat up each room so we dress in layers and layers of wool; walking around or working is hard with all the thickness and weight and you end up with sweaty armpits. All we take for granted in the West – having a comfortable chair to sit on, a table at the right height for your back, good lightning, smoothly working doors, light and practical kitchen utensils, clean food ready to be cooked, a washing machine and a line long enough to hang up your laundry – we have none of this here. There is no such thing as a morning shower, just a sponge bath with hot water heated in the kettle. To cook a meal means sorting the veggies from the parents’ house out on the cold balcony where they are stored, cleaning off the mud then peeling and cooking them. Without a washing machine means hand-washing everything in the bathtub, either with cold water or heated up stove water – a backbreaking exercise, especially with all the thick long bed covers and other materials we’re working with.

Everything requires effort and adaptation to poor, broken or half-working equipment. Often I see Vitaly with a screwdriver in his hand, pulling apart the insides of the sewing machine or an overlocker, a radio or an iron. The first expression I learn is “Ne rabotaet rabota” (“It doesn’t work”). We are lucky if we have a full day without a power cut. If there is enough daylight remaining we can work easily, but if it is dark the candlelight cannot throw out enough light to finish the detail jobs. So we might as well cook, even if it isn’t the right time for it, or socialize and drink cognac and vodka to warm up and relax. We never know if the power cut will last ten minutes or six hours. Sometimes it comes back in the middle of the night and Varia goes back to her sewing machine.

Excerpted from ecodesigner Samudra’s (Katell Gélébart) new book, ‘The Freedom of Having Nothing’.

‘The Freedom of Having Nothing’ is available as Kindle or paperback from (Kindle)

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Samudra (Katell Gélébart), originally from Bretagne, France, studied Scandinavian languages at Paris University. Self-taught and passionate about reusing since childhood, she opened Art D’Eco, a tiny eco-fashion boutique in Amsterdam. She has travelled to Denmark, India, Australia, Ukraine, working with local people and staying long enough to inspire them about new ways of living lightly on the earth.
In 2007 she took sannyas in Pune and, in 2012, she won the Kairos Prize and last winter she published her memoir ‘The Freedom of Having Nothing’.

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