By Lígia Carvalho Abreu (2015)

Ulyana Sergeenko is a Russian designer who uses the history of her motherland and its many cultural identities to transform her haute couture collections into poetic novels. The refined style of Ulyana Sergeenko and her sensitivity to search for inspiration in the beauty of simple things (like birds and flowers) or in art, were the starting points for studying her work. Accordingly, the article “Ulyana Sergeenko: The Freedom of Artistic Expression of the Russian White Swan” aims to analyse how the designer conveys her freedom of artistic expression and creativity by using references from art, literature and nature so as to spread a message of common understanding.



Ulyana Seergenko’s Portrait. Photo by Fedor Bitkov/Interior detail of the Tolga Monastery (Russia) and a White Swan in the lake of this Monastery. Photo by Lígia Carvalho Abreu   

Speaks She in the Russian Tongue: “Thou, my prince, wert my salvation, Mighty for my liberation. Grieve not that because of me/ Thy good shaft lies under the sea, Or That thou must fast to-morrow: Sorrow proves not always sorrow. Richly shalt thou be repaid, And Hereafter have my aid. Saviour of a Swan thou a swan thou seemest, But a maid to life redeemest; With thy arrow thou didst smite/An Enchanter, and no kite. Know, that always I shall mind thee. Be thou where thou mayst, I find thee. Now, however, homeward get. Go; sleep sound; no longer fret. So flew off swan enchanted. Queen and prince held firm, and scanted, Though a livelong day had passed; Bedward went, nor broke their fast. Next the prince, his eyes unclosing, Shook away his dreams and dozing, And behold! To his amaze, A great city met his gaze. Alexander Pushkin in: Tale of Tsar Saltan, 86-87[i].


Aesthetics and Narrative are the two elements of free artistic expression which justify fashion design inclusion in the field of visual arts. Just as painting or sculpture, fashion design can be driven by aesthetic reasons as well as emotions and social or political concerns upon which the narrative is constructed. This argument gains strength when we see the affinities of Ulyana Sergeenko’s couture creations and some artistic movements mixed with the representation of the many cultural identities from her motherland. The projection of a material reality (of colours, shapes and objects) based on aesthetic considerations, is one of Ulyana’s many forms of artistic expression.



White, blue, red and orange hand embroidered sweater and high waist blue trousers from Ulyana Sergeenko 2014/2015 Fall Couture Collection. Photo: Courtesy of Ulyana Sergeenko / Lyubov Popova: Painterly Architectonics, 1918. (Yaroslavl State Art Museum)


For instance, a white, blue, red and orange hand embroidered sweater from her 2014/2015 fall couture collection is inspired by the aesthetics of the architectonic paintings made by the Russian artist of material reality: Lyubov Popova. A white and red hand knitted and embroidered sweater, a black and white high waist skirt or a black and white hand knitted and hand embroidered sweater are inspired by Kazimir Malevich’s Cubo-Futurist painting The morning in the village after snowstorm (1912) or by his soon after masterpieces To the harvest (1928) and Girls in the Fields (1932) which represent his return to figurative painting after his Suprematism.



Hand Knitted and Hand Embroidered Sweater and Hand Pleated Leather Skirt Photo: Courtesy of Ulyana Sergeenko / Kazimir Malevich: To the Harvest, 1928. Photo by Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg) 


A clutch bag invokes some art deco nostalgia of the muscovite Tverskaya Street mixed with Tamara Lempicka’s aesthetic painting. The latter is also visible on several outfits of Ulyana’s 2014/2015 Fall Couture Collection. Also, a black velvet dress adorned with white hand embroidered flower fabric at the waist is inspired by the painting Spanish Woman with hand fan (1925) from the Russian avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova.

Nevertheless, it is also possible to establish a parallelism between the two creations which goes beyond the simple aesthetic influence and material representation. In 1916, Natalia Goncharova travelled to Spain. The cultural differences between this country and her motherland were a revelation. She tried to understand and make known these differences by expressing them in her paintings. Ulyana does the same to the reality of the Russian and former Soviet Republics in order to spread a message of common understanding, upon which the right to freedom of expression is based.



Black velvet dress adorned with white hand embroidered flower fabric at the waist. Photo: Courtesy of Ulyana Sergeenko/ Natalia Goncharova: Spanish Woman with hand fan, 1925 (Private Collection)

Ulyana Sergeenko prepared and presented her 2014/2015 fall couture collection in 2014, a year marked by: the conflict in Eastern Ukraine between Pro-Russian Rebels and Ukrainian Government Forces, the growing tension between the Ukraine and Russia and the fear of a possible repercussion of the conflict throughout the region. She used her freedom of artistic creativity to express her sadness and concern about this situation by showing her sentiments for her motherland and the need of a spiritual transformation towards a peaceful coexistence of people linked to a historical common background and close cultural ties.


Hair pieces and earrings in the shape of Kremlin Stars. Photo: Courtesy of Ulyana Sergeenko

By designing accessories such as hair pieces and earrings in the shape of Kremlin stars, the Kremlin hand cut wood Clutch Bag, the black jumpsuit embellished with hand embroidered gold rye and golden Kremlin star on the collar or rye shaped earrings, Ulyana does not want to express any political idea related to the reunification of former Soviet Republics.

Instead, she uses these symbolic elements to invoke a mutual understanding and reunion of people who share a historical/political past and close cultural ties. The Kremlin stars, placed after the creation of the Soviet Union to replace the symbol of Imperial Russia, represent this historical and political common past. The rye has, since the middle Ages, been a traditional ingredient of both Russia and former Soviet Republics, shaping the landscapes of these countries. It is a cultural common element.    

Flower Bag made out of original 1930’s plastic covered Izvestiya Newspaper and Grey gown from the Ulyana Sergeenko’s 2014/2015 Fall Couture Collection. Photo: Courtesy of Ulyana Sergeenko 


A model in a grey dress, whose satin and transparent fabrics seems to invoke the icy Russian landscape of Natalia Goncharova’s painting The Ice Cutters (1911), carries a bag made out of original 1930’s plastic covered Russian Izvestya  Newspaper, containing the first flowers of spring.   

Spring is associated with transformation. Izvestya means ‘delivered messages’. The model carries an impartial and truthful message of spiritual transformation, to be in accordance with that written in article 29 of the Russian Constitution:

Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of ideas and speech. The freedom of mass communication shall be guaranteed. Censorship shall be banned. The propaganda or agitation instigating social, racial, national or religious hatred and strife shall not be allowed. The propaganda of social, racial, national, religious or linguistic supremacy shall be banned.[ii] 


A short blue dress, hand embroidered with laser cut lilacs, also seems to express this appeal of transformation. There is a sort of connection between the aesthetics of the embroidered flower leaves and the rays of light reflected from the natural elements of Natalia Goncharova’s Rayonist compositions.


Detail of the hand embroidered blue dress with laser cut lilacs designed by Ulyana Sergeenko. Photo: Courtesy of Ulyana Sergeenko/ Natalia Goncharova: Composition Rayoniste, 1920-1930 (Private Collection)


Those rays of light from Goncharova Rayonist paintings, reflected from natural elements such as lilies, orchids or forests in the material world, represent the “unity of all things”[iii].

According to Anthony Parton, with these compositions, Natalia Gonchorova wanted to express “her view of a spiritual cohesive world that exists beyond the veneer of difference that is presented in its material manifestation”[iv] in order to “understand the contradictions of her times and to bring a measure of resolution to them”[v], in the words of Mikael Larionov and Ilia Zdanevich, “to herald the unknown, to rearrange life, and to bear man’s multiple soul to the upper reaches of reality”[vi]  

An anti-materialist philosophy is also the essence of Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematism. Harshly criticised by the Soviet authorities who wanted to implement socialist realism in detriment to the avant-garde Russian artists’ freedom of expression, Kazimir Malevich affirmed that: 

Under Suprematism I understand the primacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist, the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling (…)[vii]

Ulyana seems to understand this thought by not only rendering homage to Kazimir Malevich with a black shining net bag including the basic geometric forms and limited colour pallet of the Suprematist paintings, but also by seeking inspiration for her 2015 Spring/Summer Couture Collection in Sergei Parajanov’s film The Colour of Pomegranates.

This 1969 film portrays the life of the Armenian poet Sayat-Nova and contains a metaphorical language to show the survival of South Caucasus culture after times of oppression. Just as Natalia Goncharova’s Rayonism and Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematism, Sergei Parajanov rejects a simple materialist perception of the world. He believes in the existing feeling of a pre-industrial civilisation, where, as David Gillespie affirms a “man’s bond with his native land and his spiritual and cultural links to his ancestors are not lost”[viii]



Hand embroidered dress with Hand Stitched Stripes and Metal in the shape of a White Chicken from Ulyana Sergeenko’s 2015 Spring/Summer Haute Couture Collection inspired by Sergei Parajanov’s film The Colour of Pomegranates. Photo: Courtesy of Ulyana Sergeenko/  Pomegranates and 18th century Tile. Photo by Lígia Carvalho Abreu   

There are similarities between the artistic expression of Parajanov and Ulyana Sergeenko’s 2015 Spring/Summer Couture Collection. These include: natural elements, visual storytelling and above all a freely celebrating culture which represents the unity of human beings and thus is the essence of all freedom of expression.  



[i] Alexander Pushkin. Tale of Tsar Saltan. Pushkin’s Fairy Tales. Medny Vsadnik House Publishers: 2013, 86-87.   

[ii] Article 29 nº 1, 2 and 5 of the Russian Constitution,   

[iii] Mikhail Larionov. “Le Rayonisme pictural”.  Montjoie. Nº 4, 5, 6 : 1914, 15.

[iv] Anthony Parton. “Goncharova’s Rayism”. InCoRM. International Chamber of Russian Modernism. Vol. 2,  Spring-Autumn: 2011, 4,   

[v] Ibid., 7.

[vi] Mikael Larionov and Ilia Zdanevich. “Pochemumy raskrashivaemsia Manifest futuristov”. Argus, Christmas: 1913, 118.

[vii] Kazimir Malevich. Die Gegenstandlose Welt.  Bauhaus Bücher 11: 1927.   

[viii] David Gillespie. Russian Cinema. Pearson Education Ltd:  2003, p. 73.