When the war in Ukraine started, Kate Zubarieva and Asya Varetsa were ready. The founders of Kyiv-based clothing label Sleeper had a back-up atelier ready to go in Turkey, and quickly swung into action evacuating their team from the capital.
"Our first priority was to keep our people safe. We had a plan in case of war because of the rumours in the press. As soon as our team relocated to Europe, Turkey and Western Ukraine, we were able to function," they say.
Striving to keep their businesses afloat while surviving a war has called on every ounce of ingenuity, chutzpah and tenacity Ukrainian business owners have, but many say they feel motivated by something bigger than profit margins.
"We are going through a lot, so we feel the need to continue working more than ever," says jeweller Oksana Boriychuk. "This is the way to help our army, support the economy and inspire people to discover their own history."
Designs from Lviv-based jeweller Oksana Boriychuk, left, and Gunia Project's ceramics
"We pay Ukrainian taxes and provide workplaces for Ukrainians," say Zubarieva and Varetsa. "It's important to us, and to any Ukrainian brand, to stay profitable to support our country and business in these hard times of Russian aggression."
For many, the stakes couldn't be higher: for instance, Gushka Wool, which makes contemporary rugs and carpets using traditional Ukrainian weaving techniques. Here, some team members were able to stay at the looms, but others went to fight on the frontline.
Sisters Olha and Helen Norba, founders of luxury sportswear label Norba, manufacture most of their pieces in Kharkiv, one of the heaviest hit cities. "Naturally the full-scale war disrupted everything," says Olha. "The first weeks, our only focus was to make sure our team was safe. It was really hard for us to perceive any prior goals as meaningful - but life has to go on, so at some point we moved part of our stock to the west of Ukraine and managed to resume sales to support our team with a stable income." She says that even now the frontline has moved away from Kharkiv's residential areas, the city is still being hit by missiles daily.
It is really inspiring to see that people all around the globe care about our work and its futureOlha Norba, founder of luxury sportswear label Norba
With their workshops and factories either unreachable or in ruins, many Ukrainian businesses have found new ways to continue production. Others, such as accessories label Kate Kore, have had to rely on existing stock.
"Our manufacture has temporarily stopped working, [but] we are adjusting processes and hope to be back to work in July," says the label's co-founder, Anton Kore. "We continue to work selling stocks that we produced before the war. We transfer part of the funds to the armed forces and humanitarian aid, we cooperate with volunteers."
Most, if not all, Ukrainian businesses still in operation are making similar donations to the army, hospitals or aid organisations. Sleeper has donated more than £27,000 to the army and more than £16,000 to Ukraine's largest children's hospital, Okhmatdyt. International sales are essentially part of the war effort, as well as a much-needed morale boost for Ukrainians. Overseas sales help "both practically and mentally," says Olha Norba. "In terms of emotional support, it is really inspiring to see that people all around the globe care about our work and its future."
The Ukrainian craft brands to support now, and always
Natasha Kamenska and Maria Gavryliuk founded Gunia Project after bonding over a shared interest in traditional ethnic culture while volunteering at Kyiv's Ivan Honchar Museum Centre of Folk Culture in 2017. Describing their ceramics, jewellery and accessories as "modern Ukrainian souvenirs", they conduct extensive ethnographic research and involve Ukrainian artists in every collection.
It's the brand that made it okay to wear feather-trimmed pyjamas and slippers outside the house, and its ubiquitous off-shoulder dresses, with smock bodices in pastels or gingham, have taken on a life of their own. These days, the Sleeper wardrobe is a lot larger, while still staying true to the founders' vision of ethically crafted, high-quality, multipurpose garments.
Jeweller Oksana Boriychuk is determined to keep producing her highly symbolic necklaces and earrings from her workshop in Lviv, Western Ukraine. "After all," she says, "the necklace in the Ukrainian tradition is an important amulet that was inherited from our ancestors. Our customers send us messages that they hid the necklace in their emergency suitcase, or gave it to a lady who sheltered them in her home abroad."
Carpathian mountain sheep are prized for their soft but strong wool, and Ukraine has built a centuries-old weaving industry on their backs. Gushka taps into this history, making rugs and soft furnishing by hand, and using only Carpathian wool, traditional wooden looms and techniques passed down for generations. Among their pieces are variations of the Ukrainian "lizhnyk", a rug traditionally used as a carpet, bed cover or blanket throughout the owner's life.
When designer Olha Norba started working out in 2018 she was frustrated by the range of sportswear on offer, so she joined with sister Helen to plug the gap. The result, Norba, proves gym wear can be beautiful as well as highly functional. At first it was all about elegant neutrals, but now they are branching out. "At the beginning, I wanted to stay away from too bright colours and bold prints, focusing on the design and understated allure, but now we're experimenting with them as well," says Olha.
"Five years ago, we wanted to buy a leather tote shopping bag in Kyiv," says Anton Kore. "But it turns out it's not so easy!" Before he knew it, Anton and his wife Kateryna Kore had accidentally started an accessories brand. Five years later, Kate Kore bags are widely known for being both practical and stylish, thanks to their classic, understated designs and quality materials.