| Olga Shylenko |
KIEV (AFP) – From the president’s wife to thrifty students, a growing number of Ukrainians are buying local as rising patriotism and a boycott of Russian goods sees them support the domestic market.
Tucked away far from the city centre and hard to find, the showroom for local clothing brand “Must Have” used to be empty most of the time. Nowadays it is buzzing.
“There was no chance that someone would just come here accidentally. We are not a boutique on the main street of Kiev,” said Anna Kovalenko, one of the founders.
“And those who used to come usually questioned the quality of clothes just because the brand was Ukrainian.”
But National Flag Day on August 23 marked a dramatic turning point in the company’s history when Ukraine’s first lady Maryna Poroshenko – wife of billionaire pro-Western leader Petro Poroshenko – wore a “Must Have” dress to the televised ceremony.
That struck a chord with many as Ukrainian soldiers were being pushed back in the east of the country by Russian-backed separatists.
The next day the store was full of women queueing up to spend the roughly US$60 (50 euros) on a dress “exactly like Poroshenko’s”.
For the president’s wife, who could afford anything international luxury brands have to offer, the choice was deliberate.
“Our country has grown so much when it comes to questions of consciousness, dignity and self-esteem,” she told AFP by email.
“It’s important now for Ukrainian goods to be a priority in the domestic market.”
In the last six months, “Must Have” has seen demand shoot up and production double from 2,000 to 4,000 items.
The showroom is never empty and nobody turns their nose up anymore at the idea of a locally made dress.
“Now people come here because they purposefully want a Ukrainian brand,” said Kovalenko.
One customer, 24-year-old Maria Zhartovska, says she “was attracted by the idea that it was made in Ukraine”.
“I was shocked with the long queues to the dressing rooms,” she said.
For social psychologist Oleg Pokalchuk, the rapid rise in “economic patriotism” is down to the huge upheavals that have rocked the ex-Soviet state over the past 12 months.
“We were in a state of social stagnation, but the events of the last year changed it all,” Pokalchuk told AFP.
“It started with Maidan and the boycott of Russian goods and grew into a movement,” he said, referring to the protests in the Maidan – or Independence Square – that led to the overthrow of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in February.
Shortly thereafter Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, and pro-Russian separatists occupied a large swath of the east of the country.
Yelyzaveta Romanchuk, a 22-year-old student, says buying Ukrainian products was her way of supporting the fight.
“I just changed my habits and started looking for clothing, shoes, cosmetics and food made here in Ukraine.”
For the first time, a shop opened in November selling exclusively Ukrainian goods in the centre of Kiev.
Its founder Yuliya Savostina had been exploring the national market for almost two years and the time seemed right as more and more people refused to buy Russian goods in protest at the Kremlin’s support for the separatists.
Given the tough economic times, customers needed to replace Russian products with something affordable but of equal quality.
The Ukrainian hryvnia has lost some 45 per cent of its value against the dollar since January and the country has been thrown into a deep recession by the conflict, with the government warning last week that the economy was expected to shrink by seven per cent this year.
“80 per cent of our customers are people who purposefully look for ‘made in Ukraine’. They are very conscientious consumers,” said Yuliya.
“They know that in our shop they don’t need to check the barcodes to identify the country of origin.”