“I bought it at a market. It wasn’t even a store. It was by the street. It wasn’t branded,” Ksenia Schnaider, smiling in unfeigned fondness, recalled of her first pair of jeans. “It was, I think, from China, but I really, really loved it.”
The setting was Kiev in the early ’90s. Schnaider, then a teenage student, had heard of “cool American denim brands” — Levi’s, Lee, Wranglers — but their products had yet crossed over the strict borders of post-Soviet Eastern Europe. With no denim producers in the country, garments constructed in the material were regarded as a rare luxury in Ukraine. Street vendors illegally smuggled in denim from all over the world. Prior to purchasing her first pair at the street market, Schnaider’s childhood household, in fact, had only one pair of jeans. “My mother and father both wore it. They shared it. It was like having a fur coat or something,” she said in an earlier interview.
Fast forward to some two decades later, the material that captivated Schnaider as a child began to infiltrate her daily life. During a beach holiday, she met her Russian partner, Anton, then a graphic designer for Yandex (Russia’s take on Google), of whose surname she — and in 2011, their namesake label — eventually adopted. Although not exclusive to denim, the Ksenia Schnaider label has been increasingly synonymous to its denim line. And perhaps for all the right reasons: The husband-and-wife duo constantly looks for ways to destabilise the normative mould for denim, inventing fantastical silhouettes the likes of their Instagram-viral demi-denim, a “skirt, shorts and jeans combo” launched in 2017 that is now beloved to the Hadid sisters, Adwoa Aboah and Dua Lipa. Another newer hybrid — an optically jarring mash-up of half-straight, half-flared jeans — has been on high demand since its debut earlier this year.
In a collaboration with sustainable denim manufacturer ISKO, the label’s famed demi-denim jeans were remade in eco-denim that’s threaded with pre- and post-consumer recycled cotton and recycled polyester from plastic bottles.
“For me, I think of it as more of an ironic “joke”,” Anton, 38, remarked, motioning two fingers on each hand, “but Ksenia, she dreamed about these pants for years.” Despite her husband’s initial reservations, Ksenia, 35, admitted to creating the absurd pieces for herself; for the sheer fun of it. “You don’t care whether or not people will buy or love them. There’s always a balance in the collection. You produce some very commercial designs and some that you truly believe in,” she said. “You just have to create it. Otherwise, you’ll go crazy.”
Beyond their buzzy virality, these odd-shaped denim pieces are doing something else, too; something more crucial for the industry: They close several loops in fashion waste. In Ukraine, where denim manufacturers are still hard to come by, Ksenia brewed these wild designs in her head without knowing exactly how to materialise them. But three years ago, after recurring trips to local flea markets where she scoured for secondhand jeans, she realised then that a massive amount of good denim would be obsolete — most ending up in landfills.
The Schnaiders’ Fall/Winter ’19 collection features upcycled knitwear, sportswear and, of course, denim, including their viral asymmetrical jeans (pictured above, top left).
The brand started upcycling old, vintage denim. The demi-denim, for instance, is assembled by deconstructing three pairs of vintage jeans which will then be stitched back together, requiring five days to produce eight to 10 pairs. Soon, leftover fabrics from factories — knitwear or sportswear materials — were added to their salvos. “The factories, they’ll just throw these away. It’s really easy [to acquire them] because the factories don’t need them anymore. Sometimes we buy them. Sometimes, they just send them for free,” Ksenia explained. These materials became central to their recent Fall/Winter ’19 collection, some sliced and patchworked into mosaics.
The Schnaider couple in their studio.
Headquartered in Kiev, the Schnaiders now run a studio with 48 employees, producing most of their clothing there. Building their independent company from the ground up with no investors nor mentors to seek advice from, Ksenia and Anton work on almost everything together — from production to public relation and logistics — balancing each other’s strengths and weaknesses as they figure out the nuts and bolts of the trade. “In short, I’m the thinker,” posited Anton. “Ksenia is more the maker; the doer. If she has ideas, she doesn’t wait. She does it.”
The husband and wife’s home, situated about 20 minutes away from the studio, is where they would go back every day to have further discussions about work over dinner. “It’s not easy to come home bringing work with you. We’re trying to separate our personal and work lives, but for now, we have yet to,” Ksenia sheepishly chuckled. Anton added, “We wait for these days to come. For our balance.”
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