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.