International celebrities are now buying and wearing fashion pieces created by the brand Cultnaked which fashion photographer and designer Mary Furtas established in 2017 in Ukraine. The brand has scaled from a small workshop in Lviv to organising its own PR events in Los Angeles in a few years.
The story of Cultnaked opens a new series about “Exporters”. We are telling the stories of famous Ukrainian companies that have achieved success abroad. We analyse their cases to multiply the positive experience of advancing a high-quality Ukrainian product on world markets.
The history of modern Ukrainian fashion began in 1997 when Ukraine became the first country to organise a fashion week in Eastern Europe. The first Ukrainian Fashion Week presented collections from 13 designers and brands. Since then, Ukrainian fashion has helped raise funds to fight AIDS, and dressed politicians and celebrities. The models have conquered the world catwalks, and Ukrainian designers have sold collections worldwide.
The year 2021 brought changes to the fashion industry which had previously chased after international demands for ready-to-wear items. Worth Global Style Network’s annual report – Future Innovations 2022, looks into the fashion industry and consumer trends. According to the report, customers will look for products that help to increase the quality of their life (more comfort, less work), bring them closer (communicate in person instead of with technology), and also those that reduce environmental impact. World fashion is changing. It is welcoming all people and body shapes. It is looking for more inclusive and diverse brands. Cultnaked, a brand from Ukraine founded by fashion photographer and designer Mary Furtas, managed to catch the tide and start dressing the world in just such clothes.
Cultnaked is a brand of women’s clothing that at the same time offers revealing and comfortable outfits for parties and daily life. Cultnaked clothes are chosen by famous stars including singers Ariana Grande and Maren Morris, socialites Kylie and Kendall Jenner, and models of the famous lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret.
Today, Cultnaked is a commercially successful project with a well-established marketing strategy, reliable suppliers, and regular customers. The brand has achieved this result in three years; sales started in March 2018.
Mary. I make what I wear
The founder of the brand is the fashion photographer and designer from Lviv, Mary Furtas. She focused on the US market from the beginning because she understood its needs and was interested in pop culture. At the age of fifteen, Mary began to shoot: she was especially interested in fashion photography, as she wanted to work in the global fashion industry. At 17, after four months of study, she realised that a university educationwould not help her enter the fashion world. Instead, she focused on work and self-education:
“When all my peers hung out in clubs and went studying, I sat at home retouching photos. I wanted to learn how to do it well. I had to prove I was serious to my parents. I worked a lot, 12 hours a day. I decided I wanted to work with Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. I believe in self-education very much: when you want something, and you take the steps to do it, you can make it happen.”
At 21, Mary worked with Vogue UA. In 2014, at Harper’s Bazaar Ukraine, she won the nomination “Fashion photographer of the year” in the Bazaar Fashion Forward competition. In 2020, Furtas became the editor-in-chief of PINK magazine.
Thanks to photography, Mary gained a network of contacts around the world, especially among the stylists of models and celebrities. Each shoot for a glossy magazine or show involves a lot of specialists, from decorators to make-up artists, where the main one is a stylist: they decide the mood and the style of the individual. Mary was fascinated by stylists’ work. She found inspiration in shooting and communicating with fashion teams. In addition, she herself wanted to look like a celebrity:
“I bought simple clothes and cut them; I sewed them an hour before the party. Meanwhile, everyone else is at home getting ready and drinking prosecco. Then, I put the outfit on, and it’s — oh, that’s cool!”
As Mary grew up with social media and set up Instagram as soon as it appeared, it was natural for her to share photos from parties where she was wearing her own designs. When the photographer was increasingly asked about the origin of her fashion, she saw all the interest as a business idea:
“I was asked: ‘What are you wearing; What is this dress; Where can I buy it?’ I just decided, ‘I would do what I wear.’”
In December 2017, Mary wore a skort to a New Year’s party – it became the item for which Cultnaked eventually became famous. A skort is a skirt with discreetly sewn shorts. It is not a revolutionary new fashion solution, but rather an elegant reinterpretation of a tennis skirt.
Tennis skirtsUntil the early 20th century, women played tennis in mid-length skirts and corsets. In the 1920s, tennis player Suzanne Lenglen appeared on the court without a petticoat and corset. After that, tennis attire began to simplify and become more practical. In the 1940s, women began to play in skorts — a comfortable uniform which didn’t expose underwear.
Star life involves parties, and parties — dancing. As a big fan of dancing, Mary noticed a problem: the party clothes on the market were either too hot or too revealing. Both of these problems share a common denominator, that is, they exude a feeling of discomfort.
Besides convenience, Mary’s brand seeks to give women a choice to decide for themselves what is “too much” and what is “sexy,” therefore adding confidence through clothing design.
“Freedom for me is not to develop complexes about myself and not to become reserved due to someone having restrictive opinions. Freedom is to be who you want to be and not to be ashamed of it.”
How Cultnaked works
That being said, Cultnaked started with the idea of Mary, market need for comfortable clothes for parties, her personal Instagram page with a loyal audience, and a 30 thousand dollar loan.
Today, there are 16 people on the Cultnaked team. Mary is the founder and art director. She invents prototypes, draws sketches, and provides the media concept and marketing strategy of the brand.
Operating Director Natalia Bryndalska was the first to join the team. Furtas tells how they went to Italy together to look for fabrics:
“We didn’t know how it was done, where to buy what, or where to go. We went to Italy, to Milan. We found a store, and there were just such crazy prices. I said — ‘Oh, damn, we won’t be able to have a business.’ I didn’t want to make an expensive brand; it was important to me that the brand be affordable for people like me.”
Natalie recalls that they couldn’t find anything at first: neither the choice nor the cost of the textiles suited them. Eventually, the partners contacted an agent who helped them with suppliers. Since then, the business has really taken off:
“We order fabrics for the production of Cultnaked clothes mainly from Italy. We go there, go to the factories, and get acquainted with the assortment of fabrics. We check the composition of the fabric, the conditions of production and how to order the material. We sign contracts with such factories. It is crucial for us that all textiles are stretchy and at the same time have the most natural composition, not artificial. We use cotton, satin, crepe from 100% wool, and flax with elastane.”
The next people to join the brand were fashion designer Oksana and seamstress Lida: they are the ones who turn Mary’s sketches into clothes.
Cultnaked clothing is sold only online; the brand is digitally native.
For Mary, keeping production in Ukraine is a principle: it is easier to keep work ethical here. Labour in Ukraine is more expensive, but the premises are appropriate, and the salary is competitive:
“We do not sew somewhere in a basement, which, in fact, is often done in the fashion industry. In Ukraine, labour is not the cheapest in this industry, but the quality is decent.”
“I would like to create more ‘cool jobs.’ We just sit there, and I see everyone’s faces when we do something previously considered impossible, and everyone is so happy. I just think, ‘It’s great, we’re in Ukraine, we’re from Lviv.’ I want to inspire more people and help our country become some kind of superpower. It’s all a chain reaction: if we do something, someone else gets inspired and so on. We will grow. This is very important to me.”
Production facilities in Ukraine create certain logistical difficulties: delivery abroad takes 3-7 business days, and Cultnaked also takes care of customs clearance and preserving the integrity of its goods. To simplify delivery and return processes, the team plans to open warehouses in the Americas and Europe soon.
The main product idea of Cultnaked is to optimise previously invented fashion pieces so that they fit perfectly on any body, regardless of the shape and colour of the skin. The material always has stretch, and the product’s design allows one to adapt it to their body and change it however they desire.
For example, the Jumpsuit line has, in addition to built-in shorts, an invisible corset inside to shape the body. “Mocha” and “Say My Name” tops are adjustable thanks to the laces. The brand additionally shoots videos to inspire customers to try different ways of wearing fashion items. For example, some Cultnaked tops can be worn back to front, some pants can be trimmed following video tutorials, like another important product of the brand, Killa Trousers. When Ariana Grande presented her song “POV” in them, it was a pleasant surprise for the team and the cause of a production boom:
“I woke up for a night time feeding (in 2021, Mary delivered her daughter — ed.). I saw Ariana Grande, the top performer of Spotify. She was performing for the first time in 500 days and posting 3 photos in a row, in our pants.”
Now “Killa Trousers” is a “classic” product for the brand. They are sewn from different materials like denim, artificial leather, recycled plastic fabric etc. According to Cultnaked, the fact that the length of the pants can be adjusted by the consumer, is a big deal for clients. They really like being able to modify things for themselves.
Continuing Killa’s success was its reincarnation in the “bundle” that supermodel Kylie Jenner chose for her first outing with her new boyfriend.
“It was Palm Sunday, nothing foreshadowed anything special. Suddenly, Sofia the marketer writes in the chat: ‘PEOPLE!’. I told her: ‘Sofia, only write in all caps if Jenner puts on our clothes.’ And she said: ‘Jenner just put on our clothes!’”
The success of several products was a boost for the team, because they realized that a Ukrainian brand can be so powerful and develop at such a speed, according to Mary:
“We were published in American Forbes, Vogue, Who What Wear, Harper’s Bazaar, and Elle. It is with greatest pride that we say we are actually still in the development stage. In my opinion, we are not big at all, but the things we do are very much inherent in big brands in terms of marketing.”
The brand’s business model is to release drops instead of collections, individual products in limited series.
The brand interacts directly with the consumer: the team receives a request for specific clothing and sews only the size and colour that the customer needs within 3 days. This is why Cultnaked does not require a large warehouse and keeps only the minimum necessary stock of the most in-demand items. Many people tried to convince Mary that this approach was inefficient and unprofitable. Still, the experience proved the opposite: Furtas paid back the loan she took to start a business in eight months.
By producing drops, Cultnaked supports the idea of ethical business: if big brands destroy unsold collections, then short series production has no such need to do so. On top of that, the brand focuses on using sustainable materials. Cultnaked uses fabrics made from cactus stems and leftovers from a winery etc. These resources do not pollute the environment. Material made from processed ocean plastic will become the basis of next season’s bathing suits.
It is vital to Mary that her brand does as little harm to the planet as possible:
“New brands are the future of brand conscience. I can say openly and honestly that our brand is not guilty of harming society or the environment.”
Item creation can take three days to a year, as CULTNAKED has complete control over the process — from blueprints to after-sales service.
The starting point is always Mary’s sketch: a drawing, an oral explanation to the designers or another item of clothing, which Mary roughly cuts or sews. The team discusses it and passes it to the designer. The designer, in turn, thinks how to properly implement this image, cuts it out of fabric and drapes the approximate layout. A model tries on the items, and then changes are made until the outfit fits perfectly. Mary is delighted with the quality of work that Ukrainian seamstresses and designers produce. Although, sometimes she says designers are surprised when she “haggles” for the amount of fabric in clothing:
“It goes like this: the designer does something, and I say, ‘We need to have less fabric, even less fabric, even less.’ We call it a good design when nothing more can be taken out of it.”
Then the flow sheets or sewing instructions, descriptions of parts, etc. together with the patterns go to the production shop or to partner companies that help with sewing fashion pieces during peak demand.
The next step is quality control — inspection of seams, fit, selective testing of products on the model, and photoshoots for the catalog. In addition to testing on the set, the clothes undergo a specific crash test. Mary or someone from the team puts on a new design and goes to a party to see if it will suit the environment in which it will be worn.
“I always ask if it is comfortable to sit, stand, dance, jump here, jump on the table — whatever. It should be comfortable in the environment it is made for. Production is a lot of fun at Cultnaked; it’s part of our charm.”
The fashion house has an equipped studio for filming and shooting. Mary defines the concept of shooting, making sure that the clothes on the model look precisely as intended. The marketing team selects models, photographs, and products They plan publications on social networks according to Mary’s terms of reference.
From the very beginning, Cultnaked was focused on worldwide sales since the product itself is more adapted to American realities than to Ukrainian ones. It was as natural for Mary to promote clothes abroad as it was to take pictures:
“To push something in a particular market, first, you need to know the culture; second — the language; one hundred per cent, you need to know the people there; and third, be proactive. Do not be afraid to write where you need to. Find people where you are going to sell, and do not be ashamed to communicate.”
Mary began to communicate with celebrity stylists on Instagram. As the founder explains, stylists are often looking for indie brands that will add freshness to their client’s image.
Indie brandsBrands that are not funded by corporations and are therefore independent, flexible. Their products aim to allow the customer to express their individual style.
“Cool stylists of cool celebrities have a goal — to make sure that their stars wear clothes that are unique and that are not yet on the market. That’s where the “big moment” begins for indie brands like ours.”
In addition to socializing online, Mary arrived with suitcases full of Cultnaked items of all sizes at Fashion Week. So, in Paris, for example, she presented her skort to Caroline Vreeland, the great-granddaughter of Diana Vreeland, a famous fashion journalist, whose motto was: “When to dress festively, if not now?”. Caroline is absolutely in line with the brand’s philosophy. When she suddenly talked about the skort on Instagram, it was an impetus for the development of the brand and the first sign of its recognition.
The following story happened during Victoria’s Secret Callback — a re-casting of models who have already worked with Victoria’s Secret — Maria Borges and Sanne Vloet wore skorts simultaneously. Mary recalls:
— “I was flying to New York at the time. While landing, my phone just tore apart: ‘what is it, how did it happen, was it set up on purpose?’. We got a lot of brand awareness on Instagram because many people posted about it. This was our first super fame. We were put on the map at that moment.”
Behind the scenes, a lot of work was done to strengthen the image of Cultnaked, including a lot of communication with stylists which Mary says “pumped the muscle of the team’s stress resistance.” Once, Kylie Jenner’s stylist, Jill Jacobs, asked for a skort to be sent to the star within three days. She did not specify the size. The team urgently sent several samples of different sizes in a friends’ suitcase by plane. The effort paid off: Kylie wore a Cultnaked skort and brought the brand the next wave of popularity.
There have been failures in the brand’s history as well. One time, the payment system of the Cultnaked site was left running in test mode and payments did not pass for a month. The episode almost led to bankruptcy.
“We had a dark period in Cultnaked, as the payment system on the site went down. At that time, it was tough to accept payments from abroad. Because of these problems with the payment system, we have lost a lot of money. At the start of a business, it is challenging because you need operating income to move on. Honestly, I thought at that moment we would close, but thank God, we somehow got out of this situation. Cultnaked is still here.”
Cultnaked is thriving. Payments are now backed up by FONDY, a Ukrainian payment platform. PR activities are launched in partnership with an LA-based PR agency, ensuring media appearances and local events.
Talk to clients
The attitude to the Cultnaked brand is formed not only through articles and publications in the media, but also through communication via various channels — social media, e-mail, chat on the Cultnaked website etc. Respond to customers as soon as possible, help choose clothes, be friendly — these principles are followed by the team on all platforms.
For communication by e-mail, the team choose a semi-formal style: this is the rule of business communication in Western markets. The e-mail solves more complex issues — payments, refunds, etc.
Instant messaging is a whole other story, especially on Instagram. Here managers can ask how the client is doing, praise their profile feed, like their posts — all to be as close as possible to the audience.
“The power of Instagram now lies in relationships with people. The stronger your connection with customers or even just people from different parts of the world, the better.”
The Cultnaked media team consists of three people: Sofia Kavulia, copywriter and creative department manager; Iurii Noga, copywriter and customer support manager; and Yaroslav is responsible for content making. Sofia and Iurii work together. They might publish a post at night, if it is the release of a new item of clothing to get it into the right time zone, or they might answer a client’s question. The support team’s goal is to respond as soon as possible (within 20 minutes) if it is a question of payment, size selection or delivery.
“The way we treat our customers is a guarantee of an ideal relationship in the future. People constantly write to us that they have never met such excellent customer service. They say we are so nice, we try to solve everyone’s problems at once. This is our main priority.”
Mary is proud that they never paid for advertising, so it was harder for them initially, but people fell in love with their brand for free. Close contact with the audience of subscribers provides the brand with user-generated content: photos and videos taken in Cultnaked things immediately find their place in the feed. Sometimes customers even provide a link so the image is published in better quality. User-created content adds confidence to the brand, as potential customers can see what the clothes look like on ordinary people and increase reach. Mutual exchange of tags works in favour of both parties.
The media team alternates user posts with self-created content, with a preference for dynamic content. This can be a video from a photoshoot, a separate video with the model, or a video with the clothes themselves, examples of their use and styling. For Cultnaked, Instagram is the primary marketing tool.
Mary’s own page is another channel of communication. According to her, it is customary to have an influencer who will represent the brand regularly in female media. Although the material published by the founder of Cultnaked looks pretty personal, its purpose is to keep in touch with the audience that buys the brand’s clothes and shares Mary’s philosophy or is interested in her style.
As an entrepreneur, Mary advises young brands on doing business, shares contacts and suppliers. She is convinced that partnership is more important than competition, and together Ukrainian brands can open more doors. The example of Cultnaked, according to Mary, shows that a Ukrainian brand can become global:
“Our goal is to inspire Ukrainian youth from Lviv to Sevastopol to make global brands because experience shows that this is possible.”
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