By CARA ANNA
LVIV, Ukraine (AP) – A few days ago, Artem Gorelov was trying to survive in one of the most brutal parts of Ukraine, the Russian-occupied suburb of Bucha, Kiev. Now he is in a quiet room in the late afternoon sunlight, hand-making hats for a local fashion brand worn by Madonna and the Ukrainian first lady.
Gorelov joined the massive migration of Ukrainians west to the city of Lviv near Poland. And, unusually, the company of 100 employees he works for has come with him. Seeking security but determined not to leave Ukraine, the Ruslan Baginskiy brand is among the companies that are uprooting themselves amidst the war.
Two months ago, first lady Olena Zelenska was in the showroom of the hat manufacturer in Kiev. Now the company operates in two borrowed classrooms from a school, its workers delicately putting materials together next to the decades-old students’ sewing machines.
It’s a slower process, but clients like Nieman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s have expressed support, said co-owner Victoria Semerei, 29.
He 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 not possible.
Two hours after his plane landed back in Kiev, the bombing began.
The daily attacks led the three co-founders of the company to make the decision to flee. While some employees have scattered to other parts of Ukraine or other countries, about a third moved the essentials of the company to Lviv two weeks ago.
“Normal life will resume someday,” Semerei said. “We must be prepared”.
The company embarked on the national wartime effort that kidnapped Ukraine, donating money to the military and transforming its Instagram feed from brand promotion to war updates.
“This is no time to be shy. Not anymore, “said co-founder and creative director Ruslan Baginskiy. The company once had Russian clients, but that stopped long before the invasion as regional tensions escalated.” You can’t have any connections. ” he said. “Now it’s all political.”
As part of this spirit, Semerei rejected the idea of moving the company to a safer location outside of Ukraine. “We have our team here, the most valuable team we have,” he said. “Talented, all of them.”
The brand’s past campaigns for the company have closely identified with Ukraine, photographed in places like Kherson, now under Russian occupation. Towns that the hatter’s employees once called home have been destroyed.
“So many Russian troops,” said Gorelov, who fled Bucha near the capital. “It was not even possible to defend oneself.”
His arrival in Lviv, where life goes on and the trendy shops stay open, was surreal. It took days to adapt. Now “I feel relaxed doing it,” he said, a new hat being built on the table in front of him.
In another corner of the makeshift workspace, Svetlana Podgainova is worried about her family in the Luhansk Territory of eastern Ukraine, where pro-Moscow separatists have been fighting for control for nearly eight years. It was already difficult to visit with her family even before the invasion. Now her brother cannot leave the region.
He feels horrible to see his colleagues from other parts of Ukraine involved in war and wants normal life to return for all of them. Until then, “I really wanted to get back to work,” he told her. She occupies her mind and makes her feel less alone in a new city, and she calls her colleagues a “big family”.
Employees of the hat maker are among the approximately 200,000 displaced people now living in Lviv, with the co-founders now sharing an apartment with many other people.
Considering the challenges, this year will likely be the worst in the company’s six-year history, Semerei said. But “this is something we will go through and hope to be even stronger”.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine