Written by CARA ANNA – Associated Press
LVIV, Ukraine (AP) – Just a few days ago, Artsyom Gorelov tried to survive in one of the harshest areas of Ukraine, the Russian-occupied Kiev suburb of Bucha. Now he stands in a quiet room in the sunlight, hand-making hats for a local fashion brand worn by Madonna and the First Lady of Ukraine.
Gorelov joined the mass migration of Ukrainians west to the city of Lviv, near Poland. And, unusually, with him came the company with 100 employees in which he works. Seeking security, but deciding not to leave Ukraine, the Ruslan Baginskiy brand is among the companies eradicated by the war.
Two months ago, the first lady Elena Zelenskaya was in the Kiev hat salon. Now the company operates in two borrowed classrooms of the school, workers are gently collecting materials near the sewing machines that have been standing for decades by students.
It’s a slower process, but customers such as Nieman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s have expressed support, said co-owner 29-year-old Victoria Semarey.
She was among the Ukrainians who did not believe that Russia would invade. She recalled being in Italy the day before the invasion and telling her partners that war was impossible.
Two hours after her plane returned to Kyiv, the bombing began.
Daily explosions forced three co-founders of the company to decide to flee. While some employees traveled to other parts of Ukraine or other countries, about a third transported essential goods to Lviv two weeks ago.
“Ordinary life will return one day,” Semerei said. “We have to be ready.”
The campaign plunged into wartime national efforts that seized Ukraine, donating money to the military and turning its Instagram feed from brand promotion to war updates.
“No time to be ashamed. Not anymore, ”co-founder and creative director Ruslan Bahinski said. The company once had Russian customers, but that stopped long before the invasion, as tensions in the region grew. “It’s impossible to have any connections,” he said. “Now everything is political.”
In this spirit, Semerei rejected the idea of moving the company to a safer place outside Ukraine. “We have our own team here, the most valuable team we have,” she said. “Everyone is talented.”
Past brand companies for the company closely identified Ukraine, photographed in a place like Kherson, now under Russian occupation. Cities that hatters once called home are torn apart.
“So many Russian troops,” said Gorelov, who fled Bucha near the capital. “There was no way to even defend myself.”
His visit to Lviv, where life goes on and fashion stores remain open, was surreal. It took days to adapt. “Now I feel relaxed doing it,” he said, with a new hat in front of him.
In another corner of the makeshift workspace, Svetlana Podgainova worried about her family in separatist-controlled Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, where pro-Moscow separatists have been fighting for control for nearly eight years. Even before the invasion it was difficult to visit the family. Now her brother cannot leave the region.
She feels horrified to see her colleagues from other parts of Ukraine involved in the war, and wants them all to return to normal. By then, “I so wanted to go back to work,” she said. It occupies her mind and makes her feel less lonely in the new city, and she calls her colleagues a “big family”.
The staff of the hatter was among about 200,000 displaced people who now live in Lviv, and the co-founders now live in an apartment with several other people.
Given the challenges, this year is likely to be the worst in the company’s six-year history, Semeirei said. But “this is what we will go through and hopefully become even stronger.”
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