How a small Kyiv brand started dressing the president – interview

16 May, 11:14 PM
Founders of the young fashion brand Yuriy Zhayvoronok and Denys Levchenko (Photo:Photo: Oleksandr Medvedev)

Founders of the young fashion brand Yuriy Zhayvoronok and Denys Levchenko (Photo:Photo: Oleksandr Medvedev)

The founders of CREATIVE DEPO fashion brand speak about how they created their famous I'M UKRAINIAN print and what came next for their business.

On May 9, 2022 Yuri Zhaivoronok and Denis Levchenko, founders of a young fashion brand CREATIVE DEPO, became famous throughout Ukraine almost overnight. The day before, President Volodymyr Zelenskyi's team posted a video message for Victory in Europe Day filmed against the background of ruined buildings in Borodyanka. Zelenskyy was wearing a t-shirt with the print I'M UKRAINIAN by CREATIVE DEPO. Since then, the t-shirt has become a bestseller, and its creators are still toiling to keep up with demand.

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Zhayvoronok and Levchenko, friends since childhood and winners of the RE:start small and medium-sized business support project from the Kyiv School of Economics, spoke to NV about their business.

NV: How did your business start, and how was it like before the full-scale invasion?

Yuri Zhaivoronok (YZ): We created CREATIVE DEPO during the pandemic lockdown – we had bought printing equipment for old projects. But business began to fade, and we came up with new ideas. We had two options: to make a clothing brand or to produce wholesale. At that stage, we chose wholesale, because there were opportunities for cooperation with Yevhen Chernyak's Big Money project, and we made merch for him. This would become our entry point into the B2B market. We also benefitted from word of mouth, and many large companies came to us on referrals, including Reface, Monobank, Kyivstar, and the STB TV channel. For some, we did ‘turnkey’ merch, and for others, only accessories or clothing. We continued to work, kept developing our B2B vector, and did not think that we would ever sell in retail.

NV: How did the war change CREATIVE DEPO’s concept?

Denis Levchenko (DL) : When the war started, we realized that many big companies were going to cut their marketing budgets. This meant we needed to radically change direction in order to continue operating. That's why we launched a collection with Ukrainian prints within two weeks.

YZ: We realized that during wartime, people would most likely not be doing as much clothes shopping in Ukraine. That's why we made a collection aimed at Ukrainians in Europe or at Europeans who would like to support Ukraine in some way.

Neither my partner nor I are illustrators, so we found interesting designs on the Internet, wrote to their creators, and came to agreements with them. These included Ukrainian-themed illustrations, like Ukrainian flag hearts, Taras Shevchenko, and Molotov cocktails. We decided that we would send 50% of our profits to the Armed Forces (through in-kind donations, cash, and sewing clothes or body armor), and 10% as royalties to the illustrators. There were only five designs in our production line, and only one of them was developed by us - the I'M UKRAINIAN, which later became the most popular. We wanted to make a design that people who had left Ukraine could wear and make clear to everyone that they were Ukrainians, without speaking a word. That is, something that they would be proud of.

NV: How did the president end up wearing your line of clothing?

YZ: At first, we saw a photo of him in our t-shirt somewhere in the building of the Office of the President, but it was hidden under a sweater and it was almost impossible to tell it was really our I'M UKRAINIAN shirt. We would only be sure of this only on May 8, when the president recorded a video address in it. Then I woke up and saw dozens of messages in my DMs, where people were already uploading photos and asking if it was our t-shirt. I didn't even know how to respond, as we hadn’t sent one to the president. Later, we began figuring out how it got to him. Then, a wholesale client appeared on Instagram who had ordered more than 10 shirts. Usually, people order one or two things, and this was 10 or 20 items. At that time, we had only a few customers like that, with one ordering from abroad, and the other ordering from Ukraine. When we googled his name and surname, we discovered that this person was connected to the Office of the President.

NV: How did that affect sales?

YZ: We immediately realized that this was both good and bad news. On the one hand, there would be a lot of demand for this design, as people would start looking for this t-shirt and want to buy it. But there would also be a lot of competition, because it would be copied. Therefore, the first thing we did in order to show as many people as possible that we are the brand that made the original was to launch ads on Facebook and Instagram. After that, there was a huge influx of new customers, as people just googled "presidential t-shirt," and demand spiked almost tenfold. We barely had time to respond on Instagram to everyone who wanted to buy. People still write to us, asking “can I have a t-shirt like Zelenskyy's?"

NV: How did your work with the Office of the President develop, and are you in direct contact with them now?

YZ: After the president wore the shirt, his Chief-of-Staff Andriy Yermak and various advisers also appeared in it. Some MPs and simply other celebrities often wrote to us directly to buy it. When we released the second collection, we set ourselves a goal that the president would also wear items from it. It had only two designs: with the prints From Kyiv With Love and Ukraine. Then we wrote on Instagram directly to people from OP, and now the president also periodically wears the Ukraine t-shirt. Right now, he is something of an ambassador for Ukrainian brands, and this is really awesome.

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NV: Is there demand for your merchandise among foreign audiences?

DL: The greatest demand was last spring and summer, where somewhere around 20-30% of all orders went abroad. Ukrainians who had left ordered either the I'M UKRAINIAN shirt, or designs with Ukrainian symbols to give as gifts. There is also Braveshop, a marketplace for foreigners where they can buy things made by Ukrainian manufacturers. We also immediately started showing our clothes there, and we now have many orders from abroad coming from the platform.

NV: Describe how you managed manufacturing your products in wartime

YZ: When it all started, we were already selling things, but we still didn't know where and how we would produce them: many warehouses with fabric were either cut off, under fire, or burned down. Many workshops stopped operating for the same reason. For example, the workshop with which we cooperated was located in Dnipro, and many people there went into the Territorial Defense Force, so there was no one physically left to sew things.

Workshops in the west of Ukraine were overloaded, because all brands began using them, and there was great demand from the military. We waited weeks and months for our order to be made. So, of course, it was all quite difficult, and the delays were long. Now we have several workshops that make things for us.

DL: We rented an office and started to develop production. Now we have nine people employed: three in the office on printing, and all the rest on marketing, sales, etc.

NV: How has CREATIVE DEPO grown during the year of full-scale war?

YZ: We currently have 10 designs in total. We deliberately don't make a lot of things – we have hoodies, t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, and phone cases. Now we’ve released a new collection in khaki, as well as passport covers and cardholders. In some cases, we made limited collections, like our design with Kyiv during blackouts or the one in honor of (Ukrainian philosopher Hryhorii) Skovoroda's birthday.

DL: Another interesting story: the first limited edition t-shirt was with the Crimean Bridge. When it was hit, there was one photo that went viral. We edited it, made it more illustrated, and put out a t-shirt design with it on the same day. Within an hour or two, all 50 shirts were sold out. A month later, people were still writing to us, saying, "Please, we won't tell anyone, just sell us this t-shirt."

NV: Which design is your bestseller, and what is happening with demand now?

DL: Our bestseller is still I'M Ukrainian. It is interesting that our customers’ purchasing intentions have changed somewhat. During the first six months of the war they bought items for themselves to show their support for a Ukrainian producer, while now most are buying them as gifts for their relatives, friends, etc.

YZ: Taking into account the fact that we have not released a new collection for more than six months, which greatly affects sales, on average we have about 300-400 orders per month. But it must be understood that we now have a ratio of retail to wholesale somewhere between 60-70% and 30-40%.

NV: What are your ambitions for the future?

YZ: It just so happened that the president wore our t-shirt. We got very lucky with that, and our goal is not to lose this interest, not to lose this popularity, and to keep making these quality items so that we continue to develop and become a great Ukrainian brand.

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