Young Entrepreneurs Find Funky Niche In Products 'Made In Ukraine'

Apr 23, 2017
Originally published on April 23, 2017 5:49 pm

A couple of years ago, Kiev business journalist Yuliya Savostina decided to try an experiment: to spend a year living off food and other goods produced exclusively in Ukraine.

Inspired by the local food movement in the United States, Savostina started a blog to document her experience. She didn't expect it to last very long.

"I was sure that there weren't any cosmetics or toothpaste or normal shoes that you could wear," Savostina says. "But, literally, by the end of the first month I realized that Ukraine makes practically everything — you just have to look for it."

To her great surprise, Savostina discovered that her country, once the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, produces luxury foods such as caviar, snails and Spanish-style jamon. When she thought scurvy might be setting in after a long winter, Savostina even found domestically cultivated kiwis and oranges.

Savostina's experiment came to an end in early 2014 as Ukraine was rocked by violent anti-government protests and a Russian military intervention. Many of her readers turned to her for advice on where they could buy domestic substitutes for Russian-made goods. That summer, Savostina helped organize one of the first pop-up markets to feature Ukrainian producers.

The surge in patriotic feelings coincided with the crash of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvna, driving up demand for locally made goods even more.

It was around that time that Anastasiya Rudnik opened a basement shop in downtown Kiev featuring Ukrainian streetwear, including clothes she designs herself.

Three underground rooms are lined with racks of hoodies, sweatshirts and jackets in camouflage, black and gray. They're the kind of clothes any self-respecting skateboarder would wear in Los Angeles or Portland — only they're all made in Ukraine.

"We try to buy Ukrainian fabrics as much as possible," Rudnik, 24, says. "We do everything with love. We create each piece individually, not by mass production."

Growing their businesses is one of the main challenges for Ukrainian entrepreneurs, says journalist Savostina. Other hurdles include the country's notorious bureaucracy, heavy tax burden and the high cost of borrowing.

For small- and medium-sized Ukrainian businesses, it's not so much a question of improving quality as the marketing behind it, says Veronika Movchan, an economist with the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting in Kiev.

"What Ukrainians should probably learn from Americans is how to sell their products, how to pack them, how to label them, how to advertise them and how promote them on the domestic and external markets," Movchan says.

Although startups and boutique designers still make up a small part of the overall economy, Movchan says the entrepreneurial skills young Ukrainians are learning are essential for the country's future development.

One of the best symbols of that new entrepreneurship is Vsi.Svoi, or All.Ours, a multilevel store on Kiev's main shopping street featuring dozens of brands of Ukrainian-made clothes, shoes and accessories.

The store opened in September, with prices for a coat ranging from $90 to $250 and a dress from $20 to $150.

"I want to make it normal to buy Ukrainian, like from any other international retailer," says founder Anna Lukovkina, 32.

A lot of the Ukrainian brands have generic-sounding English names like Truman, Brooklyn or Zen Wear. But there are also distinctly Ukrainian labels like Zerno, Kozzyr, Etnodim, Kozzachka and Cabanchi.

Once those designers have established themselves at home, Lukovkina says, they'll be ready to conquer the world.

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RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

NPR's Lucian Kim was walking down a street in Ukraine's capital Kiev recently when he passed a basement store with a huge sign saying Ukrainian street-wear, so he went inside and discovered a trend that reflects a change in the way young Ukrainians are thinking about their country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COOLER THAN ME")

MIKE POSNER: (Singing) You got your high brow, shoes on your feet.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: When I descend into the shop selling the Ukrainian street-wear, I find three underground rooms with racks of hoodies, sweatshirts and jackets. They're the kind of clothes any skateboarder in New York, Paris or London would feel comfortable in. But this is all made in Ukraine.

ANASTASIYA RUDNIK: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: That's Anastasiya Rudnik, one of the shop's co-owners and a designer in her own right. The 24 year old says she tries to use Ukrainian-made materials for clothes as much as possible. Rudnik went into the fashion business in 2014, the same year Ukraine was rocked by violent anti-government protests and then a Russian military intervention. Many Ukrainians felt it was their patriotic duty to support local brands.

RUDNIK: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: "We do everything with love," Rudnik says, "we create each piece individually not by mass production." You might think that would limit the range of products available to Ukrainian consumers, but not according to journalist Yuliya Savostina, a pioneer of the Made in Ukraine movement. A couple of years ago, she started a blog to find out if it was possible to live off only Ukrainian-made goods for an entire year.

YULIYA SAVOSTINA: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: She said she was certain she wouldn't be able to find toothpaste or cosmetics or shoes you'd want to wear. But to her great surprise, Savostina discovered that Ukraine produces almost everything, even luxury foods like snails and caviar. Savostina's experiment ended just as Russia was annexing Crimea, and many people wanted to boycott Russian products. At the same time, the Ukrainian currency crashed, driving even more demand for domestic goods.

SAVOSTINA: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: "Now," Savostina says, "Ukraine is at the stage of market formation where only the strong will survive. Ukrainian entrepreneurs face a lot of hurdles," she says, "including bureaucracy, a heavy tax burden and the high cost of borrowing." Viktoria Movchan, an economist in Kiev says another challenge is marketing.

VIKTORIA MOVCHAN: What the Ukrainians should probably learn from Americans is how to sell your products, how to pack them, how to label them, how to advertise them, how to promote them on the domestic and on the external market.

KIM: Although, start-ups and boutique designers are only a small part of the economy, Movchan says the entrepreneurial skills young Ukrainians are learning are essential for the country's future development.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED ARTIST: (Singing in foreign language).

KIM: Lucian Kim, NPR News, Kiev. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.