With her innovative take on upcycling, Yasia Khomenko has been a star of Ukraine’s fashion scene long before reinventing used clothes became a buzzy vision of the industry’s eco-conscious future. She first began upcycling for her eponymous label RCR Khomenko in 2010, creating her graduate collection out of her sister’s old wardrobe; meanwhile, for her 2011 runway debut at Ukrainian Fashion Week in Kyiv, she made clothes from curtains and tablecloths sourced from surrounding villages. One of her standout creations is a dress weighing 10kg she made from forgotten merch T-shirts, which was later displayed in the window of the popular boutique Les Suites in Paris.
At the end of February, however, when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, Khomenko fled Kyiv to temporarily live in the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk. It was there she first began upcycling donated clothes, reworking damaged and unwearable clothing from refugee centres to raise money for charity, before continuing the practice upon relocating to Poland.
At first, Khomenko was using her skills to help to sew items for the Ukrainian military, but while working with local refugee organisations to collect clothing for refugees, she began to notice the surplus of donated garments. Many were not particularly useful for refugees, and so were earmarked to be thrown away. “I was in volunteer centres and there would be dirty bedsheets and erotic sex costumes, just unnecessary things at this stage,” she says. With this in mind, Khomenko gathered up these damaged donations and began fusing the garment scraps together using compression technology. (Unlike previously, when Khomenko was sewing pieces by hand, the compression technique allowed her to fuse together larger batches of clothing at one time.)
The results, most of which are long-sleeved shirts, are striking: discarded soccer jerseys fused together or patchworked, their kaleidoscopic hues of pinks, oranges, reds, and floral prints meshed seamlessly. Sometimes, Khomenko intentionally infuses strips of yellow and blue as a nod to the Ukrainian flag—and as an intentional symbol of hope. “Ukraine is about destruction and reconstruction,” she says. “For so many years our culture was destroyed but we rise again and again. That is my whole practice.” Currently, each piece retails for €420, and Khomenko is donating 50 per cent of the proceeds to volunteers aiding elderly and disabled Ukrainians unable to leave their homes.
While the project right now only focuses on leftover clothing in Poland and Ukraine, Khomenko has plans to take the project global. In the future, she hopes that people will bring their discarded clothing to her personally to be transformed into a new garment – and that the process can act as a reflection, however small, of her country’s endurance in the face of war. “It is important for me to have this conversation about reconstruction from destruction,” she says. “We will rebuild our country from ashes. That’s our superpower and I am honoured to be part of it.”