When Ukrainian entrepreneurs Olha and Helen Norba launched their eponymous leisurewear brand a few years ago, it was mostly intended as a passion project. “It was really just a hobby I shared with my sister – we’re both into sports and I had recently started ballet,” Olha tells me on Zoom. “We wanted to make cool products, first just for ourselves, then it got crazy and it became a business. We had been growing steadily, we were just starting to make international sales and we were about to launch a line of accessories… but we were interrupted.
Olha is of course talking about the outbreak of war in Ukraine, which curtailed her business plans and left her stranded in Milan, away from her team in Kyiv. The sisters had, by chance, traveled to Italy to attend a trade show, where they presented their fall/winter 2022 collection; on February 23, they took what turned out to be one of the last commercial flights out of Ukraine. “The next morning I woke up and looked at my phone, and it was full of messages about people fleeing Kyiv and trying to get to the borders… It was a total mess,” Olha recalls. “We have always been to the show, and we have even received orders from the United States and Europe, but now we are struggling to meet these obligations because we do not have access to most of our collection and we cannot produce all items.” (Norba’s factory is in Kharkiv, one of the hardest hit cities.)
Anxious to help their compatriots back in Ukraine, although they cannot go there in person, the sisters draw on their network to provide humanitarian aid. “The first thing we did was donate to the Ukrainian army,” says Olha, “but we felt that what we could identify with the most was the civil struggle, and in particular the struggles of the women, because they are at the heart of our brand and what we do. By communicating directly with volunteers on the ground in Kyiv and the heavily bombed city of Sumy, they managed to divert goods such as warm clothes and hygiene products to women on military bases, as well as nappies and infant formula to enable new mothers to feed their children.“The main problem with humanitarian aid is logistics – it is very difficult to deliver things in the regions because people are stuck in basement shelters It’s very small, what we’re doing, when you look at the scale of what’s going on, but we’re trying to address a few specific needs “explains ue Olha.
The future of the company now hangs in the balance, as Olha and Helen have no idea how long the horrors of the current situation will last. “You can’t really plan because you have no idea how long it’s going to last,” Olha shrugs. “And as to when we can actually go home?” It could take months, it could take years. So yes, it’s difficult, but we’re doing our best to help our team. We try to pay salaries a few months in advance, so people can cash them in case something happens to the banking system.
Despite the continued fear and uncertainty, Olha remains hopeful that she and her sister will eventually be able to rebuild the business. “Now we have to work harder than ever,” she says. “We try to work on the products, to work with the fabrics available. And we are thinking about opening an office in Poland, because there are a lot of Ukrainian refugees there and we hope to be able to create work for them. After all, we ourselves are refugees now.
For now, however, Olha just wants to raise awareness of what life is like for Ukrainian women, whether they are taking refuge somewhere in a basement or, as in her case, watching the devastation of their country from afar. of origin. “I understand how hard it is to identify with something like that because, you know, we also lived in a peaceful world, and we care about things like fashion and travel,” she says. “When we saw what was happening in Syria or Afghanistan, we didn’t think something like this would be possible, but now it’s our life. I just want people to understand that this could happen to any of us.
You can donate to UNHCR’s appeal to support displaced families from Ukraine here.
You might also like