Ahen Russia launched a widespread attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Natalya Ishchenko was still asleep. She only found out about the war when she looked at her cell phone in the morning. “I’ve been following the news all day,” says the entrepreneur. “It was like watching live as your world crumbles.”
The founder of the textile label “Sea Me” had only traveled back to Odessa from Kyiv the day before. The actual outbreak of war surprised her, like so many Ukrainians. “My friends were shocked when they heard that I had no escape plan.” They recommended a route via Moldova: the 38-year-old drove to Chisinau in a marshrutka, a minibus. “I remember the panic in people’s eyes and endless queues at the border. Chișinău was cold and grey, everyone was afraid.” Because the airports in Moldova were closed, she took the bus to visit friends in Paris. The journey took more than 50 hours. Her mother followed her along the same path a few days later.
Slow fashion from Odessa
Self-described as the “Odessa girl,” Ishchenko was born and raised in the Black Sea city and returned there after spending a stint working in a large business firm in Singapore. She studied International Economic Relationships and founded an online shop with her friend Eteri Saneblidze, which imported handicrafts and design objects from all over the world to Ukraine. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and the Ukrainian currency depreciated, importing became too expensive. The friends, who lived together in New York for a while, closed the online shop and founded another company in 2015, this time with a Ukrainian product: “Sea Me” designs and produces linen bed linen and pajamas in Odessa. Since 2021, Ishchenko has been running the textile company mainly alone because Saneblidze founded another start-up in Lisbon.
In fashion, what “Sea Me” does would be described as slow fashion: the collection is manageable, there are two pajama sets with short and long legs, the eco-certified natural fiber bed linen is available in eleven different colors and was designed by Ishchenko and Saneblidze in such a way that they can all be combined with each other. The color palette of “Sea Me” pays homage to long days by the sea: sky or navy blue, deep green, smoky pink, stone grey. Considering that it is manufactured locally, the prices are moderate: a 140 x 200 cm duvet cover costs around 150 euros and is delivered all over the world. Production only takes place after the order has been placed, “because that is more sustainable and we can also offer special sizes.”
The war is hitting the textile industry in Ukraine, although the situation is gradually stabilizing, as the specialist medium “textile network” reported in an article on the textile industry in Ukraine. In May of this year, the European textile umbrella organization Euratex and the Ukrainian textile and leather association Ukrlegprom even launched an initiative to support the European-Ukrainian textile trade. Even Ishchenko, who produces small runs with her boutique brand, only stopped production for a month after fleeing abroad.