Despite the war, the wedding dress industry lives on in Ukraine – NPR | WHs Answers

In the workshop and showroom of Giovanna Alessandro in Chernivtsi, Ukraine.

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In the workshop and showroom of Giovanna Alessandro in Chernivtsi, Ukraine.

Eleanor Beardsley/NPR

CHERNIVTSI, Ukraine – American bride-to-be Nona Griffin fell in love with the first wedding dress she tried on at a small bridal shop where she lives in Dublin.

“I thought, yeah, that’s the dress. It has really intricate embroidery on it — the details are just really special,” she told NPR over the phone.

Griffin had brought her mother, who wanted to make sure the dress wasn’t made somewhere like China. That’s when they found out it was from Ukraine. It was the last week of December.

“She said, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do if Russia invades Ukraine,'” Griffin says. “The owner of the clothes shop said that won’t happen. She said you’re basically crazy, and we just kind of laughed it off.”

Griffin says she felt guilty when the invasion took place. She felt shallow because she was worried about getting her dress in time if the Ukrainians went to war.

Seamstresses Lilya Chorpiyta and Oksana Harik work in Giovanna Alessandro’s workshop and showroom.

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Seamstresses Lilya Chorpiyta and Oksana Harik work in Giovanna Alessandro’s workshop and showroom.

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But fashion designer Yana Bashmakova perfectly understands Griffin’s feelings.

“It’s normal,” she says. “It’s the one day in the bride’s life. And it’s very important to receive the dress on time.”

33-year-old Bashmakova runs a tailoring business with her husband Alexandr Marandyuk in Chernivtsi, a western Ukrainian city near the Romanian border that was once the wedding dress capital of the Soviet Union.

As war ravages Ukraine’s economy, many companies go bankrupt. But others, anticipating the conflict and adapting, have found new opportunities.

Such is the case with Bashmakova and Marandyuk and their wedding dress company, which is called Giovanna Alessandro – an Italianated combination of the couple’s first names.

In her showroom and workshop, seamstresses bend over tables laden with white satin and lace fabrics. Sewing machines hum. Giovanna Alessandro exports all over the world, but it wasn’t always like that.

When they started their business in 2009, the countries of the former Soviet Union were their market. That changed in 2014, the year of the Maidan uprising in Kyiv, when the Ukrainians ousted their pro-Kremlin president.

Wedding dress designer Yana Bashmakova, who is holding son Adam, runs Ukrainian wedding dress company Giovanna Alessandro together with her husband Alexandr Marandyuk.

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Wedding dress designer Yana Bashmakova, who is holding son Adam, runs Ukrainian wedding dress company Giovanna Alessandro together with her husband Alexandr Marandyuk.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by annexing Crimea and fomenting and arming a separatist revolt in Ukraine’s Donbass region.

Marendyuk says that’s when Russia’s propaganda machine really got going.

This couple says the current war really started in 2014.

“I felt the aggression of the clothes shopkeepers we worked with in Moscow, and that was unacceptable to me,” he says. “I told them you call me a fascist and tell me we have Nazis in Ukraine, but you order my clothes?”

Bashmakova recalls going to a bride show in Moscow in 2015.

“When they saw my passport, I always had problems,” she says. “Everything would be fine until I pull out my Ukrainian passport. Then I could wait two or three hours in a hotel lobby to get my room number or key.

Marandyuk says they decided to stop working with clothing store owners who agreed to annex Crimea.

In 2014, the ruble also plummeted, leaving many of their Russian customers unable to afford their dresses. Of the 90 stores they once worked with in Russia, they only do business with two today.

“That’s why 80% of the wedding industry in Chernivitsi went bankrupt,” says Marandyuk.

Seamstress Yana Motulyak inspects a dress in Giovanna Alessandro’s workshop and showroom.

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Seamstress Yana Motulyak inspects a dress in Giovanna Alessandro’s workshop and showroom.

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Giovanna Alessandro would have gone the same way if the company hadn’t moved west, he says.

“We survived because of Yana’s talent in dress design and because we decided to sell dresses to America and Europe and traveled to various international exhibitions,” says Marandyuk.

But the turning point was not easy. Their cheaper fabrics and glued-on beads didn’t make it to the west. Name recognition was another problem. Marandyuk says people confused Ukraine with Britain or had no idea where or what Ukraine was.

Nonetheless, the bridal show attendees were impressed with her unique designs.

The couple made investments. They sourced higher quality fabrics. Each bead is now sewn by hand. Marendyuk says today that each of her dresses is a couture creation, but at a lower price point than dresses from western designers.

Diana Lupascu is the owner of Dublin’s Angelo Bridal store, where American bride Griffin bought her dress. According to Lupascu, Ukrainian designers are very popular.

“There’s a big, big interest in Ukrainian designers,” she says. “It’s a different design, very high-quality fabrics and a lot of manual work. We see how well their dresses compare to other designers in our shop.”

The Giovanna Alessandro tailor shop in Chernivtsi, Ukraine, produces around 350 dresses a month. They are sold in more than 200 stores in 48 countries.

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The Giovanna Alessandro tailor shop in Chernivtsi, Ukraine, produces around 350 dresses a month. They are sold in more than 200 stores in 48 countries.

Eleanor Beardsley/NPR

The Ukrainian tailors also offer strong customer service, says Lupascu. Make changes without problems.

Marendyuk believes that they have another advantage over Western designers: a wider range of sizes. Several large mannequins wear wedding dresses in their showroom.

“European designers don’t offer that many sizes,” he says. “You suggest five, we suggest 10.”

The couple say they were stunned by the massive Russian invasion this winter and they have closed – but only for a week. 70 percent of their fled employees have returned.

“We found a way to deliver through Romania and we didn’t disappoint any of our brides,” says Bashmakova.

Today, they make around 350 dresses a month that are sold in more than 200 stores in 48 countries, and there is no end in sight to the post-COVID wedding boom.

Bashmakova says they now work for more than their own success.

“We’re not moving our production or our manufacturing to another country – to Poland or Romania,” she says. “We will stay in Ukraine. We will build our economy.”

And now, she laughs, everyone knows Ukraine!

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