Asgarda leader Kateryna Tarnovska

The Ukrainian radical pagan feminist on myths, girl gangs and being Gareth Pugh's muse

Arts+Culture Q+A

Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused.

Gareth Pugh’s AW13 show saw a haunted house in a dark forest masterfully created within the glamorous Hotel Salomon de Rothschild in Paris. Amazonian models glided down the runway in floor-length ethereal gowns (some were embroidered with gold branches), their faces covered by locks of hair as if they had just emerged from battle. Afterwards, Pugh told us that the show’s reference was the Asgarda, a modern tribe of women who live, arm and train themselves in the Carpathian mountains in complete autonomy.

The first the world heard of the Asgarda was in 2004, when photographer Guillaume Herbaut shot the Asgarda girls as they practiced their martial arts while wearing t-shirts bearing a portrait of Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko and vyshyvankas, a traditional Ukrainian costume. The philosophy of Asgarda is based on Vedic culture, and celebrates the image of a woman strong in both psychological and physical fitness. The rest was explained to us by the tribe’s 33-year old founder, Kateryna Tarnovska, when Dazed met her at her camp in the tiny village of Tuhlya in the Carpathian mountains.

Dazed Digital: What are the main points of your philosophy?

Kateryna Tarnovska: A woman has to be perfect, which means she has to work on her body, mind and soul with the help of combat arts.

DD: Are you aiming to create a new Ukrainian society?

Kateryna Tarnovska: Yes.

A woman has to be perfect, which means she has to work on her body, mind and soul with the help of combat arts

DD: Why did you create the Asgarda, and how is it rooted in Ukrainian culture?

Kateryna Tarnovska: Originally I professionally went in for Combat Hopak (a martial art based on the hopak, a traditional Ukrainian dance) when I was still at university. I was intrigued by it when I was in the Carpathians, where we did martial arts and archery. It was a public organisation dedicated to a sports-patriotic upbringing. Afterwards I moved to Lviv to continue training, where mainly boys were training. There were sometimes girl groups, and we were told about the Amazons, women who participated in military actions together with cossacks, and how Ukrainian women had always been active. It is believed that women used to sit at home and do farm work. But every woman had children she had to raise. Children of the elite, whether they were kings or cossacks, had to be able to shoot arrows, ride a horse and use a sword, so that was all a part of bringing up children.

Lindsey Wixson GP AW13
Lindsey Wixson in Gareth Pugh AW13

DD: Who were those female warriors?

Kateryna Tarnovska: They were common women who lived in villages and cities but knew how to fight, and took part in any military actions in Ukraine. There is a legend about the female cossack Marusya, who had an army of 100 cossacks protecting a certain territory. Napoleon met them personally while planning to attack Russia. That information can be easily found if you read the history of the war between Russia and Napoleon. 
The Amazons didn’t disappear, but took on new forms.

A woman in their vision is sexy, modest, she obeys the rules, knows what she wants from life. She’s persistent, determined and inaccessible

DD: How did you come up with the name? ‘Asgarda’?

Kateryna Tarnovska: I found a book called Scandinavian Myths, opened it in the middle and there was a word that caught my attention – ‘Asgard’. I immediately liked it and the way it sounded. Then I read the myth itself, about a city called Asgard where male and female gods lived, and about its rules and history. The myth was a perfect match, because in this city men and women had equal rights; men were sometimes even afraid of women because women had more magical power. So the name for our combat art was born. ‘As’ means a professional, ‘gar’ in Ukrainian means things connected with fire, and ‘da’ from Dana, the goddess of water. That’s a perfect combination of two elements: the female energy of water and male energy of fire.

Julia Nobis in Gareth Pugh AW13 Photography Jacques Habbah

DD: What qualities do you need to be an Asgarda woman?

Kateryna Tarnovska: Not everybody was created for doing combat arts. When women come to us, their outlook is different from the outlook of other women, since combat art gives you qualities others don’t have. It’s the ability to use their power wisely – whether it’s physical, intellectual or spiritual. Our women are special because the main aim is harmony.

DD: Is Asgarda associated with Ukrainian feminist protesters Femen?

Kateryna Tarnovska: No. Since the beginning we’ve been asked whether we are feminists, but that’s not true, since we stand for a healthy lifestyle together with men. But once I told some Italian journalists how Amazons used to live without men and what a differentiated marriage is – when a woman lives separately from her husband and brings children up on her own – and that it is typical for female warriors. They also asked if we would like to open a school, like a Shaolin (temple). Yes, it is our dream to build a school with a temple where women, if they decide to, will be able to live their whole life. If they want to get married, they will be able to leave the temple, have a family, bring children up and then return. But in the end the Italians turned our words into something untrue.

DD: Didn’t it all start with the photos of Guillaume Herbaut, a French photographer? 

Kateryna Tarnovska: Russian people also saw the pictures and changed our words. They were practically the first to associate us with Femen. They called us ‘Yulia Tymoshenko’s subdivision’, since in the photos we were wearing t-shirts with her logo. But it was a special request from the photographer, who was a big fan of Tymoshenko, and he asked us to put those t-shirts on. But there were also many photographs with us wearing vyshyvankas.

DD: Is there any special dress code?

Kateryna Tarnovska: Yes, when the girls first come here, it’s not necessary, but we do have our own uniform: national Ukrainian trousers, mainly black, and t-shirts with Asgarda’s logo.

DD: There are seven levels of mastery in Asgarda. Tell us about the symbols of each level. 

Kateryna Tarnovska: Each level of mastery has its symbolical embroidery. For the first level we use flowers, for the second viburnum, for the third oak-tree. The symbols are typical of Ukrainian folklore, and also symbolise the philosophy of each level and the things a girl should achieve.

Gareth Pugh AW13 Photography Jacques Habbah

DD: Your philosophy inspired the AW13 collections of both Gareth Pugh and Prabal Gurung. I can show you the pictures...

Kateryna Tarnovska: (examines the Gareth Pugh collection) I hope the designer didn’t turn us into witches, but the essence is brought very precisely, and I like it very much. You may not believe me, but it’s how I’m feeling right now. I’ll show you my tattoos – a wolf and a yin-yang. This collection also focuses on black and white. You can feel the spirituality and some sort of mystery. 

I’m pleased to see that in this collection we can trace not the elements of a wild unbridled woman, but a queen – an independent woman who knows her worth but at the same time has great feminine energy. There’s some nudity, but no vulgarity. 

DD: What do you think of the collections?

Kateryna Tarnovska: Femininity, mystique, principles... Extraordinary. That’s exactly what I preach. These designers combine ancient folklore and contemporary military style. A woman in their vision is sexy, modest, she obeys the rules, knows what she wants from life. She’s persistent, determined and inaccessible. That is the ideal of a contemporary woman. She has no fear about her sexuality and openness. She’s intelligent; she sticks to her guns as she bravely reveals parts of her body. The style of Gareth Pugh is the Asgarda level five or six, while the style of Prabal Gurung is level three or four. The first collection reflects my internal state, the second one is my outward reflection, but I spiritually get rid of this second state to go beyond. 

DD: So how do you feel about seeing these collections and the fact that you’ve inspired people?

Kateryna Tarnovska: I always had a dream that a fashion designer can express the essence of Asgarda in clothing, so I’m ecstatic now. Nothing excessive, everything’s contemporary, but deep enough. No wonder I enjoy watching fashion shows. It’s sort of a living canvas. I’m pleased to see that in this collection we can trace not the elements of a wild unbridled woman, but a queen – an independent woman who knows her worth but at the same time has great feminine energy. There’s some nudity, but no vulgarity. If I had a chance, I would wear these clothes only. But we’ve got a fixed Asgarda uniform: wide trousers and embroidered shirts, it can’t be changed.

Steffi Soede in Gareth Pugh AW13 Photography Jacques Habbah
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