From haute couture to bulletproof vests: the local designer from Odessa now dresses the Ukrainian army

ODESA, Ukraine — There’s not much difference between designing dresses and body armor, says Ivan Fotesko, a fashion designer turned military outfitter from Odessa.

Fotesko and his friends still can’t believe the turn their lives have taken. Mid-morning, they sit outside a cafe to talk with a visiting American journalist from The Hill. Across the street is the municipality’s food distribution center for Ukrainians who fled their home towns under Russian occupation.

Fotesko and his two friends, Arthur Petrosjan and Michael Mirkovich, prepare to go to Mykoliav the next day. They’re bringing donated bottled water – the city is cut off from running water – and their latest batch of military fatigues, which includes body armor, boots and other tactical gear to soldiers in combat. on the front lines of this city.

L to R: Michael Mirkovich, Ivan Fotesko and Arthur Petrosjan supplies military clothing to Ukrainian soldiers. (Photo: Laura Kelly/The Hill)

The three men have been working together since March to complete the necessary military clothing and supplies for Ukrainian soldiers. While military aid from the United States and other Western nations focuses on big-budget items like heavy artillery, volunteer and NGO initiatives have stepped in to fill smaller – but critical – gaps.

In the early days of the Russian invasion, the friends moved from stockpiling Molotov cocktails to supplying military clothing once they saw the need – with Ukrainian soldiers posting on social media advocating for body armor. balls, boots and uniforms to fight.

Fotesko is considered a top fashion designer in Ukraine. He transformed his Odessa storefront, where he sold custom designs for women, into a factory producing body armor, uniforms, boots, medical bags and other utilitarian textiles.

Its metal security gate bears a graffiti cartoon of a cat, the symbol of Odessa, dressed in military fatigues, bulletproof vest and Ukrainian flag. Inside the “Ukrainian Concept Store”, heaps of plastic-wrapped boots. On the shelves and desks are piles of camouflage pants, utility belts, medical kits and camouflage netting.

A female mannequin is thrown into a corner.

Ivan Fotesko in front of his window in Odessa. (Laura Kelly/The Hill)

The camouflage canvas is laid out on a drawing table at the back, to be measured, cut and sewn in one place.

Fotesko shrugs when asked if the change was a major change, saying he has always managed to produce at least six dresses in the past six months. He prefers designing dresses, saying he cries every day, but is determined to help where he can.

Supplying the frontline fighters takes almost all of Fotesko and his two friends’ time.

Mirkovich and Petrosjan help extensively with financing and production. They say much of it is self-funded – the production needs are so great that they find little time to fundraise.

They do some publicity on their own social media, but mostly respond to requests for needed front line items.

“Every Instagram you can find the information that ‘the army needs everything, starting with shoes and ending with body armor.’ So we decide to start making the vests. It was our decision at the beginning of March,” Mirkovich said.

Tactical gear and stacks of plastic wrapped boots. (Laura Kelly/The Hill)

They went from supplying full body armor, i.e. bulletproof plates, to supplying only the vests, with the Ukrainian army taking care of the plates themselves.

From March to this Wednesday, they said they delivered around 750 body armor.

“At first it was like crazy, everyone needed it. Now it’s a bit better because the government” helps meet the needs, Mirkovich explained.

Yet men spend almost all of their time fulfilling orders or raising money to produce even more goods. They created a social media page advertising their work a few days earlier.

“All the money we get is from fundraising, our own money and it’s getting harder and harder every day. We can do more and we want to do more because we have too many orders,” he said.

Mirkovich, regional manager of Guess stores in Ukraine, continues to work full-time – “my work continues, but the pay goes down,” he said – while devoting his free time to their team of volunteers.

Petrosjan, a professional architect, said he spent “almost all day every day” working on the military clothing project. In the early days of the Russian invasion, he said he started volunteering at a humanitarian center overwhelmed by thousands of refugees fleeing the onslaught in Mariupol and Kharkiv.

“It was hell,” he said of meeting the refugees, each with “their own story, their own tragedy – it was hard work.”

The sewing station where camouflage fabric is measured, cut and sewn. (Laura Kelly/The Hill)

Petrosjan said making clothes for the soldiers is exhausting, but they take pride in doing it.

Fotesko agreed they were doing their best to help people on the front lines.

“The main thing is to stand up and help us now,” Fotesko says of what his message to the United States would be. “Not tomorrow, not in five minutes, just now,” adding that “every penny” of donations and help is being used.

“Each piece is very important to us.”

Laura Kelly of The Hill is on assignment in Ukraine.

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