Tatiana Shabelnik


How far West can you go? My journey to the West started with my huge curiosity about what “the West,” or Western culture, means for someone born in the Soviet Union under the Communist regime. When I was a child, we had little or no information about what life in the West was like. I couldn’t answer questions like “Are we better where we are? Do people live better in Western countries?”


For those of us who grew up in the Soviet world, traveling to the West wasn’t easy (if not impossible) and knowing English was essential. While I was a student at the Library School at the Belarusian University of Culture, I turned the study of English into my passion. The process of learning a foreign language was fascinating to me. The best practice didn’t happen in a classroom, it took place when I practiced with English-speaking tourists in Minsk. I went to events where I could meet people from Western Europe, England and the United States. That’s how I met my German, Dutch and American friends.


In 1992 I was invited by Rotarians from the Netherlands to spend my summer there as a Rotary youth exchange student. I managed to get a visa for West Germany with the help of a close German friend who lived in Minsk at that time. But I did not have enough time to go from Minsk to Moscow to get a Dutch visa, so I boarded the train for Germany and hoped to get a Dutch visa there. When I informed my host, a Rotary member, that I only had a German visa, he told me that he didn’t want to deal with the endless bureaucratic process. Instead, he decided to take me to Holland without a Dutch visa anyways. How could he do that? He told me, “there is no word for ‘impossible’ in my dictionary.” That phrase, and his fearless attitude, have stayed with me and guided me through all these years.


I started my career in academia right after I graduated from the Belarusian University of Culture with a degree in Library and Information Science. I was offered a full-time faculty position and taught there for five years.


My dreams kept me moving and dreaming of traveling to the West. I wanted to get a graduate school education either in the UK or the United States. After spending two summers in Western Europe and feeling a hunger to see more of the world, I applied for a number of U.S. and British scholarships. It took me less than a year to get two USIA (IREX) scholarships and to reach the United States! When I arrived in the U.S., my American journey started in the Deep South … in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. After three years of graduate school at LSU and four years as a librarian and web manager for Michigan Technological University, my life took me even further west to my dreamland of palm trees and the Pacific Ocean. I spent 11 years working as a web manager at Whittier College, and for the past four years I have been a web manager at Claremont McKenna College. I feel that I have accomplished so many goals and dreams in my life … and I haven’t even mentioned the word “fashion” yet.


I don’t regret that my fashion training didn’t begin when I was 16 even though I dreamed as a little girl of becoming a fashion designer. If you have a passion or a talent for something, you will be able to realize it at any age. A little over three years ago I realized that it is better later than never, and started my fashion journey. I do not have formal fashion degrees, but consider myself a raw artist. My first show in Los Angeles was RAWards where I was nominated as one of three finalists for the Designer of the Year. This was the beginning of runways and fashion media exposure.


I showcased my collections at LA Fashion week three times, Orange County Fashion week and Runway Dubai. I have been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Whittier Daily News, and several other publications. Other features have been printed in Fashion Most Magazine, Elements magazine, OBSCURAE, covers of Dreamingless magazine in the UK, and two covers of Madame Magazine in Dubai, as well as other media outlets.


My “Contrast” collection is inspired in part by the colorful works of Russian artist Vasily Kandinsky and Belarusian/French artist Mark Chagal.

As a longtime humanitarian, my collection also takes inspiration from the contrast of poverty and wealth in the world, and the psychological power of vibrant clothing during tough political, social, and economic times. That global inspiration is also reflected in the details and craftsmanship of my designs. In my garments I utilize handwork of Belarusian artists. This collaboration with artists and designers from Belarus is a partnership I look forward to maintaining in my future designs and collections.


I pay close attention to the design of my European garments as “wearable art.” A very common question that I get asked is about *what inspires the bold colors in my designs.* It is certainly connected with my life in the Soviet Union, and my love for arts in different forms. I started drawing and painting at a very young age.

I am not interested in “safe” color choices. My signature use of orange reflects enthusiasm, warmth, and happiness while also capturing a sense of energy and cheerfulness. As a Soviet emigrant, I can say that my selection of colors also embodies the qualities of risk-taking, physical confidence, vivacious competition, and independence that I’ve experienced as I’ve created a life far from my native land.


My outlook and my work are both connected with humanitarian ideas and trying to help the world as much as I can. I have been a member of Rotary Club of Pico Rivera for the past 10 years as well as past president of the club.

One of my designs was featured in “Elephantasia”, collaboration among 13 designers at this year’s Vancouver Fashion Week to raise public awareness about the rising elephant crisis in Africa and support advocacy there. The designers of “Elephantasia,” including me, were also featured in a recent New York Times article as well as published in the UK VOGUE.


The name of my line is “CONTRAST.” I consider myself a child of the world: I have friends from many countries, and I design for different cultures, races, and nationalities. Fashion and glamour unite all cultures and races. I always make sure that I represent all races and nationalities through my models on world runways as well as fashion editorials.

I continue working with natural fibers—silks and chiffons, as I love the flow of light fabrics and the feel of them. It is also a reflection of freedom for me.

In my work I contrast contemporary Los Angeles glitz and glamour with a vivid ancestral past in rural Belarus. As you look at my designs, you will see that they are rooted in the styles of Belorussian folk dresses with a modern twist. My collection also takes inspiration from the contrast of poverty and wealth in the world, and the psychological power of vibrant clothing during tough political, social, and economic times. That global inspiration is also reflected in the details and craftsmanship of my designs.


When people wear my clothes I hope they will feel a connection with people everywhere—that we are all citizens of the world. I feel that I belong to the category, as Franca Sozzani called it, of “Globalallure.” She has said: “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”


I agree with that. I want my admirers to feel unique, independent, and free from any limitations dictated by the customs of different countries. I want them to make a statement when they wear my clothing and jewelry.

I am working on building my brand, doing everything myself with a very limited or no budget, putting in endless hours when I am not at my day job. My friends and my mom are helping me tremendously. Even though it is a very busy time now, I think it is important to enjoy the moment and enjoy the process of creating art.


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