The Ukrainian Founders Didn’t Think Russia Would Invade, But They’re Glad They Planned for It Anyway

For one small Ukrainian company, conflict has become a key mile marker.

Fashion editors Kate Zubarieva, 33, and Asya Varetsa, 31, conceived capitald of the idea for their fashion label, Sleeper, during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity–a five-day clash between protesters and the Ukrainian government in Ukraine’s, Kyiv, which eventually led to the ousting of the country’s president, Viktor Yanukovych. Then, in February 2022, after Russia invaded the country, the Ukrainian company rapidly laid down manufacturing roots in another country.

As Russia began planning a military offensive against Ukraine in December 2021, the Sleeper team began to prepare for the worst, and the founders knew they had to make a series of tough decisions. In about two to three weeks, the apparel company helped relocate 30 employees abroad and 40 to more western regions of Ukraine. It also transitioned its production to Turkey.

“We knew we had a good amount of savings to sustain the business and we had taken steps to plan ahead,” Varetsa says. “So we knew we were in a position where we could focus on our people.”

Sleeper is hardly unique in this regard. Thousands of businesses have been displaced by the violent conflict that’s engulfed the country for over the past three months. Yet Sleeper’s experience showcases the power of quick action and courage under fire.

So far so good. While the company didn’t get all of its employees out–some chose to stay put for various reasons including caring for elderly loved ones who couldn’t be moved–business is starting to return to normalcy. It even managed to produce its next two collections, spring/summer 2022 and pre-fall, which will both be available through the brand’s website and its retailers.

Today, Varetsa is in Copenhagen, where she’s lived with her husband for about a year; before that, she lived in the US for several years while working remotely on Sleeper. Zubarieva, rather, moved with her boyfriend to Berlin about a month before the invasion, leaving her apartment in Kyiv. The rest of their team–about 100 people–is scattered across Europe, with about half still in Ukraine.

Here are the key ways the company has been able to forge ahead, in spite of the dire circumstances.

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Planning ahead

Like many people around the world, Zubarieva and Varetsa weren’t convinced that Russia would actually invade Ukraine. Sleeper’s CFO, Taras Maleyev, however, had concerns early on. “He really pushed us to make a plan, even though we were hesitant to spend our energy doing so,” Varetsa says. In December 2021, the team visited Turkey to find a new supplier who could take over the company’s manufacturing, and by March, the company moved all the seamstresses who wanted to move to Turkey. Many of them, however, decided to stay in Ukraine to be with their families–especially those with older relatives who were more resistant to moving, Varetsa and Zubarieva say. Still, Sleeper has committed to paying even those who remain in the country and are unable to currently work.

Finding the right supplier was fundamental; the connection Zubarieva and Varetsa made in Turkey went out of this way to help the company, especially after the invasion happened. “He was one of the first people to call and ask if our team was okay,” Zubarieva says. “He said he would bring our girls through the Balkans for safety. It was so important to hear–especially because in the first few days, we didn’t understand what was happening.” Today, most of the operations team and a few seamstresses are in Istanbul.

Providing mental support

By mid-March, once the employees who decided surprisingly relocate got settled, the majority of Sleeper’s team got back to work–withly high levels of productivity. “This company gives us routine, and it gives us stability,” Varetsa says. “I see that people are more and more invested in their work.”

The pandemic prepared the Sleeper team to work during “stressful situations,” Varetsa says, but the war in Ukraine has still brought a new kind of pressure to the company. Save for some inventory shipping challenges early on and a two week pause in business as usual immediately following the invasion, Zubarieva and Varetsa say that the biggest challenges in keeping the company going has been making sure that employees take care of their mental health. So, they hired a therapist–a former military psychologist who specializes in helping clients with post-traumatic stress disorder, who Zubarieva happened to know through her network.

“We made a company group chat, and she gave us different breathing techniques and writing practices to help everyone manage their anxiety,” Zubarieva says. “Anyone who has private questions is also welcome to chat with her.” At the behest of the company’s therapist, employees have also opened up to each other about their worries and problems during the war. “She helped us to communicate properly,” Varetsa adds.

Keeping customers informed

Since the invasion, Sleeper has kept customers in the loop on temporary shipping delays, and in return,received an overwhelming amount of support. “Every garment we sell comes with a card that’s signed by the seamstress who made the dress,” Varetsa says. “People would reach out and ask us, ‘How’s Ilyena doing? How’s Natasha doing?”

While the company has always been proudly Ukrainian, more than ever, it’s emphasized its patriotism throughout the war. Sleeper donated its proceeds from April to Ukraine’s largest children’s hospital, in addition to making a donation to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. On its Instagram, the brand launched a new series that shares facts about the traditions and history of Ukraine.

The war may have forced Sleeper to move production outside of its home country, but Zubarieva and Varetsa are hopeful that, as soon as the violence subsides, they can return to their roots. “A lot of people didn’t realize that we were from Ukraine, and for years, we’ve been wanting to show people how beautiful our culture is,” Varetsa says. “Our job today isn’t just creating amazing garments, but it’s telling the story about where the garment came from and who made it.”

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