Faced with the onset of war and a full-scale invasion by Russia, Ukrainian designers and other fashion executives there offered a stark view of their experience Thursday.
In retaliation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions, the U.S. administration, 27 members of the European Union, Australia and other countries announced plans Thursday afternoon to hamper the Russian economy.
President Joe Biden revealed new sanctions against Russia. Addressing how Putin’s military efforts are threat to freedom everywhere, Biden said, “The aggression cannot go unanswered, if it did, the consequences for America would be so much worse. America stands up to bullies. We stand up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. That is who we are.”
With Russian tanks continuing to roll into Ukraine and bombs being dropped in different cities, traffic snarled in Kyiv as many residents are seeking refuge in neighboring countries.
As more U.S. military troops were being deployed to Germany in response to the invasion of Ukraine, major retailers like H&M and Adidas kept a watchful eye on the situation. H&M has closed its nine stores in Ukraine until further notice, according to a company spokesperson.
Some fashion designers based in the capital city of Kyiv, such as Alina Kachorovska, had taken shelter in underground subway stations to avoid the airstrikes. Other designers, like Ivan Frolov, the creative force behind the Frolov label, had evacuated Kyiv en route to Poland. But that did not happen due to mandates put in place late Thursday that restrict Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country. Only women and children are currently allowed to.
Jen Sidary, a global fashion brand strategist who is showing six Ukrainian brands in New York this week, said she has been in “constant contact” with Frolov and other designers since the airstrikes started. In addition to Kachorovska and Frolov, Elena Burenina, Chereshnivska, Paskal and 91 Lab are the brands Sidary is working with.
Burenina and her team were sheltering in place in Kyiv. Frolov, his boyfriend and a few friends had packed and were driving on side roads to avoid major cities to try to make it to Poland. “There’s some pretty horrific coverage right now that the Kremlin will target members of the LGBQT community. Hopefully, Ivan will hit the border by 2:30 in the morning Kyiv time. I do have him texting every hour,” Sidary said.
However, that hope disappeared, due to the new mandates.
Namesake footwear designer Alina Kachorovska, whose grandmother started making shoes in Ukraine in 1957, had just returned to the country from Lineapelle in Milan. “She was quite happy about that because she has three children,” Sidary said. “At 4 a.m. EST, Alina was in her design studio literally right after the bombing. These Ukrainians are not stopping working. I’m in awe.”
Noting that Kachorovska’s design studio is not located in a secure building, Sidary said she had relocated to take shelter but is “standing strong with her family.” Acknowledging reports that Putin plans to strike Kyiv repeatedly and overtake the capital city, Sidary said, “I think we need to brace ourselves for what’s about to come.”
In an email Thursday afternoon, Public Kitchen founder Anastasia Ivchenko said that she and her business partner Eugenia Skibina and most of their team members are staying in Kyiv. The public relations company works with such Ukrainian fashion brands as Ienki Ienki, Katimo, Anna October, Jul and Oberig. Some Public Kitchen employees decided to relocate to the western part of the country for safety purposes. When military sirens signal potential airstrikes in Kyiv, the Public Kitchen employees go to the nearest underground bomb shelters, Ivchenko said.
Awoken at 5 a.m. by the sound of explosions, Ivchenko said it is very hard to talk about any kind of composure. “Ukraine is the geographical center of Europe, a country with an extremely rich history and culture with an astonishingly strong spirit and a creative economy that breaks all patterns of ideas about Eastern Europe,” she said. “The war in Eastern Ukraine has been going on for eight years, but today Russia attacked us on a full scale including Kyiv where our team, most of our clients and our friends live.”
As recently as Wednesday, despite the then-threat of military action, staffers at Ienki Ienki were eager to discuss how the brand had spent six months designing parkas for scientists from the Vernadsky Research Base working at the National Antarctic Scientific Center of Ukraine. Ienki Ienki presented its collection in Milan Wednesday as planned.
Skibina said they are keeping “a cool head and a fiery heart,” and are staying in touch with family and friends as a sign of support. “We support each other. That is all that we can do now. We do not give up and we do what we have to do — we tell the world about Ukraine, about all its diversity of talents, richness of culture and amazing people.” she said. “There are a lot of us here. And we need the world’s support, while our country is at the forefront.”
Having been in touch with her family in Kiev Thursday, Ukarinain-born fashion designer Nataliya Ivantsova, who runs her signature company from Miami, said they have been hiding from bombs in underground subway stations and old buildings, including ones that had been used for shelter during World War II. Noting how airstrikes were happening from the east to the west borders of Ukraine, Ivantsova said Ukraine “can be attacked from all sides from the land, the sea and the air.”
Some of her relatives, who live in Kharkiv, experienced an explosion right next to their house, forcing them “to take the kids and just run away to nowhere.” Located in northeastern Ukraine, the city is home to more than 1.4 million residents. They also say that Kharkiv is “so blocked that it is even hard for them to get out of the city,” she said.
Having heard from friends in Ukraine who are actively involved with a charitable organization, Ivantsova is trying to determine how to get Ukrainian residents what they need through other friends, who work in diplomatic relations. “I was told today that even hot water is not working. We need to figure out how things can be shipped to Ukraine because they are saying now that a lot of airports [there] will be bombed. Some of them already were bombed,” she said. “We just need to figure out what we can do.”
Although the designer does some manufacturing in Kyiv, now is not the time to think about changing operations there in any way, she said. Ample inventory is available in the U.S., and the company uses other factories, including one in Mongolia, so as not to be dependent on any one factory.
“My family is OK but you don’t know what could happen next,” Ivantsova said “The whole country could be on fire easily.”
As of Wednesday, the founders of the Gunia Project, Natalia Kamenska and Maria Gavrilyuk, planned to remain in Kyiv. A spokeswoman for them said Thursday that communication in Kyiv is periodically lost due to the airstrikes. She said Kamenska and Gavrilyuk would comment Friday, adding that “Today is so emotional and now the main thing for us is to survive the night.”
Sidary was among the 100-plus people who attended a Times Square rally Thursday protesting the war in Ukraine. “After that, everyone was headed to the Russian consulate,” she said. “We came back to the showroom. We have retailers placing orders still.”
Recalling a call with Burenina Thursday, Sidary said she indicated that the company employees were all safe. “She wanted to tell me that if I take orders for her brand, she will produce them and will make sure the retailers get their orders. It’s mind-blowing how hard these people work. That was not really why I was calling them.”
Noting how Russia clearly wants to overtake Ukraine and hurt the country’s economy as evidenced by frozen assets and banks, Sidary said she has some brands that are trying — so far unsuccessfully — to send money to people in Ukraine to give out. “They can’t even get to their money,” Sidary said. “I think supporting Ukraine in any way that we can is what we should do.”
Across the Ukrainian border in Russia, a spokesperson for the fashion-oriented department store Tsum said Thursday that “for the moment nothing has changed in terms of business operations” in its Moscow and St. Petersburg locations. The company has also multiple pick-up points in six cities in Russia as well as in Belarus, which also borders Ukraine. Personally, the spokesperson said, “This is a very worrisome situation. All of us are surprised. We are looking, of course, at all of the meetings and checking up on all of the situations. The people do not agree. For sure, it is not our decision. We want to live in peace and live in love.”