Exclusive interview with Mariya Suant, the founder of I AM VOLYA, an online boutique that showcases the best of Ukrainian fashion. In the midst of the full-scale war in Ukraine, Mariya’s inspiring journey led her to create a platform that not only promotes modern Ukrainian culture but also supports the country’s economy. Today, we delve into the inspiration behind I AM VOLYA and its role in bridging communities, uniting Ukrainians, and sharing the stories of resilience and creativity through the world of fashion. Join us as we uncover the captivating story behind I AM VOLYA and its impact on promoting Ukrainian culture abroad.

Unpolished: Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind the I AM VOLYA project and how it came to be during the full-scale war in Ukraine?

Mariya Suant: I was born in Mariupol, an eastern city brutally invaded by russia. It was really tough to see my city being destroyed to the ground and to lose any contact with half of my family for weeks before they managed to escape from the occupation.

Going through such an amount of stress, the only way for distraction was by helping out any way I could: volunteering at refugee centres, joining protests, and constantly donating. But then I thought, what else could I do to support my country?

Coming from the fashion industry, I knew I had a unique way to help. I’ve always loved Ukrainian designers and realised I could help support the industry during these challenging times.So, I started I AM VOLYA. This project isn’t just about showing off Ukrainian culture. It’s also about supporting our economy. By selling our brands abroad, we can keep our businesses alive and create jobs. This is our way of keeping Ukraine strong during these tough times.

What motivated you to gather the best designers and introduce modern Ukrainian culture to the British audience?

With I AM VOLYA, I’ve had the privilege of gathering an array of designers who inspire me and whose work I adore. The collection at IAMVOLYA.COM reflects my taste and preferences. Every item we stock is something I’d personally wear.

Our platform is well-balanced between internationally recognized designers who have made a splash during London, Paris, and Berlin Fashion Weeks, and also emerging brands just stepping onto the scene. Each brand from our selection is made in Ukraine, their items are produced in limited quantities, and each piece tells a story – a narrative of its creation.
What really amazes me about Ukrainian designers is their determination. Even with everything happening back home – from the constant attacks to power blackouts during a really hard winter – they’ve kept going and kept creating.

One of the unique things about Ukrainian fashion is the clear identity each brand carries, often a reflection of the designer’s personality. They like to play around with our traditions but with a modern twist. Many also focus on upcycling and hand-making items, resulting in unique and high-quality pieces.

By introducing these designers to a British audience, we’re not only showcasing a range of beautiful garments but also telling a story of Ukrainian perseverance, adaptability, and unbreakable spirit. Through fashion, we bring a piece of Ukraine’s vibrant culture and resilient heart to the world stage.

How do you see I AM VOLYA acting as a bridge between Ukrainians in London and the beloved brands

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, many Ukrainian women have fled the country and come to the UK. They’ve had to leave their homes because of the war, and they miss everything about Ukrainian culture. They’re passionate about showing off their heritage, so having their favourite Ukrainian brands right here in the UK is something they value.We often get messages on Instagram from people saying, “I need a gift from a Ukrainian brand for my British friend by tomorrow. Can I get it?” The answer is always “yes” because we offer free pick up from our office in Barbican.Then some Ukrainians’ve been living in the UK for a long time. They’ve seamlessly integrated into the UK society, leading to a slight disconnect from the evolving fashion landscape in Ukraine. They visit Ukraine infrequently, and when they do, shopping isn’t their primary focus. However, with the emergence of I AM VOLYA, these long-time London-based Ukrainians are now rediscovering their own fashion industry. Dressing in Ukrainian brands from head to toe has become more than just a trend, it’s a celebration of their heritage in a country far from home.

Could you share more details about the featured designers and their involvement in London Fashion Week?

Sure, our curated selection of Ukrainian brands is truly exceptional, featuring labels that have gained global recognition among A-list celebrities such as Rihanna, Hadid Sisters, Celine Dion, Dua Lipa, Lily Collins and many more.A great example is Frolov, a standout in our portfolio and my favourite. Frolov’s creativity has taken centre stage, designing a dress for Beyoncé’s grand return performance in Dubai after five years and also for Sam Smith’s recent music video.This creative brilliance doesn’t end with Frolov. Sharing the spotlight, KSENIASCHNAIDER, a denim brand acclaimed for its mastery in upcycling vintage denim, is also making its mark. Both brands had their shows as part of London Fashion Week in February, presenting their Fall-Winter ’23-’24 collection. This was a momentous occasion, not just for the brands but for the entire Ukrainian community.It’s an exciting period for Ukrainian fashion as we witness these homegrown brands earn the recognition they deserve. And I can’t help but express my joy at being part of this amazing journey. It’s a testament to the blossoming of Ukrainian creativity on the global stage and a validation of our work with I AM VOLYA.

Why is it important for I AM VOLYA to build communities and unite Ukrainians? How fashion could help here?

Uniting Ukrainians isn’t really our main focus with I AM VOLYA because our people are more united than ever right now. What I enjoy, though, is building an international community around our project. We might be an online boutique first and foremost, but we also love organising real-world events, not just to sell our clothes but to bring people together.We like to host community brunches, for example, where people can connect and have fun. And it’s so heartwarming to see people from all over the world at our events – not just Ukrainians and Brits, but UK residents from Greece, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Barbados, Chile, the US, and more. These people value unique, high-quality products with a story behind them.And sharing those stories is a big part of what we do. When we tell people about our products, we also talk about our culture, our traditions, and what’s happening in Ukraine. It’s fashion with a deeper meaning, and that’s something people connect with.

Can you describe the latest themed pop-ups organised by I AM VOLYA to connect with the Ukrainian community in Britain? How frequently are these pop-ups held?

Our latest pop-up, “Carol of the Bells,” took place at the Truman Brewery last December. The event name pays tribute to the beloved Christmas carol penned by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych. The first time international audiences were introduced to this song was back in 1922 at Carnegie Hall. Since then, it has become synonymous with the festive season in many Western countries.At our pop-up, we celebrated both fashion and the holiday spirit – our range of products catering to everyone’s needs. Whether you were a trendsetter searching for that unique ensemble to stun at your Christmas party or someone looking for a handcrafted gift to express your love, we had something for you.One of the most heartwarming aspects of these pop-ups is seeing the diversity of our customers. It’s delightful to see a Japanese tourist buying an embroidered scarf from us, knowing she’ll bring it home, share her experience, and spread awareness of Ukrainian culture. Or witnessing an Australian client find a cheeky piece of lingerie. These moments truly underscore the universal appeal of Ukrainian fashion.Our latest event took place as part of the Eurovision in Liverpool, a ‘Discover Ukraine’ market. It was an incredible opportunity to introduce Ukrainian-made products to the half a million visitors of Liverpool and to engage in meaningful conversations about the current events back home.

All the offline events are a significant part of our mission at I AM VOLYA, and we look forward to hosting more of them in the future.

How do you envision the future growth and impact of I AM VOLYA in promoting Ukrainian culture and are there any upcoming projects or collaborations that we can look forward to from I AM VOLYA?

At I AM VOLYA, our vision for the future is expansive and driven by a passion for sharing the beauty of Ukrainian culture. We plan to keep organising community events, markets, and pop-ups, particularly during the summer when London comes alive with visitors. This presents an ideal chance to share our unique fashion and culture with a global audience.However, the ultimate goal is to create a full-time, physical boutique beyond retail. This space won’t just be a place to buy clothes; it’ll be a locale where you can touch, feel, and truly experience the essence of the Ukrainian spirit. Having lived between London and Kyiv for the past six years, I’ve grown to appreciate the uniqueness of both cities. My dream is to blend the best of two worlds, showcasing a unique fusion that brings together the ambience of both in a remarkable way.Keep an eye out for upcoming projects and collaborations from I AM VOLYA – we’re always looking to make strides in promoting Ukrainian culture and leaving a positive impact wherever we go.

In your view, how does I AM VOLYA contribute to the broader cultural exchange and appreciation between Ukraine and the UK?

I AM VOLYA plays a crucial role in sparking conversations and encouraging mutual appreciation between Ukrainians and the UK community. This was particularly evident during our time in Liverpool for the Eurovision. People would stop by to purchase artisan ceramics by Gunia Project, and we’d share with them the story behind each piece – stories of how these items were crafted during blackouts, with artisans painting by the light of a head torch. This human connection often left visitors with a profound understanding of the resilience ingrained in our culture and the significance of their support.

Each item we offer carries a story. For instance, a T-shirt featuring an image of a Mariupol hospital before the war, part of the capsule collection “Postcards from Ukraine” by a streetwear brand M1R, would lead to a personal tale about my family and my hometown, underlining the fact that the depicted hospital no longer stands.

Another example is a gold-gilded rooster pendant from Gunia Project. This piece symbolises Ukrainian resilience, tracing back to a story of a shelled house in the Kyiv region where a ceramic rooster on a kitchen cupboard was one of the few items left intact. This rooster was later presented to Boris Johnson as a testament to our resilience.

The emotional impact of these stories varies greatly. Some leave us with tears in their eyes, and others depart smiling. I AM VOLYA isn’t just a commercial venture to me; it’s about bridging connections between the modern culture of Ukraine and the wonderful UK audience. Since our launch last September, we’ve built a community of loyal customers who have become more like friends. Through our project, we’re weaving connections not only between two nations but among forward-thinking, like-minded people worldwide.