I'm walking through the Ukrainian Village carrying two Italian jackets. The jackets are both Gucci. They belonged to my best friend, Andrew Early. One is a black safari jacket. The other, made out of gray suede, is a riff on the classic moto design. Andy's blood still covers the chest of the black jacket. When Andy returned home after getting expelled from Bennington College's graduate poetry program, a brown crust covered the jacket's pleated breast pockets and storm placket. Years of rain and general wear have erased those stains. But if you had a forensic investigator examine the fabric, I'm sure Andy's blood is still in there somewhere, deep down in the fiber.
In the mugshot that the Bennington PD took of Andy, he wears the jacket. His blue eyes call to mind the special effects in TV commercials for "ice-flavored" chewing gum. Those eyes stick into the camera lens like twin darts crowding a bullseye. His nose is swollen with a gash across the bridge. An hour or so earlier, the top of his steering wheel wadded the cartilage of his nose and stuck it against his right cheek. Between his uneven nostrils and upper lip, there is the pronounced indentation that was formed, Jewish legend tells us, when an angel taught Andy all the wisdom of the world in the womb, and then pressed a finger against his lips to keep him from sharing any of it with us. Andy's poetry was a revolt against that commandment. The indentation is delicate, a gentle slip between two crisp ridges of skin. It was one of Andy's most noticeable features, but now it's hidden under scabs of dried blood. The blood that poured onto the jacket, however, has not dried. Booking-room lights glance off the soaked fabric, teasing out the dark red of sweet cherries that are boozy to the taste and one day from going bad. The waist belt of the jacket is gone. The cops confiscated it, to keep Andy from swinging it as an improvised weapon capped with a gold double-G buckle. Even without the belt, the garment's natural shape narrows Andy's waist, and then almost imperceptibly swells around his hips. This latter movement is slightly fussy. It lends Andy the panache of a World War II–era commissioned British officer. Wet blood also splatters my favorite part of the jacket: a vertical strip of tonal black fabric between the storm placket and the left breast pocket. This strip has zippers on either side. You can slip your gloves inside the strap and then zip them into place against your chest.
The blue eyes, the black Gucci jacket, and the shades of red―it reminds me of a line Andy wrote in a poem about buying a sex doll: "... wanting to make cum like war." I always thought that with Andy it worked the other way, too: wanting to make war like cum.
Anyway, that's what I'm thinking about as I carry these jackets to Ulia Kordiukova ...
Ulia hit peak disco around 16 or 17.
"I don't even remember what kind of skirts I was making out of my old jeans," she says, "but I was always going to the disco wearing something that I made." She does remember ambushing a poor, unsuspecting hat that belonged to her grandfather and giving it an American cowboy silhouette, complete with heaps of glitter. After her clubbing days, Ulia moved to Holland to care for two little girls as their au pair. Using a sewing machine that the girls' grandmother gave her, Ulia's conceptual thinking expanded. She made complete collections for the girls, her friends, and herself, while also improving her sewing. But this developing skillset, Ulia thought, would benefit from a practical complement, specifically an understanding of "how fashion worked." That meant a move back home, for a position in one of the Ukraine's top fashion shops. After a year of observing firsthand what customers want and which products sell, Ulia left. "I didn't do anything for awhile," she says. This apparent inaction made her mother nervous, but the break from conventional employment wasn't limbo. It was a gestation period. "I was just thinking," Ulia says, "making my brand ready."
During this time, Ulia stayed busy by making clutches from old leather coats. Her roommate, whom Ulia describes as her "biggest inspiration," constantly pushed Ulia to sell the clutches. Ulia hesitated, unsure of herself. So, her roommate took it upon herself; she took the clutches to the market, where they did indeed sell. As summer approached, Ulia found work modeling in China. The confidence from selling clutches, the time spent thinking and feeling, the frontline lessons of fashion retail, the experience of making collections and sewing nonstop in Holland, the innate and undiminished creativity that had radiated from her since childhood―all these separate threads wove together during the China trip. By the time she returned home, Ulia was ready. "When I came back," she says, "it all started."
Ulia already had her brand name, UliUlia. It originally came to her during her university days in the Ukraine, at a moment of intense distress. "I was hiding from my ex-boyfriend on Facebook," she remembers. "I had like five seconds to change my name." After dropping the "a" from her first name to make Uli, she changed her last name to her first name, Ulia, creating UliUlia. Years later, according to Ulia, "I started thinking, What name should I use for my brand, and I just took my Facebook name. I like the way it's written. So, yeah, my name came from hiding from my boyfriend on Facebook."
There's always a positive in the negative.
Ulia primarily works with used leather, which she upcycles into bags and backpacks. In January of 2019 she started a project called 1000 Saved Shirts. "I did a couple of shirts and people loved it," she says. "I had a friend from L.A. and she was like, Go and make 1000 of them, as a challenge." Judging by the 1000 Saved Shirts account on Instagram, Ulia has made around 75 so far. She sells the shirts along with her backpacks and bags at local markets in Chicago, like Renegade Craft Fair, and at shops including the Silver Room and City Soles, both in Wicker Park―in addition to online sales.
That's one side of UliUlia, the one based in Chicago, where Ulia lives and works. The other side is based in the Ukraine, where her mother lives and works. "In terms of the Ukraine, there's been a little bit of a shift from being a brand to a brand service," Ulia says. UliUlia started in the Ukraine five years ago, but in 2016 Ulia moved to Chicago. At that point, she didn't accept custom orders from folks back home. Now she does, however, thanks in large part to her mother, Svetlana. The custom service starts with clients chatting with Ulia, usually via Instagram messages, about their old clothing and what they would like it turned into. From there, Ulia works on a sketch. Once the client approves the sketch, the client sends the source-material clothing to Svetlana, who coordinates production with a team of Ukrainian seamstresses. Additionally, Svetlana manages shipping and other day-to-day operations. The mother / daughter teamwork is heartwarming, but it wasn't always an obvious option.
H&M launched World Recycle Week in April 2019. The Swedish corporation invited consumers to drop off unwanted clothing at their local H&M, for the company to recycle into new textile fiber. H&M hoped to collect 1,000 tons of clothing. One thousand tons―that's an interesting amount. It happens to be how much brand-new clothing H&M manufactures every 48 hours. World Recycle Week was part of wider H&M messaging that trumpets the brand's newfound eco-consciousness. H&M wants to exclude from its operations all use of hazardous materials by 2020, with the goal of using 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. In all, the corporation has pledged to be "climate-positive" by 2040.
Hopefully all that happens.
Pardon my cynicism, but hearing H&M talk about its eco-awareness reminds me of Exxon touting its love for ecology, specifically renewable energy. Oil corporations are going to drill and frack the earth for the last drop of oil, regardless of the environmental impact. After that, corporations will need something new to sell us, and renewables are increasingly popular and necessary. So, renewables it is. H&M executives recognize that the term "sustainable" will soon become to fashion what "organic" became to food: a vaguely defined buzzword that signals a distinct market opportunity. H&M timed World Recycle Week to coincide with, and one can only imagine eclipse, the Fashion Revolution hashtag campaign, which every year commemorates the Rama Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. The strategy is working. Here I am, talking about H&M, not Fashion Revolution or any of the independent, legitimately sustainable brands in the current reuse / upcycling space, many of whom will be obliterated as Sustainable Fashion becomes a marketing hall of mirrors.
... but I'm also thinking about the old Edmar grocery store. It used to be right here at Chicago Avenue and Damen. When I lived in this neighborhood back in 2001, I would walk to Edmar for a six pack or two of Hamm's or Schlitz or Pabst's, just enough beer to elude the day until night arrived with whiskey. I don't remember ever buying food here. After I moved, I didn't spend much time in the Ukrainian Village for several years, until I met Andy and he introduced me to heroin. In the black safari jacket that I admired so much―and which Andy let me borrow for weeks on end―I started running sorties from Andy's apartment in Wicker Park up here, usually to the Burger King parking lot, which is, as it happens, right across the street from Ulia's place.
Andy and I had a "I buy, you fly" agreement. After we did some early-evening maintenance drinking at the Beachwood or Gold Star, I would fly into the night with $100 or $200 of Andy's trust money to buy crack and heroin. I almost always walked or took the 50 bus to the 66. One time I drove Andy's car from Buddy Guy's club in the South Loop. This was one of three times in 19 years that I have driven in Chicago. After I copped heroin at Burger King, I drove back downtown. I made the trip safely, without a scratch or a scrape, blind drunk and blessed with dumb luck. That was before Andy took the car to Vermont and had substantially less luck, driving it off a hill into a ravine, with a carful of Bennington poets along for the ride.
With the old Edmar site behind me, I'm two blocks from Ulia's when I pass Tuman's Tap and Grill, a sparkling clean eatery that apparently now serves "upscale pub fare." Back in the day, this place was a filthy pit in the earth called Tuman's Alcohol Abuse Center. A woman called Candy lived around the corner. In the windows facing Chicago Avenue, I see Candy with her dreadlocks and leather bomber, and me in Andy's safari jacket. We sit just inside the front door on the love seat that always wobbled on three legs, with its broken seams foaming. After I scored at Burger King, I might walk west of Western to the Black Beetle (now just The Beetle, no longer black) for a quick pint or two. I had a brief thing with one of the bartenders there. I don't remember much of our conversations, except that she once advised me that wearing a Gucci jacket while living in a garden apartment overrun nightly by city rats was "kinda ghetto fab." But also in the Tuman's windows I see the reflection of Ann's Bakery and Deli, which sits directly across the street on Chicago Avenue. I'm happy Ann's is still here, along with places like Kasia's and a couple of travel agencies that I recognize from way back. It's a relief that somebody else besides me survived those days.
I'm giving the jackets to Ulia because I want her to rip memory apart at the seams and turn it into something else, something of my own choosing.
Ulia will turn the black safari jacket and gray suede moto jacket into fanny packs. The black one is for me. I'll ship the gray one to W, Andy's old housemate and our mutual friend. In October 2014, Andy's nose burst open again, this time from the inside, after he snorted a lethal amount of heroin. He was wearing a wristwatch that W had given him. Andy's girlfriend returned the watch to W after the funeral, and she gave me the Gucci jackets. W had to scrape dried blood out of the bezel.
The fanny packs will be ready by October, in time for the fifth anniversary of Andy's death. I will mark the occasion with a story called "The Ghost and Gucci." It will start with images of the jackets hanging in empty closets, and end with photos of their new forms.
There's always a positive in the negative.
What Zimmer Would Be
When asked, I used to say,
“I want to be a doctor,”
“Fix and fix, you’re all better,”
I would say
To the neighborhood wounded
As we fought the world war
Through the vacant lots of Ohio.
Paul Zimmer was a poet and so was Andy, but Andy was completely unlike Zimmer. Ulia upcycles clothing and so does Gabriella Meyer, Justin Mensinger, and (I guess) H&M, but Ulia stands on her own. "Upcycling," "reuse," and "sustainable" are weak descriptors for a designer's work. Those words only indicate an approach to sourcing, and possibly aesthetic. What the designer does with the material is what matters. That's true for both technique and "animatedness," which according to Eugenia Paulicelli involves "memories and the emotional charge clothing produces." Gabby, the founder of Denimcratic and subject of our last story, transforms old denim into older forms like bustiers, thereby commenting on class, politics, and gender. Justin Mensinger, the subject of a forthcoming Someone Else feature, is streetwear's Kool Herc or Danger Mouse or whichever other DJ ascended since I stopped paying attention.
As for Ulia?
She frees the ghosts trapped inside the Burger King parking lot across the street. Stuck between worlds, the confused ghosts multiply like caged rabbits and spook motorists at the drive-thru. Ulia soothes them, gently releasing their torn white bedsheets from the jagged corners of trash cans and streetside fencing. She mends their tears and sends them along, on their way to the other side.
Stitch and stitch, she says. You're all better.