Meet The Famous Ukrainian Fashion Designers Working Through The War: Valeriya Guzema
At the beginning of 2022 we had planned to start preparations for our entry into foreign markets. Instead, with the beginning of the war, the brand had to scrap preparations and make the lead into the global market at a moment’s notice, with little detailed analysis or calculation of the risks. We’d also planned for the new Guzema boutique to open in Kyiv, but we had to postpone until February 2023. A lot has changed in the last year.
The evening before the full-scale invasion on February 23, our team discussed the possibility of launching a new project and an offline event. Little did we realise that war would be on our doorstep in the morning.
The next day, I had to make some pretty big and urgent decisions. First, I decided to quickly pay all of my employees’ salaries and I transferred 1 million hryvnia (£25,000) to the army. At first, the team and I were in contact 24/7, mainly regarding volunteer and charity activities, as well as talking through personal issues they were having. My team were busy volunteering at orphanages, helping doctors and the military, but also offering help to each other’s friends and acquaintances when it came to evacuations and finding housing. At the beginning of the war, all Ukrainians could ask each other was ‘How are you?’, which soon came to mean ‘I love you’.
From the first day of the war we began volunteering. My charitable fund, the Guzema Foundation, jumped into action immediately. We didn’t take our eyes off the phone and didn’t waste any time verifying requests, rather focussed on helping anyone who needed assistance, whether it was financially through the fund, or personally from me or someone in my the team. For a whole month, my team and the brand’s social media platforms were dedicated exclusively to sharing information, and emergency contact details.
The most difficult thing during that time was having to control my emotions, filter the news where possible, and try not to take everything too personally. When you’re lacking resources and have little strength, you struggle to help others.
In the first days of the war, part of the Kyiv region was occupied by the Russian army. We didn’t know what was to come, so we created a warehouse in Europe to store all of Guzema’s jewellery in a safe place. Fortunately, over time, this warehouse helped us to ensure fast deliveries of orders to our customers abroad.
Our production was, and remains, in Ukraine to this day. Unfortunately, several colleagues were forced to leave the country because of the war and don’t plan to return. It’s a serious loss, but I couldn’t think about relocating our production site. I held the faith that we’d be able to resume our work at our Kyiv site, and this came true by the beginning of summer 2022. My limited experience of working with production in Europe made me realise that it couldn’t compare with Ukraine’s speed, quality and cost. I’m proud of the fact we make our products in Ukraine. No matter how difficult to work during power outages and constant threats of missile strikes, we’ll continue to work in Kyiv.
One of the biggest challenges businesses in Ukraine face today is the inability to plan long-term. A brand can set goals and create new strategies, but entrepreneurs have to be prepared for change at a moment’s notice.
Our first 2022 collection, titled ‘Freedom’ and featuring pieces in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, was released at the end of April. All of the net profit from the sale of the collection went towards the Guzema Foundation. For the six months following its release we repeatedly added new items to the collection and it’s become a symbol of the country for so many of our customers. For the Independence Day of Ukraine last summer, I created the ‘Spadok’ collection, which is inspired by our culture, history, origins and national identity. The pixel-shape ornaments are pierced with red thread, which involved working with a team of embroiderers.
Last October we planned a street style photoshoot in Lviv but it turned out to be the same day Russia decided to launch missiles across Ukraine. There were hundreds of rockets and an air raid siren overhead. All of the electricity and communication networks were cut off. But as soon as the air raid siren finished we went outside and began shooting. It seems absurd to think we continued working in such scary conditions, but at that moment we thought: ‘Well, we planned to shoot – so we are going to shoot. If Russia tries to intimidate us, then they will not succeed, because we’re brave enough to continue living and working.’
In 2023, we plan to win. All of Guzema’s work and charitable efforts are focussed on supporting the Ukrainian army and economy. Despite all of the hardships we’ve faced, we want continue shedding a light on our country to the wider world until our victory, grow businesses, and celebrate the products being made by Ukrainians in Ukraine.
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