Her designs landed on the screen of The Hunger Games Mockingjay and among her fans are Lady Gaga, Tyra Banks, Debbie Harry and Nicole Scherzinger. Ukrainian born designer Elena Slivnyak grew up influenced by the ruling sci-fi movies of the 80s- fascinated by the idea of the future as a time and place of advanced inventions. Graduating from San Francisco’s Academy of Arts University, she launched her couture label IIMUAHII. Her designs exemplify the perfect balance between science and traditional savoir faire. Pushing conceptual boundaries- with a strong avant-garde aesthetic that explores a super human theosophy- her designs are highly emotive, inviting the viewer in to a new altered universe. Exceptionally talented and driven, she was cast in Project Runway season 10 and presented her collection at New York Fashion Week and was invited back a year later, by the producers of Project Runway All Stars to compete again. Accepting the challenge she continuously delivered top three looks and became a finalist- showing her final collection at the United Nations representing her home country Ukraine.
What I love most about Elena is that she’s an ardent and inspiring animal rights activist whose principals are not for sale- and these ideas are firmly embedded in the IIMUAHII philosophy. We talk about her new collection, sustainability and technology, the future of fashion, Ukraine and what it means to be a costume designer.
IIMUAHII – “Eee-mooah-eee” – I bet many versions have swung by your ears over the years- what does it stand for?
Oh yes, many different interesting versions! IIMUAHII does not have a specific meaning. When I was at the start of creating my brand, I knew I wanted a name that was one-of-a-kind and that sounded and had an appearance of something almost ‘alienesque’ and out of this world. It took me about one month to finalise IIMUAHII as the official brand name.
Where does your affinity for futuristic designs come from?
Growing up in the 80’s I was exposed to a lot of sci-fi movies like Dune and Robot Cop, and many more. They really inspired me from a young age and the urge to make things better in the future was born in me. At the same time, the women in my family were always very crafty and made their own clothes and knitted sweaters, so I was exposed to that side as well at a very young age. I think as I grew older those two worlds combined somehow.
About your new collection ‘Space Opera’, how did you stumble upon the idea of deep-sea creatures and Asian cultures?
I love looking at un-ideal forms of beauty for my inspirations. I love finding beauty in things people would normally consider ugly or weird. For me finding an insect and studying how it moves, what it does, and the aesthetics of its exoskeleton, is way more interesting than lets say.. a rose. I’ve always wanted to create a collection based on deep sea, which is an enigma on its own, even more unexplored than space, it really is an alien world down there that is beyond interesting to me. The creatures and topography is so surreal and futuristic, it was the perfect muse for my collection. As for the Asian influence, you will always see hints of it in a lot of my designs. I’m obsessed with kimonos, samurai, and Chinese and Korean traditional costume, the lines, construction and silhouettes are really ahead of their time.
The collection focuses on unique production methods- could you tell us about that?
In almost all of my designs, I create my own textiles and textures- and they are usually what set’s the tone for the silhouettes. I do this mainly because I can never find anything unique enough to utilise for my garments. Creating custom textiles in house can be quite an ordeal. Besides that, a lot of the pieces forming “Space Opera”, are 90% hand sewn couture, and a lot of the techniques were developed in house.
Tell me about the Mockingjay movie. With you designing for The Hunger Games, have you always wanted to go towards entertainment and costume design?
Doing costuming for film has always been my goal and dream ever since I can remember. When costume designers Kurt and Bob got in touch with me about ordering a few designs for the movie, I absolutely was flabbergasted. My Character was a barber that was shaving president Snow in the Mockingjay film. I was contacted by Kurt and Bart, the production’s costume designers, and they commissioned a few of my pieces for the film while filming in Paris. It was an amazing experience, and I would love to continue doing things like this in the entertainment industry. Of course I then prefer to remain in the sci-fi category, but I wouldn’t mind venturing off to something more challenging as well.
What was the focus for those costumes?
The focus was a neutral toned costume that was structural and interesting but that could also be in the background of the scene and not stand out too much to distort the main focus of the scene, which was President Snow’s speech.
Are there specific traits and skills for one to be a good costume designer?
I think a good costume designer is well educated in many categories of humanity and it’s history. You have to be well informed not only about costume history, the way of life of different cultures, art, architecture, economics and every other aspect of world history. You should also have enough imagination to be able to picture the character’s world- and be able to create a futuristic type settings as well.
What is the role of the costume in a movie?
Costumes are one of the most important aspects of a film in my opinion. Amazing imagery in conjunction with an amazing story, is what gives interest to a film in my opinion, at least for me. I’m more likely to watch a film that has an amazing visual impact on me as opposed to just a story.
How different (in process) is costume design from regular fashion design?
You have more creative freedom when doing something for a film or another art project than when you’re creating ready-to-wear, where you have to be conscious of pricing and wear-ability and many other aspects that have to do with making a sale.
Sustainability is high on the IIMUAHII agenda: You refuse to work with leather and fur- and produce locally. Why did you decide to go sustainable?
Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m a huge animal and nature lover. So for me it’s easy not going in to that direction because I’ve seen what happens in fur farms and how animals are treated in general nowadays: more like objects than living breathing forms of life. Today’s there are materials that are far more advanced and will keep you warmer than any kind of fur and are more durable than leather. There are many things you can do with other non-animal materials that will look just as good- if not better. As for production, we (IIMUAHII) produce minimal and limited amounts of garments, to not only minimise the amount of garbage that goes in to land fills all over the world from mostly the fashion industry- but to also remain exclusive and be able to sustain ourselves with special orders that can’t be mass produced because of the amount of labor and hand work that goes in to each piece.
I always say “I’d rather have one high quality item in my closet rather than 10 cheap ones.” People are obsessed with accumulating things that won’t last, hence allowing pollution and garbage problems to flourish. If they would just set aside that money they spend on 10 cheap low-quality items, and bought one high quality item, that one piece could last them a lifetime and would help reduce some of the waste.
How is the industry response to sustainable labels like yours- have you met with any external challenges?
There are some partnerships that I had to reject due to my beliefs, but I don’t regret it for a second. If there was a huge amount of money on the table and the only thing that was standing in the way was that I had to put my beliefs aside, I would choose my moral stance over any amount of cash. This world is precious, and there are already so many people that don’t care, I’m not going to be one of them for any amount of riches.
In reaction to animal cruelty, many brands have started offering fake furs and leathers, made from synthetic materials- isn’t that equally harmful for the environment? What are the alternatives really?
We should focus on materials that don’t even mimic leather and fur and focus on creating things that are more modern and look to the future instead of the past. The “fur” mentality exists through the older generations and is being glamorized by greedy designers to fulfil their customer’s needs. Fur and leather were once required out of necessity, now it shouldn’t have a stance in the world, yet we keep producing the same clothes over and over again based on old and outdated beauty standards. We have so many technological advances available to us now, which could replace these materials. Look at the fabric that melted away at Hussein Chalayan’s recent runway presentation. Or how about the bacteria powered fabric that automatically knows when to warm or cool you down? We really need to find more ways to reduce our carbon footprint by synthesizing more fabrics and materials that are earth friendly and different, only then fashion can move forward from the never-ending circle that is in now.
Do you think that it is the trend-mindset of the current generation and the pace of the fashion industry today, what is holding the industry back from fully going sustainable?
This obsession with trends is really destroying the environment. Think of all that disposable fashion that is being thrown away, it all ends up in to landfills and it is really setting us back in every way. We need to educate the new generation. Maybe we there needs to be some kind of mandatory classes developed in school to educate the youth about these realities, on what is going on- maybe that will prevent some of them from contributing to the problem.
Kiev is already one of THE top fashion capitals of the world, Ukrainian designers and their aesthetics are very loved and are filling the pages of Vogue. What is your take on this? Where do you think this comes from?
There are many talented people in Ukraine that have been suppressed for many years by the greedy government and not given the chance to fully excel. So I’m very proud of this fact and hope that one day they can build an economy that is fair for everyone and gives small businesses a chance to prosper. I hope this trend keeps growing and that people from all over the world support fashion coming out of Ukraine. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll return and have my home base there.
How do you think the future of fashion looks like? Moreover, what do you think we’ll be wearing?
Honestly I think that we’ll revert back in to a uniform in the future. People now are obsessed with owning a lot of different items and their looks. I think in a more advanced civilisation, this will become a thing of the past, because instead of wasting time on thinking what you’re going to wear, you’d be spending that time studying a certain subject or enriching your brain with more useful information. There will still be amazing fashion for events and outings, but the everyday-wear will become more uniform-like.
You’ve designed costumes for a big Hollywood production, your designs are known internationally, they are loved by a number influential celebs, among them Gaga and Tyra- what is next?
I want to land in the prestigious world of the fine arts- as an artist first and designer second. I would like to continue working in the film industry as much as I can, primarily in the sci-fi genre, but I will take on any project that is interesting to me. My long-term goal is to have a high-end limited production label that is available to the public. I’m not interested in mass production as it goes against my beliefs. And I wouldn’t mind doing costuming for theatre. Another huge passion of mind is directing and styling amazing photo-shoots that deliver one-of-a-kind striking imagery. So I’m open to anything within my realm of creativity.
Success is when you make an impact on the world that changes it for the better.