Story by Kellie Gunderman
Photography by Kevin Sturman
The Washington Ballet has always been synonymous with high-end fashion. It’s no wonder the image we hold in our minds of professional dancers depict effortless beauty and poise. The mesmerizing costumes that appear to soar across the stage. The designer dresses, shoes & suits worn off-stage at so many public events. From the perfect pairing of designer and brand ambassador emerged a beautiful friendship. This was the case with Julie & Anya; two women with two very different, yet inspiring lives, who came together in support of their love for ballet and sustainability.
These are their stories.
Anya Cole was born and raised in communist Poland. She had two loving parents and one brother. Her family did not have access to very much, so as children, Anya and her brother learned to get creative with what was available when it came to play. Anya has fond memories of making people and animals from chestnuts and matchsticks in the park.
'From necessity came creativity and sustainability.' -Anya Cole
Anya was just nine years old when her mother taught her to knit. Anya was always reminded by her mother, “If you want something, you need to make it.” It wasn’t long before she realized her ability to bring any image she saw to life between her knitting needle and young fingers. When Anya realized her dream of becoming a ballerina, she continued to knit her own accessories and sweaters. Her mother’s lesson followed her into adulthood and eventually across the Atlantic to New York City.
In search of a better life for her daughter, Anya escaped communist Poland by way of Munich, West Germany. The pair immigrated to the United States in 1988. “It wasn’t easy, but my daughter and I learned a lot. We were strong and we both had a drive to live a better life,” Anya proudly explains. Once she settled in New York City, Anya fell in love, married, and watched her daughter grow up and leave home. This is when her love of knitting reentered her life. At 55 years old, Anya needed something to occupy her time,but knitting wasn’t enough. Anya had a mission in mind; one that would provide support to women like herself.
“HANIA New York” was founded in 2012. The collections created by Anya infuse contemporary style with the centuries-old tradition to which she had dedicated so much of her life. Each piece is the definition of quality, craftsmanship and sustainability, crafted using Scottish and Italian cashmeres from the finest mills in the world. Timeless and versatile, Anya’s vision is realized in each piece by a network of female knitters, many of whom do not speak English. 'It was my desire to provide them with an opportunity to thrive in an environment where foreigners often struggle.'
Anya currently employs over 100 women who have chosen to create a new life here in America. In their home countries they were doctors, accountants and teachers. Here, they are dedicated to raising their children and caring for elderly family members. Unable to find employment in their own career fields due to language barriers, they knit from home. “I was in the same situation and it wasn’t easy. And now, I can give back. All of my knitters are very close to my heart and I feel privileged to be able to help them is much as I can. Never forget where you come from and what you learn in life.”
Like Anya, these women bring a rare gift to the fashion industry. Each one-of-a-kind HANIA piece is a reminder that beauty can, and will, always emerge by the generosity of those who are brave enough to dedicate their lives to others.
Julie was born at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. For as long as she can remember, dance has been interwoven into her life. There was no enlightening discovery or magical moment that inspired her to become a ballerina.
Growing up with a mother who had been studying the art since she was a child in New Zealand, Julie and her older sister had a natural inclination to dance.
In 1985, Julie was invited to join the American Ballet Theatre by Mikhail Baryshnikov. She spent thirty years with the company, working with some of the great dancers and choreographers of the 20th century like the late, great ballerina Georgina Parkinson, her husband, Victor Barbee, who served as the American Ballet Theater’s Principal Dancer and Associate Artistic Director for 42 years, and Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, who created extraordinary opportunities for Julie for over 20 years. “They each left an incredible imprint on my artistic life and I am forever indebted to each of them.”
FASHION & FRIENDSHIP COLLIDE
As HANIA began to grow, Anya knew that powerful imagery could help her to further the success of the brand. The more successful the brand, the more people she could help. To model her designs, someone was needed who understood the sensibility of the modern ballerina and could embody the authentic nature of the handcrafted knitwear. This is when Anya and Julie were introduced by a mutual friend.
“I immediately felt a close connection to Anya from the day we met. We are both dancers! I was drawn to her energy, generosity and the strength she has called on throughout her extraordinary life experiences as a single mother, fleeing communist Poland… and eventually starting her own business. She is like a fairy godmother to me… always giving me light and courage.” - Julie Kent
When Julie began modeling for HANIA, Anya lovingly began referring to her as the company’s “muse.” “When she puts on anything I make, I feel like my creation takes on life. It begins to move. She makes everything look beautiful,” explained Anya. As an artist who had spent her life creating “handmade art.' Julie’s dedication to handmade apparel evolved from the notion that anything made by your hands has a tangible history. From the very beginning, Anya could sense the love that Julie felt for each piece she modeled, somehow demonstrating the artistry, design and craftsmanship that is knitted into every garment. As their friendship grew, Julie’s children began to joke that her favorite color was cashmere.
STRONGER THAN EVER
Julie gave her farewell performance from the American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House in June 2015 to a loving audience that had watched her evolve as a dancer over the course of three decades. Anya could not have been more proud of her friend. Julie had been the longest-serving ballerina in the American Ballet Theatre.
Julie was soon approached by The Washington Ballet to become its Artistic Director. Though Julie eventually relocated her family from Manhattan to Washington, D.C., it took a time for her to make the decision.
“I kindly deferred. I was not at all ready to leave my ABT family and the life in NYC that I had been building since I was sixteen. But after months of reflection, my thoughts were distilled to these two profound motivations: I wanted to set an example for my children as an American woman, artist, ballerina and mother who was confidently willing to accept a challenge. And I was inspired by the privilege and opportunity to make a contribution to the artistic landscape of our nation’s capital.”
And contribute to the artistic landscape of our nation’s capital she certainly does, through every performance at The Washington Ballet and into every life that benefits from the sustainable employment that is provided by HANIA. But friendships work both ways, and Anya certainly does her part to support Julie and her new home with The Washington Ballet.
“Of course, when I met Julie, she was still performing at ABT. I was meeting a lot of dancers, but with Julie, it was so different. She is like my younger sister. Because of her, and her connection to TWB of course, I have a relationship with everyone. I think Julie and Victor are absolutely committed to TWB and from the time they moved there, I've traveled to see every performance to support them and TWB. I wish I could do much more.”
'I was meeting a lot of dancers but, with Julie, it was so different. She is like my younger sister.' - Anya Cole
Anya has, in fact, recently offered to donate a percentage of sales made to The Washington Ballet. The COVID-19 crisis led the ballet to embark on new ways to serve the community. They continue to accomplish this through the “Stronger Than Ever Fund” which will sustain the ballet through these difficult times. They assure the public that there is “much beauty ahead.” This is a message that Julie unwaveringly supports. She was not in the least bit surprised that her friend had also offered to support the cause, saying, 'This is typical of Anya's generosity and support of causes that she believes in. She is an incredible mentor and friend.... her personal strength, and her ability to transform any limitation into an opportunity or catalyst for creativity is a constant inspiration.”
Though this inspiring pair miss being able to care for, love and be good to one another in person, their friendship continues to thrive through the quarantine, using technology to remain in touch. Anya admits, “The most difficult thing is not to be able to see each other and laugh together. We’ve taken trips to England and Italy in the past and have always found ways to combine Julie’s work and my own in a way that allowed us to spend time together. We visited a cashmere factory in Italy and after, I watched her perform. It was so much fun. I miss this so much.” When asked how she believes The Washington Ballet and HANIA will overcome the obstacles that have been created over the past several months, she confidently replies, “If you commit to something, and have values, do not ever give up. Just move forward and always be true and honest to yourself. Everything will fall into place.”