In a showroom in the NoHo section of Manhattan, a laptop sat on a table, tucked behind a rack of knitwear from Ukrainian label 91 Lab. The computer silently streamed DailyExpertNews. Ominous images from the streets of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, caught the attention of Alina Bairamova, the fashion industry coordinator for Ukrainian fashion, a showcase for Ukrainian designers.
“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Bairamova said, adding that the scene was near her mother’s house.
The images were from the previous day and Mrs. Bairamova, who works at a veterans’ hospital in Kiev, was safe. Still, it was a terrible few days.
She applied lip balm. “For dehydration,” she said. “Of crying.”
Ms. Bairamova, 46, arrived in New York on February 17 with a briefcase and ziplock bag of toiletries. She expected a 10-day business trip that she would spend luring buyers and promoting the six designers in a showcase called Ukrainian Fashion.
Now it was unclear if and when she will return to Kiev.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine had blinded her. “Five days ago, that scenario seemed unheard of,” she said.
Jen Sidary, the founder of Ukrainian fashion, was less surprised. “I’ve been in a panic since November,” she said, sitting down next to Ms. Bairamova. Ms Sidary said that despite her own concerns about a possible invasion, she was determined to go ahead with the event.
Ms. Sidary proudly said that every piece from every designer had arrived in the United States in time for the display’s opening on February 23.
“Thanks to Jen, God and DHL,” Ms Bairamova said with a laugh. “In that order.”
Ms. Sidary, 49, is a fashion industry veteran who has worked with Zappos and Vivienne Westwood and has become a champion of Ukrainian fashion over the past two years.
When she lost her job in the middle of the pandemic, she said, friends urged her: “Girl, come live with us in Kiev – it will be so much fun!”
One of them was Dominique Piotet, the director of an Innovation Park incubator program called UNIT.City, whom she had met through Tony Hsieh, her former boss at Zappos. In November 2020, Ms. Sidary accepted Mr. Piotet’s invitation to stay with him.
Mrs. Sidary fell in love with Ukraine. “I immediately felt the ‘I’m home’ feeling,” she said in a slow Southern California accent. She loved the thriving fashion scene, and she was charmed by the country’s wide variety of cuisines and meticulous attention to detail in design.
In July 2021, Ms. Sidary was awarded a scholarship from the USAID Competitive Economy Program that allowed her to launch the first Ukraine Fashion event in September. The showcase received another grant in 2022 to help fund this year’s showcase.
Mrs. Sidary learned of the Russian invasion while dining with Mrs. Bairamova at Kiki’s, a Greek restaurant on the Lower East Side. They were joined by two other Ukrainian women of fashion, Valery Kovalska, a designer, and Anya Vasylenko, the director of wholesale for Issey Miyake.
During dinner, Ms. Sidary received a text from David Anderson, a USAID director, saying that Ukraine was being invaded. She took the hand of Mrs. Bairamova and brought the news to the table. “We spent the rest of the evening together, drinking cocktails of course, because what else do you do?” said Mrs Sidary.
All four women immediately began contacting their friends and family in Ukraine via Telegram and WhatsApp. Ms. Sidary said she has been in constant contact with all six designers in the display case.
“I’m like their mother, calling to make sure everyone is okay,” she said in the showroom, remembering dinner.
On Friday around noon, Ms. Sidary and Ms. Bairamova called from the showroom Alina Kachorovska, a shoe designer who can be seen in Ukrainian fashion. Ms. Kachorovska was in an air raid shelter in her apartment building in Kiev with her husband, three children and a neighbor.
Understand the Russian attack on Ukraine
What is the basis of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine to be within its natural sphere of influence, and it has become nervous about Ukraine’s proximity to the West and the prospect of the country becoming a member of NATO or the European Union. Although Ukraine is part of neither, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.
Ms. Kachorovska said she was trying to remain optimistic. “Millions of people are now in this situation across the country,” she said. “So we’re not alone, you know?”
“I’ve got your shoes on, girl,” said Mrs. Sidary, wearing a pair of chunky white Kachorovska boots. “I’ve got your shoes on.”
“Thank you,” said Mrs. Kachorovska.
Mrs. Sidary then called Ivan Frolov, whose heavily patterned Bob Mackie-esque creations were hanging from a nearby rack. Mr. Frolov was exhausted after traveling for 25 hours to western Ukraine.
With occasional translation help from Mrs. Bairamova, said Mr. Frolov expressed his disbelief at the invasion, praised the Ukrainian army and stressed the need for more international aid.
As she listened to Mr. Frolov, Mrs. Sidary wiped away the tears and put her face in her hands. Her nails were painted in a vibrant metallic fuchsia.
She assured Mr. Frolov that she would return his clothes to her apartment in West Hollywood, California. “No, it’s fine,” she said into the phone, when he feared she would have to pay for an extra bag. “I am a Medallion member”
As Mrs. Sidary stepped out for a cigarette, Mrs. Bairamova called another designer from the display case, Elena Burenina, who is also a good friend.
Ms. Burenina had chosen to stay in Kiev, where she continued to sketch, cut patterns, sew and carry out assignments, even though her country was under attack. She said she would consider leaving the country only if Vladimir Putin took power and life became completely unbearable.
“Elena believes that beauty will save the world,” said Ms. Bairamova, paraphrasing her friend’s words.