Made in Ukraine
Many reasons for made-in-Ukraine craze in a nation that fights war, seeks greater economic self-reliance
As the traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt or vyshyvanka conquers catwalks and red carpets around the globe, Ukrainian-made goods are seeing a resurgence at home as well as abroad in other areas.
After Ukraine’s national currency, the hryvnia, lost more than twothirds of its value following the start of Russia’s war in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014, some imported goods became prohibitively expensive for many Ukrainians.
So they started to looking to produce and buy home-grown substitutes.
Experts say local manufacturers also got a boost from the surge of patriotism among the public following the EuroMaidan Revolution that
drove President Viktor Yanukovych to Russia on Feb. 22, 2014.
But more than three years later, interest in local producers continues to grow, suggesting other factors are at work.
Where it all started
In 2013, journalist Yuliya Savostina started a blog entitled “In search of made in Ukraine’” at the Delo. ua news website. Savostina decided to go a whole year using only Ukraine-made goods and document her experience.
Savostina writes that, at the beginning of the experiment, many people were hesitant about buying Ukrainian goods, but the project soon gained “thousands of followers who wanted to be proud of their country.”
Savostina ended her experiment in 2014, with 100,000 subscribers to her blog and more than 4,000 producers discovered and tested. But it was only the start of the “made in Ukraine” trend, as the EuroMaidan Revolution took it to a new and higher level.
Russia’s invasion of Crimea and part of the Donbas sparked a boycott of Russian goods, and that, along with the fall in the hryvnia, made domestic products more attractive. But local producers, most of whom had no advertising budget, struggled to fill the gap.
Savostina was of help again, organizing a festival in June 2014 that sold only Ukrainian-made goods. Others followed.
The festivals have not only been helping small domestic producers of clothes, groceries and home supplies make decent revenues in just a couple of days, they’ve also been helping them reach more customers.
While Savostina’s first Made In Ukraine festival attracted some 8,000 visitors, her third one attracted 35,000 attendees. By 2017, she had organized 10 festivals in Kyiv.
The demand for Ukrainian goods has inspired others to launch similar regular fairs all around the country. One of the most successful is Vsi Svoi, a regular fair that has attracted around 600,000 visitors to 45 events in Kyiv and several other big cities since 2015.
Similar fairs have also popped up in Dnipro (Bud v UA) and in Lviv (OneDayShop and Harmyder).
Ukrainian goods have also benefited from a change in consumer sentiment. For many years, Ukrainian consumers were blinkered by the post-Soviet view that foreign-made goods are more prestigious and higher quality than anything produced domestically.
Iryna Lytovchenko, a co-founder of Tabletochki, an international charity foundation for children with cancer, says she used to buy clothes abroad, preferring independent stores or the mass market brands unavailable in Ukraine. But since 2014, she has switched to Ukrainian designers.
“When the (Made in Ukraine) fair craze started and new brands popped up offering stylish and comfortable garments, I saw no need to shop abroad,” Lytovchenko says, adding she still likes all of the brands she has discovered over the years, including UAmazing, Vovk, Kachorovska atelier, 7arrowswear, Balcony garment and Sammy Icon.
“Buying Ukrainian also helps to develop local manufacturing,” Lytovchenko says. “The only products I couldn’t find substitutes for among Ukrainian merchants are Boyfriend jeans and New Balance sneakers.”
While the fairs have helped small domestic brands develop, there is evidence that they are now ready to take the next step and go into regular retail.
In September, the Vsi Svoi fair’s organizers opened a shop by the same name on Kyiv’s central Khreshchatyk Street.
The store’s three floors stock around 150 Ukrainian brands of clothes, accessories, bags, lingerie, footwear and home decor from Kyiv, Odesa, Dnipro, Kharkiv, Lviv, Rivne, Khmelnytsky and others.
“We are very demanding to our brands, and so are the customers,” its owner, Anna Lukovkina, says. “If a button falls off or they see any sewing mistakes, the whole of Facebook will know about it.”
Lukovkina recalls an especially successful fair in fall that focused on seasonal clothes, mostly coats, which saw some 50,000 visitors.
“I got in there and realized that I just couldn’t move at all, it was too busy,” Lukovkina says, adding that she’s not a fan of shopping, and wants to make it more convenient. With Ukrainian-made clothes in demand abroad, Vsi Svoi also plans to launch an online store with worldwide shipping.
During the first year of the Vsi Svoi festival, at least 20,000 dresses, 12,000 pairs of shoes and 7,000 bags were sold, according to the organizers.
Lukovkina is certain this trend will continue. “Now it’s up to the brands (to increase production and improve quality). The strongest will remain afloat. And my dream is that buying Ukrainian won’t be a trend, but rather a habit.”
As summer approaches, Vsi Svoi visitors are now raking through racks of light trench coats, t-shirts and dresses. Prices start at Hr 250 ($10) for a t-shirt, Hr 600–2,000 ($22–75) for dresses, and from Hr 4,000– 8,000 ($150–300) for warm coats.
But even though the venue remains popular among Kyivans and tourists, it’s not Lukovkina’s “dream store” yet. She says the apparel they sell is rather eclectic and the store lacks a unified design. Together with her 100 employees, she plans to improve the window displays, better organize the brands by floors, and put little signs near every producer so customers can find out more about the brands.
Target foreign markets
For foreign customers, the main appeal of Ukrainian goods are their low prices.
“Foreigners often buy shoes and leather accessories,” Lukovkina says. “We had some Hr 8,000 ($297) leather bags and they were a big hit among the foreigners.”
Kachorovska, a Ukrainian leather shoe brand, also started selling their footwear via websites, social media and markets in the United States, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.
Manufactured in Zhytomyr, 140 kilometers west of Kyiv, the brand offers affordable prices even though it imports the heels and leather for all of its shoes from Italy.
Meanwhile, the Ukraine-based Sammy Icon sock company is also doing well on the foreign markets. In 2012, the company launched a campaign on the U.S.-based crowdfunding platform Kickstarter and raised $8,981 in less than a month to produce their first colorful socks.
The business soon took off, and Sammy Icon is now on the front foot: its socks are available in around a dozen shops in Kyiv, as well as in numerous stores in Ukraine, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Finland, the United States and South Korea. They have also installed the country’s first sock vending machine – in Kyiv’s central Globus shopping mall.
Ukrainian pajama brand Sleeper is also popular among foreign customers, selling in the United Kingdom, Japan, Korea, the United States, Germany, Russia and Kazakhstan. Founded in 2014 by former fashion journalists Kate Zubarieva and Asya Varetsa, the brand has been featured in leading fashion magazines such as Vogue Italia and Vanity Fair.
In 2016, Ukraine exported consumer goods worth a total of $665.8 million to 92 countries. The European Union, Russia and Belarus are the top buyers, while Ukraine also exports its clothing and footwear to Moldova, Georgia, Norway and Canada.
The bulk of Ukraine’s estimated $36.4 billion in exports in 2016 came from steel, industrial and agricultural commodities.
However, patriotism probably won’t be enough for Ukrainian brands to keep their clients, experts say.
Savostina said that only the brands with a long-term business plan, which are constantly improving quality, services and marketing while keeping their prices competitive will evolve from startups into mass producers.
She said that the biggest flaw of Ukrainian producers is their “obsession with short-term sales at the expense of strategic planning.”
Another problem is that producers still try to save money on professional managers, marketing specialists, and photographers – a phenomenon that Savostina describes as “poor business culture.”
Moreover, Savostina said that it’s both difficult and expensive for businesses to secure loans to expand production, even when there is demand for their goods. In addition, many producers are ignorant about legal and financial issues.
Savostina expects only 10–15 clothing brands out of the 200–300 founded at the peak of the boom in popularity of domestic producers to stay on the market and gain national recognition.
“Market competition will put everything in the right place,” she writes in her blog.
Despite war and economic volatility, Ukraine is still a nation that exports many products to the world, including corn, iron ore, consumer goods, rocket engines and weapons. In 2016, Ukraine improved its image and brand value globally. The EuroMaidan Revolution that toppled ex-President Viktor Yanukovych also helped to pull Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and, coupled with a two-thirds drop in the currency, inspire local producers to boost domestic manufacturing. The number 482 is the country barcode signifying Ukrainian-produced items. (Kyiv Post/tOrange.biz)
A woman works at Ukrainian knitwear producer RITO facilities in Kyiv Oblast. The company has been in the clothing business in Ukraine for 24 years. They export to Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Denmark and Canada. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)
Ukraine’s $36.4 billion in exports in 2016 were dominated by steel and grain. But clothing and textiles ranked 10th at about $700 million.
Women look at Ukrainian-made bags during Vsi Svoi festival in Kyiv’s D12 Gallery on March 11. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)