The first thing that strikes you about Stunner, the retro kit brand from Kyiv, is their love of football.
All of it. How it looks. How it feels. How it’s developed over time. Stunner celebrates the aesthetics of the beautiful game.
Originally set up over six years ago by ambitious young Ukrainians Serge and Polina, to say that Stunner has had to overcome obstacles to be where it is today would be an understatement.
Had it never come from a place of genuine love and enthusiasm, it surely wouldn’t have made it through both a pandemic and a war.
“I grew up in the early 2000s – in my hometown it was still a time before any kind of digital entertainment took over,” Serge tells us.
“Computers with internet access and video game consoles were still a privilege of the lucky ones. Which means that I’d spend my days outside kicking the ball around with my mates.
“We’d be soaking in whatever football magazines had to tell us and trading Euro 2000 stickers. And that was it. Football was the air that we breathed.
“I remember my first collection of the bootleg shirts that I got from a local market. Real Madrid 2001-02 away with Roberto Carlos on the back was my first ever football shirt. I’d wear it all the time, so it turned from black to light purple within one week, I think. Cheaply-dyed polyester doesn’t like direct sunlight too much.”
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Serge set the Stunner ball rolling back in 2017 before getting Polina on board and setting up a pop-up in Kurazh, Kyiv’s largest flea market.
“We met in our university days,” explains Polina.
“Serge was dealing football shirts online back then, and I got involved at some point. The stylistic difference between the modern kits and the older ones was so obvious to me – the latter ones clearly had the advantage, so ever since then, I just wanted to dig deeper into history.
“90s fashion was very impactful. Going through some shirt releases from the last couple of years, we still see how big brands are almost trying to mimic their glory days of that era. So I was really into the idea of having to explore the real thing.”
“Stunner emerged from a combination of our best sides, I think – my entrepreneurial spirit and Polina’s natural sense of style,” adds Serge.
“Both of us being advocates for the 90s fashion, we wanted to go offline with this concept and create this space, almost like a permanent exhibition to show how cool football shirts used to be. Not to get stuck in the past, but to build the bridge to a new era of football gear through appreciation of old school.”
From humble beginnings, Stunner grew into a bigger operation with a full-time store in a 19th-century mansion in the heart of the Ukrainian capital.
That Stunner store opened its doors in March 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on retail outlets.
Gradually life in Kyiv returned to some degree of normalcy, and with it Stunner’s city centre store developed into a hangout for like-minded people.
“It became a meeting spot for football enthusiasts from all around the globe,” reads Stunner’s blurb.
“A place where you could watch a game with the owners drinking beers from a corner shop, a place to display your art or hang a poster.”
The day before Russia launched their full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Serge and Polina fled Kyiv.
As the air raid sirens first sounded in Kyiv, while their fellow Ukrainians feared for their lives in underground bunkers, they were in attendance among thousands of others at a rally in Brussels protesting Russia’s war of aggression.
Miraculously, despite leaving their homes and their store behind, Stunner has survived.
“We left Kyiv on February 23rd, 2022 thinking we were going on a two-week experience exchange. You know what happened the next day. This two-week trip is on week 55 now,” recalls Serge.
“It wasn’t easy for sure, but with the help of the community we managed to keep Stunner strong.
“First it was Damien of Classic Soccer Jerseys, who kindly allowed us to use his office space in Brussels to carry on with our stock and orders. We spent six months there and became really good friends. Then in Italy we were working closely with NSS Mag.
“We’d travel around Italy – filming the matchday atmosphere, interviewing fans, always bringing a few film rolls from every stadium to immortalise the experience. I think it was that collaboration that made us fully realise that Stunner is no longer a retro football store.”
Since leaving Kyiv, Stunner has grown into much more than an online shop. Over the past 12 months, they’ve produced some superb material exploring football culture in Europe – from Milan, Turin and Bologna in Italy to clubs across the English football pyramid.
Since arriving in the UK, Serge and Polina have attended matches in Macclesfield, Bolton, Nottingham and Bradford and documented their trips on their lovingly crafted Instagram page.
In the most unimaginably difficult circumstances, there’s nothing but gratitude for the role the football community has played in helping Stunner grow into the celebration of football’s very soul it is today.
“People from the football community play a big part in Stunner’s life here in the UK as well. We finally met up with Jamie – a community manager for COPA90 and a fellow film photography enthusiast, who’s been of great help to us through the years,” says Polina.
“We also met Roger of Cult Football, who’s been very open and helpful since we got here. He also tries to bring the football culture from the Instagram feed to real life. Just before the World Cup, together with his friends, he started Calcio! – a retro football bar in Manchester. Definitely a must-visit when in town!
“The other week, we met with Robbie of @fullkitwnkrs, who came to visit from New York. It’s always very rewarding to exchange experience with people from the community, and for the last year the community became our lifeboat.”
Dealing with the organisation that administers press accreditation across the UK hasn’t been easy, but Stunner have made progress by reaching out directly to clubs.
“So far, everybody has been very welcoming to us and our film cameras,” says Serge.
“Thanks to the open-mindedness of these club reps, we’ve been able to cover all four top tiers in less than a month and introduce our followers to the magical atmosphere of English football.”
Stunner are far from the only football-obsessed Ukrainians in England right now. Never before has their country been as represented across the major European leagues.
Arsenal’s Oleksandr Zinchenko, Everton’s Vitalii Mykolenko, Bournemouth’s January signing Illya Zabarnyi and Chelsea’s new wonderkid Mykhailo Mudryk are flying the blue and yellow flag in the Premier League.
“I think it’s crucial to have these role models for the younger generation. Now, with the war, a lot of talent had to flee the country and continue with their football development elsewhere. It’s inevitable that some of them will assimilate wherever they end up,” says Polina.
“So for these kids to have the likes of Zinchenko or [Marseille’s Ruslan] Malinovskyi playing top-level football helps to maintain the link with their homeland. And hopefully, when the day comes and we win this war, they will choose to represent Ukraine on the national level.”
It’s estimated that over eight million Ukrainians have left their homeland since the Russian invasion over a year ago. There are currently 110,000 Ukrainian war refugees currently residing in the UK.
“People have been nothing but helpful, not just with words of support, but also with their involvement in various humanitarian appeals and fund gatherings for our specific military needs,” says Serge.
As well as donating to causes that support Ukraine, what else can people in the UK do to help?
“What’s important is not to lose interest in the matter,” responds Polina.
“As the media might shift its focus from the war in Ukraine for the sake of whatever’s trending at the moment. It feels like the entire world has finally learned something about Ukraine – whether it’s the geographical location or the fact that it has been a sovereign state for over 30 years and not ‘part of Russia’ or whatever.
“So the important thing is to keep yourself educated in the matter. Once you dig into the history of our nation and its fight for independence – a lot of things become crystal clear.”
By Nestor Watach