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Six months after Russia’s invasion ignited an unrelenting conflict with global implications, war remains the new reality in Ukraine. According to New York Times5,587 civilians have been confirmed dead, while the number of refugees has exceeded 6.6 million. The conflict has torn families apart, stranded some Ukrainians in war zones and sent others west across the country or into Europe to seek safety.
The war has also threatened the future of the country’s fashion industry. A new generation of Ukrainian brands flourished in recent years, attracting international attention as trade with Europe eased. They benefited from their homeland’s high quality and low cost manufacturing. But now Ukraine’s designers face halted production, destroyed factories and delayed shipments of fabrics and customer orders. The country’s economy is also suffering. The World Bank estimates it will shrink by at least 45% this year.
Despite the instability, Ukrainian brands are getting back into business. They are led by resilient designers who work through their fears to provide jobs for their teams, raise money for the people of Ukraine, and preserve the country’s vibrant creative community. “In the beginning it felt like such a stupid thing to do – to produce clothes – like who needs fashion when your world is on fire?” said Olha Norba, co-founder of activewear brand Norba, who has lived between London and Zurich. “[But] I think it is very important now to give [Ukrainian] people’s jobs.”
Many fashion brands were able to resume production in Ukraine after the invasion, although they dealt with slow freighters, early curfews and incessant air sirens. Others remain overseas with employees working from different parts of the world. All have found a larger international audience for their brands as part of a growing global effort to support Ukrainian companies through the war.
“Our label will always say ‘Made in Ukraine’,” says designer Anna October.
When Sleeping‘s co-founder Kate Zubarieva left Kiev before the Russian invasion in February, knowing she might not be able to return home a few weeks later as planned. “I kissed the wall [goodbye],” she says from Berlin, where she currently resides. She and co-founder Asya Varetsa, who is Russian and now lives in Copenhagen, launched the popular loungewear brand, known for its feathered pyjamas, out of Ukraine’s capital in 2014. They have since moved production to Istanbul and use Zoom to communicate with employees now spread across Europe.
The uncertainty and fear that the war has brought has sharpened their focus and raised their ambitions, says Varetsa. The brand is expanding into more ready-to-wear categories such as workwear and updating its branding. “We have received the largest orders in our history since the war,” she says. Zubarieva believes that the worst of the war is yet to come, but maintains that one way to fight back is to stay creative and happy. “We have to be happy every day,” she says. “We’ve always believed in this at Sleeper, but now it’s our routine.”
To Katimo co-founder Katya Timoshenko, memories of the first days of the Russian invasion are a blur. “It is impossible to describe the horror we all experienced,” she says. All work on her modern and minimalist womenswear brand came to a standstill for more than a month.
In April, the Katimo team resumed production of the delayed spring 2022 collection. “Dresses were sewn to the constant sounds of air raid alarms,” says Timoshenko. “I consider it very symbolic – each object is filled with the spirit of freedom and strength of the Ukrainian people.”
While Tymoshenko was initially evacuated to western Ukraine, she is now back in Kiev and is keen to keep her business in the country despite the war. With that goal in mind, Katimo’s shop and cafe have since reopened. “I want nothing more than to work,” she says. “We want the whole world to know about the bravery, strength and talent of the Ukrainian people.”
When designing Ksenia Schneider returned to her apartment in Kiev in late March for the first time since the invasion, the dishes she and her family had left out on the February morning they evacuated were exactly where they had left them. According to Schnaider, the designer reached Germany after a “long and dangerous” journey, staying in more than a dozen apartments along the way. Her brand, loved for its avant-garde denim creations, stopped working for weeks. Donations from industry friends and customers as well as projects such as an upcoming collaboration with denim brand DL1961 kept the business afloat.
As they searched for new factories in Turkey and Portugal this spring to resume production, Schnaider’s manufacturers in Ukraine told her they would continue to work. And while it’s risky, logistically challenging and difficult, Schnaider says, “we’re doing it [anyway].” (The entire pre-spring collection was produced in Ukraine.) Now that the brand has resumed production, sales allow her to donate to military foundations “almost every day,” she says.
In September, she presents her spring collection in Paris as part of a Ukrainian designer showcase. Once her refugee status in Germany is confirmed, Schnaider plans to travel back and forth from Kiev to work. “The future is real [uncertain],” she says. “I can only plan my next week.”
Elena Reva‘s apartment in Kiev was rocked by nearby explosions when she woke up on the morning of February 24. Like many of her compatriots, she quickly moved to the safety of the western part of the country before eventually leaving for Hungary and now Munich. “We left everything – home, our relatives, our friends, our usual life and our beloved country,” says Reva, who started her tailored women’s clothing line 10 years ago.
Two months after the start of the war, when the conflict in Kiev had subsided, her partners back home got back to work. “We are trying to keep production in Ukraine, as this is a well-established team, it is my second family,” she says. Before the war, Reva’s homeland accounted for most of her label’s sales. Now she focuses on international customers. “The world is more than ever open to Ukrainian products.”
After the invasion, designer Anna October made the difficult decision to move to Paris, where she will present her spring 2023 collection as part of the city’s upcoming fashion week. After the move, October wanted to get back to work as soon as possible. “We have to continue what we are doing and defend our faith and country,” she says. “I’m definitely self-healing through creating, it makes me feel better.”
Many of October’s employees also left Kiev and moved to western Ukraine or other countries, including Estonia, where the brand has an office. But she has been able to continue producing her collections in Ukraine, where she has worked with a community of women who have hand-knitted some of her pieces for close to a decade. “We’ve always had a community,” she says. “And luckily we can keep it this way so our customers will feel the warmth of their hands while wearing our knitwear.”
Designer Svitlana Bevza came to Portugal with her children after the invasion with the idea of getting closer to manufacturers who could produce her popular women’s clothing line, Bevza. But even though some of the factories she worked with in Ukraine before the war were destroyed, she was still able to produce most of her fall collection there. “Many from the textile industry don’t really want to leave the country,” she says.
This year, Bevza designed two pendant necklaces in honor of Kiev’s 1,540th birthday, one of which features the symbol of the underground metro, which was transformed into a bomb shelter during the attacks. “It’s a reminder that our city subway somehow saved many lives,” she says.
Looking forward, the designer admits she has no idea if she’ll still be living in Portugal six months from now or if her team, which has mostly returned to Kiev, will have to move again. Regardless, her focus is on telling the story of Ukraine’s culture in her collections, which sell mainly to an international clientele. (She’s been showing at New York Fashion Week since 2017, and plans to return this fall.) “There’s a lot of Ukrainian symbolism always hidden or retold in a modern way in our collections, and it still will be,” she says. .
When the war started, the co-founders and sisters were Helen and Olha Norba was in Milan for what was intended to be a three-day trip to show the fall collection of their versatile activewear line meant to be worn in and out of the gym. Olha, who has lived between London and Zurich, has not yet returned home to Kiev. Her sister and parents recently returned from Europe, and many of her staff are already back home as well. The brand is working with new manufacturers in the capital and recently finished designing the spring 2023 collection.
“It was very challenging in the beginning to focus… you have no creative energy at all,” says Olha. “You feel frozen and trapped by all these emotions, like fear and anger and anxiety.” She meditates regularly now to manage her anger about the war and access her creativity. “You feel so helpless, but all you can do is do your job and get some jobs for people, pay wages. You have to keep going.”
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