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The story of a war, a wedding dress and a business opportunity

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Now we're going to hear the story of a war, a wedding dress and an opportunity. Here's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: This story begins with a Ukrainian wedding dress bought by an American bride living in Dublin. Nona Griffin says she first fell in love with the dress online.

NONA GRIFFIN: And then I went into the store and tried it on and just was like, yes, this is the dress. Just, like, the details are just really special.

BEARDSLEY: Griffin had brought her mom along, who wanted to make sure the dress wasn't made in China. That's when they found out it was from Ukraine. It was the last week of December.

GRIFFIN: She was like, I don't know what we're going to do if Russia invades Ukraine. The dress shop owner was like, that's not going to happen. Like, you're crazy basically. And we just kind of laughed it off.

BEARDSLEY: 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.

YANA BASHMAKOVA: It's normal. It's the - only one day in the life of the bride. And it's very important to receive the dress in time, so we understand everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY COOING)

BEARDSLEY: That's wedding dress designer Yana Bashmakova, who - along with her husband Alexander Marandyuk and baby Adam - runs a dressmaking business in the Ukrainian town of Chernivtsi, once a hub of wedding dress makers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEWING MACHINE HUMMING)

BEARDSLEY: At their factory workshop in this town near the Romanian border, seamstresses lean over tables piled with white satin and lace. Sewing machines hum. The couple's company, Giovanna Alessandro, an Italianized combination of their first names, exports all over the world.

ALEXANDER MARANDYUK: Africa, South America, Europe, Asia, China.

BEARDSLEY: That wasn't always the case. When they founded the company in 2009, the former Soviet Union was their market. That changed in 2014, the year of the Maidan Uprising in Kyiv, where Ukrainians ousted their pro-Kremlin president. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by annexing Crimea and fomenting a separatist revolt in Ukraine's Donbas region.

MARANDYUK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

BEARDSLEY: Marandyuk says Russia spread propaganda about Ukraine becoming fascist. He says their Russian clients became aggressive, asking them about Nazis. The couple says that's when this war really began. Bashmakova remembers going to a bridal show in Moscow in 2015 and how difficult things were, like checking into her hotel.

BASHMAKOVA: When I give my Ukrainian passport, I can stay there three hours, waiting for my key or the room number or something like...

BEARDSLEY: The Russian ruble also crumbled in 2014, making their Ukrainian dresses too expensive. The couple pulled out of 88 of their 90 Russian stores and decided to pivot to the West. It wasn't easy. Their cheaper fabrics and glued-on beads didn't cut it. Another problem - name recognition.

MARANDYUK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

BEARDSLEY: No one knew where or even what Ukraine was. Marandyuk says now they source quality fabrics, and every bead is sewn by hand. He says each dress is a couture creation priced lower than Western designers. Diana Lupascu, who's originally from Romania, is the owner of the Dublin shop where American bride Griffin got her dress. Lupascu says Ukrainian designers are unique.

DIANA LUPASCU: There is a big, big, now, interest in Ukrainian designers. And we seen how beautiful, comparing to other designers, the Ukrainian are working in our shop.

BEARDSLEY: The full-on Russian invasion this winter stunned these Chernivtsi dressmakers, and they closed, but only for a week. Seventy percent of their employees who fled returned. Today, they're operating at full steam in a post-COVID wedding boom, turning out 350 dresses a month. Bashmakova says they're working for more than their own success.

BASHMAKOVA: That's why we are not leaving. We are not leaving our production, our manufacturing to another country - to Poland or Romania. We are staying in Ukraine. We will build our economy.

BEARDSLEY: And now, she laughs, everyone knows Ukraine.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Chernivtsi, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.