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Ukraine's fashion prodigy Belinskiy conquers Paris

Long considered Ukraine's most promising young fashion designer, Anton Belinskiy now jokes he cannot afford his own clothing as he prepares to present a collection at Paris Fashion Week.

The 31-year-old comes from a young generation of creatives in the ex-Soviet country which has been locked since 2014 in a bloody conflict with pro-Russian separatists and struggling through economic hardship and entrenched corruption.

His creations often reflect Ukraine's harsh realities -- incorporating everything from the national yellow and blue colours and Ukraine's passport cover to the currency symbol flickering in the exchange booths of Kiev.

Sporting shabby sneakers and military fatigues as he meets AFP in the historical neighbourhood of Ukraine's capital shortly before his departure to Paris, Belinskiy says his designs are a reflection of the city.

"I'm trying to make Kiev sound better than other cities, and to show the best we have to everyone who does not know this," Belinskiy says.

His career has taken off since he became a semifinalist in 2015 for the LVMH Prize, a sought-after accolade for young designers -- the first Eastern European to be so honoured by the luxury goods group.

Since then, Vogue has described Belinskiy as "one of the brightest talents in Kiev", and in Paris his designs will share the catwalk with such legendary brands as Chanel, Miu Miu, and Louis Vuitton.

- 'Beautiful and strange' -

Born and raised in Kiev by a Russia-born mother and Jewish father, Belinskiy graduated from the National University of Technologies and Design, and launched his namesake brand in 2009.

His clothes and accessories draw on the 1990s and he says he sometimes draws inspiration from old family photos. While they are not for sale in Ukraine, his creations are distributed in Europe, America and Asia.

Belinskiy says his income is a stable zero, which he finds liberating.

"That's actually cool, in fact this is the essence of freedom, and I'm all about freedom," smiles the young man with bright eyes and ultrashort hair.

Born just a few years before Ukraine became independent from Moscow, Belinskiy joined pro-EU protesters on Kiev's main square Maidan in 2013, and incorporated the events in his work.

At the height of bloody clashes between protesters and police, Belinskiy did a fashion shoot on Maidan for a collection featuring national symbols including a flower wreath and Ukrainian embroidery.

The model had dark red tears painted on her face.

Two years later, when Ukrainians were waiting for the EU to grant them visa-free travel, the designer made white t-shirts with an image of a Ukrainian passport over the breast pocket.

Another collection featured bright, geometrical shapes in a nod to Kiev-born avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich.

And in his spring collection 2018, Belinskiy included brown puffer coats evoking the tufted leather couches in the Ukrainian parliament -- his interpretation of official corruption in the country.

The new spring-summer collection to be shown in Paris on October 2 is about the search for God, Belinskiy explains near a church he frequents in Kiev, holding his pet husky on a leash.

Tanya Solovey, editor of Ukrainian Vogue, calls Belinskiy "a visionary", but also a keen networker who surrounds himself with creative talent.

Besides driving his own brand, Belinskiy has helped other, even younger designers by founding One Day Project, a sort of DIY fashion event giving a platform to budding talent.

"His antenna that catches the world news stretches further than anyone else's, it goes straight into space," Solovey says.

Now at the helm of a team of five, Belinskiy says the secret to success is remaining true to yourself and absorbing the world around you, all the while remembering where your homeland is.

"We need to do something authentic, something different, something that surrounds us," he says, looking around and pointing at random passers-by.

"Look around! It's impossible to invent such a style, the way people dress here, in the former Soviet Union -- it is beautiful and strange at the same time."

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