CHERNIVTSI, Ukraine — American bride-to-be Nona Griffin fell in love with the first wedding dress she tried on in a small bridal shop where she lives in Dublin.
“I was like, yes, this is 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 mom along, 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 was, like, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do if Russia invades Ukraine,'” says Griffin. “The dress shop owner said that’s not gonna happen. She said you’re crazy, basically, and we just kind of laughed it off.”
Griffin says she was seized with guilt when the invasion did happen. She felt superficial for worrying about whether she’d get her dress on time when Ukrainians were fighting a war.
But dress designer Yana Bashmakova understands Griffin’s feelings perfectly.
“It’s normal,” she says. “It’s the one day in the life of the bride. And it’s very important to receive the dress on time.”
Thirty-three-year-old Bashmakova runs a dressmaking business along with her husband Alexandr Marandyuk, in Chernivtsi, a western Ukrainian town near the Romanian border that was once the wedding dress capital of the Soviet Union.
As the war shatters Ukraine’s economy, many businesses are going bankrupt. But others that anticipated the conflict and adapted have found new opportunities.
That is the case for Bashmakova and Marandyuk, and their wedding dress company, which is called Giovanna Alessandro — an Italianized combination of the couple’s first names.
At their factory showroom and workshop, seamstresses lean over tables piled with white satin and lace. Sewing machines hum. Giovanna Alessandro exports all over the world, but that wasn’t always the case.
When they started their business in 2009, countries from the former Soviet Union were their market. That all changed in 2014, the year of the Maidan uprising in Kyiv, when Ukrainians ousted their pro-Kremlin president.
Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by annexing Crimea, and fomenting and arming a separatist revolt in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Marendyuk says that’s also when Russia’s propaganda machine really geared up.
This couple says the current war really started in 2014.
“I felt the aggression of the dress shop owners we worked with in Moscow and it was unacceptable for me,” he says. “I told them, you’re calling me fascist and telling me we have Nazis in Ukraine but you’re ordering my dresses?”
Bashmakova remembers going to a bridal show in Moscow in 2015.
“When they saw my passport, I always had problems,” she says. “Everything would be OK until I pulled out my Ukrainian passport. Then I could wait two or three hours in a hotel lobby to get my room number or key. And I waited hours to get gas if they saw Ukrainian license plates.”
Marandyuk says they decided to no longer work with dress shop owners who approved of the annexation of Crimea.
In 2014, the ruble also plummeted, leaving many of their Russian clients unable to afford their dresses. Out of the 90 stores they once partnered with in Russia, today they only do business with two.
“That’s why 80% of the wedding industry in Chernivitsi went bankrupt,” says Marandyuk.
Giovanna Alessandro would have followed that same path if the company had not pivoted to the West, he says.
“We survived because of Yana’s talent designing dresses, and because we decided to sell dresses to America and Europe and traveled to various international exhibitions,” Marandyuk says.
But the pivot wasn’t easy. Their cheaper fabrics and glued-on beads didn’t cut it in the West. Name recognition was another problem. Marandyuk says people confused Ukraine with the U.K. Or had no idea where or even what Ukraine was.
Despite that, bridal show participants were struck by their unique designs.
The couple made investments. They sourced better-quality fabrics. Every bead is now sewn by hand. Marendyuk says today, each of their dresses is a couture creation, but with a lower price tag than dresses by Western designers.
Diana Lupascu is the owner of the Dublin shop Angelo Bridal, where American bride Griffin bought her dress. Lupascu says Ukrainian designers are very popular.
“There is a big, big interest in Ukrainian designers,” she says. “It’s a different design, very high-quality fabrics and a lot of handmade. We see how well their dresses do in our shop compared to other designers.”
The Ukrainian dress makers also offer strong client service, says Lupascu. With no problem doing alterations.
Marendyuk believes they have another advantage over Western designers: a greater range of sizes. Several large-size mannequins wear wedding dresses in their showroom.
“European designers don’t propose so many sizes,” he says. “They propose five, we propose 10.”
The couple says the full-on Russian invasion this winter stunned them and they closed — but only for a week. Seventy percent of their employees who fled have returned.
“We found a way to deliver through Romania and we haven’t disappointed any of our brides,” says Bashmakova.
Today they’re making around 350 dresses a month, which are sold in more than 200 shops in 48 countries, with no end in sight in a post-COVID wedding boom.
Bashmakova says they’re now working for more than their own success.
“We are not removing our production or our manufacturing to another country — to Poland or to Romania,” she says. “We are staying in Ukraine. We will build our economy.”
And now, she says with a laugh, everyone knows Ukraine!