ODESSA, Ukraine — There’s not much difference between designing dresses and bulletproof vests, says Ivan Fotesco, a fashion designer from Odessa.
Fotesco and his friends still can’t believe how their lives have changed. Early in the morning, they sit at an outdoor cafe to talk to a visiting American journalist from The Hill. Across the street is the municipal food distribution center for Ukrainians who have fled their hometowns under Russian occupation.
Fotesco and his two friends, Artur Petrosjan and Michael Mirkovic, are preparing to drive to Mykolyav the next day. They are bringing donations of bottled water – the city has been cut off from running water – and jackets, boots and other tactical accessories from their latest military fatigues for the soldiers fighting on that city’s front lines.
The three have been working together since March to meet the needs of Ukrainian soldiers with military clothing and equipment. Military aid from the U.S. and other Western countries, which focuses on big-budget items such as heavy artillery, volunteer initiatives and nongovernmental organizations, has stepped in to fill the small — but critical — gaps.
In the early days of the Russian occupation, his friends went from stocking Molotov cocktails to providing military clothing, after seeing the need — Ukrainian soldiers posted on social media and pleaded for linen jackets, boots and uniforms to fight.
Fotesco is considered a top fashion designer in Ukraine. He turned his Odessa storefront, where he sold custom women’s designs, into a factory that turned out bulletproof vests, uniforms, boots, medical bags and other consumer textiles.
The metal guard gate is covered with a graffiti cartoon of a cat, the symbol of Odessa, military fatigues, a flak jacket and a Ukrainian flag. In the “Ukrainian concept store” there are boots stacked in plastic wrap. Camouflage pants, utility belts, medical kit bags and camera netting are piled on shelves and tables.
A female mannequin is thrown in the corner.
The camouflage fabric is laid out on the drafting table on the back, to be measured, cut and sewn all in the same place.
Asked if the shift was a big change, Fotesco said he had been able to produce at least six dresses in the past six months. He says he would rather be designing dresses than crying every day, but intends to help where he can.
Providing frontline fighters takes up the time of Fotesco and his two friends.
Mirkovic and Petrosjan mostly help with finance and production. Most of them are self-funded, they say – production demands are so great that they have little time to raise money.
They advertise a bit on their own social media, but are mostly responding to requests for front-line items.
“You can find information on every Instagram, ‘The military needs everything, from shoes to bulletproof vests.’ So we decided to make dresses. It was our decision at the beginning of March,” Mirkovic said.
They have moved from issuing linen jackets entirely, i.e. including bulletproof plates, to providing only jackets, the Ukrainian army carrying the plates themselves.
They said that since March till this Wednesday, they have provided about 750 bulletproof vests.
“At first it was like crazy, everybody needed it. It’s a little better now because the government” is helping meet the needs, Mirkovic explained.
Still, the men spend most of their time filling orders or working to raise money to produce more items. A few days ago they created a social media page to promote their business.
“All the money we get is just raising our own money and it’s getting harder every day. We can do more, and we want to do more because we have more mandates,” he said.
Mirkovich, who is the regional manager of Gess stores in Ukraine, continues to work full-time – “My work will continue, but the salary will be reduced,” he says, devoting his free time to volunteer clothing.
Petrosjan, a professional architect, says he spends “almost all day every day” working on the military uniform project. He said that in the first days of the Russian occupation, thousands of refugees who fled the violence in Maripol and Kharkiv began volunteering at the crowded humanitarian center.
“It was hell,” he said when he met the refugees, each with “their own story, their own tragedy – it was hard work.”
Petrosjan said that making clothes for the soldiers is very tiring, but they are proud of doing it.
Fotesco agreed to do everything possible to help those on the front lines.
“The main thing is to step up and help us,” Fotesco said of what his message to America might be. “Not tomorrow, not in five minutes, right now,” adding, “every cent” of donations and help will be used.
“Every penny is very important to us.”
The Hill’s Laura Kelly is on assignment in Ukraine.