While many companies have suspended operations or put their businesses on hold, Frolov’s Ivan Frolov, Paskal’s Julie Paskal and Anna October are moving ahead, regardless of the many obstacles they are facing.
The suffering and destruction in their homeland remain very much top-of-mind. On Monday, the situation escalated after a Russian missile struck a shopping mall in Kremenchuk with 1,000 people inside, killing at least 10 people and injured dozens more. More than 8 million people have crossed the border from Ukraine in the past four months, according to the United Nations.
While the notion of fashion might seem superfluous in the face of such hardship, Frolov and Paskal stressed how fueling the domestic economy is a way of fighting the Russian invasion. In 2019, the industry reportedly accounted for 16,000 jobs in apparel and footwear and 16,000 more in fabric manufacturing. That same year combined, they generated $1.18 billion in revenue.
In order to travel to Paris for 10 days, Frolov required permission of Ukraine’s minister of culture. In late February, the Ukraine State Border Guard Service mandated that men between the ages of 18 and 60 were prohibited from leaving the country. Ukrainian officials have worked to create a professional army by employing people, who understand how to fight unitedly and have a real passion to be soldiers, Frolov said. “But they also understood that some guys work in IT and in business. They know that another side of this war is a war on the economy, and we should be strong to try to develop our businesses even in this situation to save our companies.”
Outsiders need to remember that Ukraine is not only defending itself but all of Europe and “the whole world from the worst terrorist of the 21st century,” Frolov said. “It doesn’t mean that they can’t live their regular lives. But they should be thinking about what’s happening in Ukraine every day.”
He added that Russian propaganda has already cited potentially striking other European countries including Poland. Ninety seven percent of Poles said they have little or no confidence in Russian President Vladimir Putin “to do the right thing regarding world affairs,” according to a report released last week by the Pew Research Center.
Frolov spent the first two months after the Russian invasion traveling to different cities in Ukraine to share information with his partners about the situation. They have supported the country by providing uniforms and equipment, transporting people to the border of Poland, collecting food and apparel for Ukrainians whose homes have been destroyed. “These people don’t have anything — anything. They are happy to receive any food or anything we can give them,” he said.
The designer just introduced three $420 sweatshirts that will benefit the Masha Foundation, which helps children affected by the war. Each item has a hand-embroidered heart, an emblem of the country’s cultural heritage. Thirty master embroiders were hired — triple the company’s normal amount — to work on the project. More anatomical than anime, the hearts are numbered individually to reflect how each human heart is unique.
Keeping the air strike alerts on his phone active while in Paris has been disconcerting for Frolov, whose relatives and friends remain in Ukraine. Multiple missile strikes a few days ago in Kyiv hit 1 kilometer away from his company’s office and production center. Prior to the Russian invasion, he had just opened the latter, which was a substantial investment for the company. Dropping retailers in Russia and Belarus has ratcheted up the need for new accounts. He will soon return there to complete the new collection in order to earn more money to develop the brand, pay employees, support Ukraine’s economy and its army and generate more orders.
Asked if he is scared for his well-being and that of his family’s, Frolov said, “Scared about what? I’m worried about it but I’m not scared. We’ve already had so much pain that we are stronger. When we saw what the Russians did in Bucha to our people — civilians — [in April] after that, there was nothing that could make me scared. I worry about my future, the future of family and of all of Ukraine, but I’m not scared.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has indicated that U.N. staff documented the unlawful killing of dozens of civilians in Bucha.
Reached in Paris, Paskal also detailed her plight. With three children ranging in age from five to nine, she left Ukraine in early March. “I grabbed my kids and my mom. We went to Moldova, then Hungary and the Czech Republic before finally going to Germany, where they are staying now,” she said.
But the majority of Paskal’s team and immediate family remain in Ukraine. Prior to the invasion, she was living between Odessa and Kyiv, where most of her in-house, 10-person team and 10 freelancers are also based. With their encouragement the day after the war started, she decided to go forward with the company and started making bulletproof vests for the Ukrainian army. She also kept her signature collection going. Thus far, 150 vests, which require a good deal of time and money to manufacture, have been produced.
Starting her business 10 years ago when Ukraine’s fashion industry was first emerging, the designer unveiled her first commercial collection in 2013 in Paris. Her workdays now start with a virtual meeting to ensure that all of the employees are safe. Having recently returned from 10 days in Ukraine, she explained, “I am a maker. When I create, I need to be with the people I am working with. They can do production for wholesale orders without me. But I definitely need to be there with them for the creation of new products. Anyway, I was so missing them and my country and my father and my brother.”
As for the current conditions, Paskal, who is back in Odessa, said: “It is very brave of them. I am so thankful for my team’s bravery to be working under such conditions. We were hiding in a bomb shelter in between fittings.”
Needless to say, business meetings in Paris have been more personal including one with Neiman Marcus executives. The designer said: “They are a great representative in the U.S.A. market. We spent half an hour looking at the collection, hugging each other and speaking about how we are all praying for Ukraine. We need to win this war because it is a war for humanity — not only for Ukraine and the people, who are suffering now.”
With worldwide attention waning compared to a month ago, she said: “Everyone is tired of hearing all this bad news from Ukraine. But the war is definitely not over and people are still dying every day,” estimating that 1,000 defenders including students and other civilians are perishing daily. Up to 200 Ukrainian soldiers are reportedly being killed each day.
The designer Anna October showed her resort collection that was made with some help from a Ukrainian refugee tailor at the Paris-based Institut Français de la Mode. The rest of it was produced in her atelier in Ukraine under her guidance via Zoom. Paris was also the setting for a shoot by photographer with the model Gaia Orgeas.
October is also part of the “Spend With Ukraine” initiative, which highlights Ukrainian brands that ship internationally. The alliance is meant to support Ukrainian entrepreneurship and it features such companies as the luxury loungewear label Sleeper.