Ukrainian fashion label in a bombed city takes flight and flees
Just a few days ago, Artem Gorelov was trying to survive in one of Ukraine’s most brutal regions, the Russian-occupied kyiv suburb of Bucha. Now he stands in a quiet room in the late afternoon sun, handcrafting hats for a local fashion brand worn by Madonna and Ukraine’s first lady.
Gorelov joined the mass migration of Ukrainians west to the city of Lviv, near Poland. And, exceptionally, the company of 100 employees for which he works arrived with him. In search of security but determined not to leave Ukraine, the Ruslan Baginskiy brand is one of the companies that are uprooted in the middle of the war.
Two months ago, the first lady Olena Zelenska was in the hatter’s showroom in kyiv. Today, the company operates in two classrooms borrowed from a school, its workers delicately assembling materials near the students’ decades-old sewing machines.
It’s a slower process, but customers like Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s have expressed support, said co-owner Victoria Semerei, 29.
She was one of the Ukrainians who did not believe that Russia would invade. She remembers being in Italy the day before the invasion and telling her partners that war was not possible.
Two hours after his plane landed in kyiv, the bombardment began.
The daily bombardments prompted the company’s three co-founders to make the decision to flee. While some employees have dispersed to other parts of Ukraine or other countries, around a third moved the bulk of the business to Lviv two weeks ago.
“Normal life will resume one day,” Semerei said. “We have to be prepared.”
The company threw itself into the national war effort that gripped Ukraine, donating money to the military and transforming its Instagram feed from brand promotion to updates on the war.
“Now is not the time to be shy. Not anymore,” said co-founder and creative director Ruslan Baginskiy. The company once had Russian customers, but that stopped long before the invasion so that regional tensions were increasing. “It is not possible to have relations,” he said. “Everything is political now.”
With that in mind, Semerei rejected the idea of moving the business to a safer location outside Ukraine. “We have our team here, the most valuable team we have,” she said. “Talented, all of them.
Past brand campaigns for the company have identified closely with Ukraine, photographed in a place like Kherson, now under Russian occupation. Towns that Hatter’s employees once called home have been torn apart.
“So many Russian troops,” said Gorelov, who fled Bucha near the capital. “It was not even possible to defend.”
His arrival in Lviv, where life goes on and trendy shops remain open, was surreal. It took days to adjust. Now, “I feel relaxed doing this,” he said, a new hat being constructed on the table in front of him.
In another corner of the makeshift workspace, Svetlana Podgainova worried about her family in the breakaway territory of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Moscow separatists have been fighting for control for nearly eight years old. It was already difficult to travel with family even before the invasion. Now her brother cannot leave the area.
She feels horrible to see her colleagues from other parts of Ukraine drawn into the war and wishes normal life would return for all of them. Until then, “I wanted to come back to work so badly,” she said. It occupies her mind and makes her feel less alone in a new city, and she calls her co-workers a “big family”.
The hatter’s employees are among some 200,000 displaced people currently living in Lviv, with the co-founders now sharing an apartment with several other people.
Given the challenges, this year will likely be the worst in the company’s six-year history, Semerei said. But “it’s something we’ll get through and hopefully get even stronger.”
This story corrects the spelling of Neiman Marcus in the 4th paragraph.
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine