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Op-Ed | How a Ukrainian Fashion Brand Is Surviving the War

Six months after Russia’s Ukraine invasion, Ienki Ienki founder Dmitriy Ievenko recounts how his Ukrainian outerwear brand is navigating the crisis and what comes next.
Ienki Ienki founder Dmitriy Ievenko.
Ienki Ienki founder Dmitriy Ievenko recounts how the Ukrainian outerwear brand is navigating the fallout from Russia’s invasion. (Courtesy)
  • Dmitriy Ievenko

In February of this year, my team at Ienki Ienki and I were preparing for a sales campaign in Milan. It was a good time for the brand. We had recently surpassed 160 wholesale accounts. Our Pre-Fall campaign was a success. And with upcoming main collection sales, it looked like we’d be celebrating our best season to date. The team was energised.

Then on February 24th, Russia launched a massive military assault on Ukraine. The country was plunged into war and business came to a sudden standstill. The market was paralysed. Nobody even spoke about business during the first month. Instead, we were focused on our team of 120 people, spread across Kyiv and Cherkasy, making sure everyone was safe.

For some of them, it was literally about physical survival. One of our team members was stuck in Bucha, hiding in a summer kitchen while Russian soldiers occupied her family house. Our head of merchandising went to Gostomel, another small town northwest of Kyiv that was invaded and brutally destroyed by Russians, to help his parents flee. We didn’t hear from him for three long weeks — until they managed to escape to Kyiv.

The next two months were about picking up scattered pieces of the business and trying to pull things back together. We relocated our offices and warehouse to the Western part of the country. In June, we relaunched the sampling studio in Kyiv. Our head office reopened in August. Today, running the company is mostly a virtual experience — managing a team spread across Ukraine, but also Italy, Spain, Canada and the US. Thanks to Covid, we were prepared for that.

As the whole world watched the horrors happening in Ukraine, we got a mixed response from the wider industry. Amidst the avalanche of statements professing support, the industry became very cautious about working with Ukrainian brands. How would we produce? Would we be able to deliver on time? Would we survive at all? Our showroom Rainbowwave was brilliant in helping us get through the turmoil. We negotiated with every client and made sure our commitments would be fulfilled. The trickiest part was convincing international suppliers to put our orders back into production. We have around 30 of them and rely on each heavily. I spent countless hours on Zoom. With some we had to travel to factories just to prove that the business was here to stay.

Getting product made is difficult, but delivering it to clients is even harder. Because of delayed shipments, our direct-to-consumer sales, a main source of cash flow, are suffering. Customers increasingly prefer to buy from our retail partners, which is faster and easier for them.

“Every designer I know in Ukraine is dealing with a constant stream of disasters waiting to happen.”

This season, we missed our sales forecasts by 30 percent. But we’re meeting all our obligations. And except for two or three accounts that cancelled their Fall/Winter orders, we are back in the game. As I’m writing this, our team is preparing two pop-up projects scheduled to launch later this year, one with a major British department store, another with a hip concept store in Asia.

And yet the sky is no longer the limit. There’s no doubt that, these days, running a Ukrainian fashion business is a terribly bumpy road. Every designer I know in Ukraine is dealing with a constant stream of disasters waiting to happen. Ukrainian retailers are under scrutiny as well. With shrinking deliveries they are opting to sell their old stock to those who remain in the country. It may sound surreal, but for many people, shopping is one of the few sources of joy left.

But with brutal challenges come opportunities. The last couple of months I’ve been travelling to Italy, talking to big guys at major production companies. They are all impressed by the resilience and flexibility of Ukrainian businesses, as well as our commitment to deliver high quality at reasonable prices. This has been my biggest discovery of this difficult period.

In the face of a staggering price inflation across Europe, keeping production costs down is crucial and international companies are keen for alternative suppliers. This is where Ukraine could benefit. When the war is over, there is so much potential for the country to emerge as a great production hub for the luxury industry and not just mass market players like Inditex and H&M.

Ienki Ienki is 100 percent produced in Ukraine to the highest standards. With our hard-working people and the know-how to craft and produce top quality garments, Ukraine could one day become a valuable production base for the likes of Balenciaga, Fendi and Thom Browne.

The last six months have been tough but I am positive that Ukraine will prevail. Our main goal right now is to win this war. Then we will win over the industry.

Dmitriy Ievenko is the founder of Ukrainian outerwear brand Ienki Ienki.

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