Jen Sidary was enjoying dinner at Kiki’s on the Lower East Side when she saw a message on her phone: Russia had invaded Ukraine. It was February 24, and Sidary, who spent her career in fashion, was in the middle of showcasing Ukrainian brands at New York Fashion Week. At her table sat three Ukrainian women.
“I flipped over my phone, and I was like, How am I even going to tell these people this is happening?Sidary says. After she broke the news, they all called their friends in Ukraine––and booze. When Sidary returned to her hotel room that night, she wondered, Is anyone going to place an order from a country that’s at war?
At the end of fashion week, Sidary left for Los Angeles with all of the collections, a ton of new luggage, and the Ukrainian designer Valery Kovalska alongside her. Kovalska would spend the next month on Sidary’s couch in her one-bedroom apartment. It became clear to Sidary that these designers needed a lifeboat and way to drum up sales––fast.
Sidary created an e-commerce website that features curated products from the most elite Ukrainian fashion brands and drives global sales for them. Aptly named angelforfashion.com, the site launched just over a month after Russia’s invasion with more than 800 products from over 30 brands. They ship to countries across the world (except for Russia and “Belorussia,” what Sidary calls Belarus)––selling everything from $100 jewelry pieces to custom masks for thousands of dollars. (Sidary declined to give sales figures for the site.)
Just over seven months later, Sidary, with a grant from the USAID Competitive Economy Program, led a collective of six Ukrainian brands at Paris Fashion Week. It showcased the best of Ukraine’s fashion industry and what the designers managed to create, despite formidable odds.
“You can see [Ukrainians’] strength on the front lines, but of course, the whole country is really this strong and resilient,” Sidary says.
Years ago, she couldn’t have pictured herself in this situation, let alone working in Ukraine. Sidary spent most of her career at Zappos.com before becoming president of sales for Vivienne Westwood America. She started consulting, but when COVID-19 left her without work, she followed a friend to Ukraine in November 2020 in search of a new opportunity.
It didn’t take long for the fashion industry to pull her back in. “I could have just had a fun trip, but that decision changed my life forever,” Sidary says. “I didn’t even know, after 30 years in this industry, that there was so much talent lying in this country.”
Designing Through the Destruction
After the war broke out, Ukrainian designers lost between 60% and 90% of their sales, according to a rep for Angel for Fashion. That made Sidary’s work even more critical. Ivan Frolov is one of the designers currently featured at Paris Fashion Week. The founder and creative director of his eponymous brand, Frolov, he was showcasing his designs at New York Fashion Week in February when the war broke out.
His production hub is in the center of Kyiv, and after the invasion, Frolov halted production for about a month. Eventually, his team of 35 employees resumed production, even though sirens became part of their everyday existence. One day, just 500 meters from the office (that’s about 547 yards), rockets crashed into a residential building.
The war drastically changed Frolov’s business as it shifted some operations to support the war effort. The Ukrainian army needed vests, uniforms made with special measurements, and rocket carriers—and Frolov delivered. The brand even launched a charity project called “FROLOV HEART,” with all proceeds supporting Ukrainian children who’d lost their parents. The sweatshirts and T-shirts feature hand-embroidered hearts crafted by local artisans in Ukraine’s blue and gold colors.
“Handmade embroidery is like the DNA of Ukrainian culture,” Frolov says. All of Frolov’s production remains in Ukraine. “It’s very important to give people the opportunity to continue to work.” Meanwhile, the brand launched two new collections, with corsets, dresses, and other designs that play with sexuality and physicality. It brought these collections to Paris.
For designers like Frolov, it wasn’t just the producs that changed, but also the entire shipping process. Sidary said they ship all of their products by ground in Ukraine, as there’s currently no air travel allowed. Once they arrive in Poland, a company like FedEx takes the packages by air and delivers it to the customer.
This adjustment proved challenging for some brands like Chereshnivska, says owner and designer Iryna Kokhana. Before the war, 97% of Chereshnivska’s sales came from Ukraine. Kokhana quickly realized the need to adjust for a more global audience and relaunched the website with prices in additional currencies.
The media frenzy and widespread support that followed her showcase at this year’s New York Fashion Week helped, and Kokhana credits USAID and Sidary with saving her business in the early days. Even so, challenges persisted. With bank accounts frozen in Ukraine, she worried about growing debt and paying taxes. Her team of nine shrunk to four after some workers left Ukraine, and she didn’t replace them. Kokhana herself moved to London, and she now manages her team in Ukraine remotely. She can hear air alarms during their meetings.
For Kokhana, Paris Fashion Week offers crucial opportunities for media attention and connections with big clients, but it has also provided meaningful moments with fellow designers and stylists. “When you’re seeing that you are not alone in this journey, it also helps,” Kokhana says.
Sidary and the designers put together the collective in a matter of weeks, hoping to gain some much-needed visibility in the fashion capital of the world. On the first day, Sidary said you could barely walk within the crowded space and added that some big-name department stores have visited the collective. (She declined to share further details.)
Meanwhile, months later, the war still rages on. News alerts from Ukraine continue to flood phones, and Ukrainian designers are still seeking support to keep up their efforts. Next season, Sidary is hoping to take these showcases to the next level, possibly adding more Ukrainian brands and visiting more cities.
“It’s really incredible to be doing work in fashion that really means something,” Sidary says.