Despite Ongoing War With Russia, Ukrainian Makers Launch E-commerce Platform

Five months after “I am u are” spotlighted 120 Ukrainian creators in a three-day New York City event, the project is advancing with an online platform that goes live Wednesday.

Founded by Gogola agency’s chief executive officer Anna Pagava and hospitality specialist Kristina Skripka, “I am u are” has launched e-commerce with distribution in the U.S. being the initial focus. For starters, there are 22 homeware and product design brands, four fashion ones, three accessories labels and two publishing participants; more will be added in the months ahead. In what organizers described as “soft power diplomacy,” Ukrainian makers of all disciplines are carrying on with their businesses to the best of their abilities, despite the ongoing invasion by Russia.

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The cost of Ukraine’s recovery and rebuilding was estimated to be $411 billion in March, based on a Word Bank report. Millions have left Ukraine since the fighting began in February 2022, including many craftspeople and workers who had provided services for the Ukrainian designers and makers.

Impressively, 80 percent of the team behind the project is based in Ukraine, and all of the vendors and brands are also there. Given that, whenever there is a heavy attack, plans change, deadlines move and whatever work is underway is reconsidered. An “I am u are” spokesperson said, “For most Ukrainians, planning has become unbelievably agile. It is quite complicated to work on a long-term vision, when you’re not sure what tomorrow will bring. Managing constant variables is not easy, especially when it comes to the emotional state of people at war.“

The creative team of Masha Reva, Ivan Grabko, Nadiia Shapoval, Iryna Miroshnykova and Oleksii Petrov are overseeing each step of the project’s development. The “I am u are” team is also planning a Los Angeles event similar to the weekend one in March that spanned 10,000 square feet at the Skylight Essex in lower Manhattan.

A fashion display at the inaugural event in New York earlier this year.

Some of the makers selling via the new platform discussed their ongoing challenges. Fashion designer Nadiia Shapoval, the creative force behind the Nadiia label, said that providing local artisans with work by supporting them with orders and magnifying their crafts is even more important during the war. She said, “I believe that artistic work gives strength to experience global events when we are right in the epicenter of them. The main difficulty for us is that sometimes the team and I can lose touch with the work rhythm due to exhaustion from the news and events happening around us.”

Yakush founder Mariia Yakush said that when her homeware business resumed work in April 2022, there was one rule, “’Don’t stop. No matter what happens, we keep on going, creating new collections and collaborations.’” Given the production challenges during a time of war, speed may not always be as fast as in the past and only two of 10 planned tasks can be completed. That was the case last winter due to constant shelling on the power system, the designer said.

Yakush said, “For us, business is a sort of salvation from melancholy and bad thoughts. Seeing how our products travel the world together with our wonderful customers, decorating their cozy homes and interiors, gives us wings and strength to move forward.”

With commercial airspace over Ukraine still closed, shipping delays are common, with some deliveries taking up to two weeks versus three or four days. “Once gas prices have increased — our cost price is increased. Once there is no electricity, we are unable to produce the required amount of products and miss all possible deadlines,” the founder said, adding that adaptability is key.

Bevza’s designer Svitlana Bavza said silence and solitude help restore her strength, which can be depleted from the intense production schedules. “When I come to Ukraine, I go to my garden, trim the bushes and walk barefoot on the grass. All of this calms me down and gives me power to create.”

After testing jewelry production abroad, Bevza determined Ukrainian production was second to none. “Moreover, the support of the Ukrainian manufacturers and our domestic partners is of paramount importance for the brand, both symbolically and fundamentally,” she said, adding that the main challenge is planning months in advance, especially since rolling blackouts are once again expected to be an issue next winter.

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