In times of conflict, Ukraine’s entrepreneurs make war their business

Yuri Zakharchuk once dreamed of combat costumes for the stage, designing everything from medieval armor to space battle suits.

But after February 24, the day Russia invaded UkraineZakharchuk decides to move his business from the realm of fantasy to the real world of war, brought to his home city of Kyiv.

His company’s transition to making body armor and helmets has a kind of meaning, he noted with a strange smile. “We have always provided protection for every need,” he said, “from the days of the Roman Empire to the imaginings of the future.”

More seriously, he said, his business, Steel Mastery, is experienced in developing gear that is lightweight and suitable for prolonged wear. “We know how to make stuff comfortable,” he said.

Zakharchuk, whose company of 70 employees once provided costumes for thousands of customers in Europe and the United States, isn’t the only one to have switched to militarization. Across Ukraine, many companies are embracing life at war by making it part of their business.

In the southern city of Odessa, a local fashion brand had all its divisions, even its lingerie seamstresses, sewing fabric vests to fit body armor plates.

Yuri Zakharchuk, whose company switched from creating combat attire for the stage to body armor and helmets, on June 6, 2022 at the workshop of Steel Mastery in Kyiv. (Nicole Tung/The New York Times)

In Lviv, some businesses visiting this secure western region of Ukraine are working on installing armor on existing vehicles, military uniforms, and more covertly ammunition.

“We have many businesses qualifying themselves to help the military,” said Volodymyr Korud, vice president of Lviv’s Chamber of Commerce. “Some are even involved in weapons, but we can’t discuss that,” he said, fearing they could become military targets.

Many enterprises are operating on a charitable basis to support the Armed Forces of Ukraine. But increasingly, businesses are looking to establish profitable models that they can maintain throughout the conflict — and perhaps even once finished, while keeping an eye on exports.

Oksana Cherepnych, 36, said it was not just selfishness that decided to redirect her company from making hotel and restaurant uniforms to a manufacturer of Ukrainian regimental outfits.

“It’s also about saving jobs for our workforce,” she said. “We need to motivate people to stay in our country by making sure that they can find work here. In this way, we support the economy of our country.”

His plan has worked. His company, Gregory Textile, based in Lviv, now has a contract to manufacture uniforms for the Ukrainian military. She was able to save 40 seamstress jobs on her workforce, and even added 10 positions. He offered jobs to women who fled fighting in the east of Ukraine.

And although the company is making only 60% of what it earned before the war, it said it was still making a profit.

Others, such as Zakharchuk, are using this moment of discovery for missions that border on Quixotic. He’s producing ceramic-plated body armor vests—a feat that involves Soviet-era kiln smuggling and the help of octogenarian scientists.

Body armor typically consists of a vest made of bullet-resistant fabric, with armor plates at the front and back. The simplest approach is to make the plates out of metal, a skill that would have been easy to tackle with a company specializing in costume armor. Instead, they decided to found a new venture, the YTO Group, to produce ceramic body armor.

Orysja Sadovska works inside a clothing factory in Lviv on June 1, 2022. (Diego Ibarra Sánchez / The New York Times)

Ceramic plates are very light, and are preferred by many military forces for the greater mobility they allow. But they required sophisticated technology and equipment to produce – none of which Zakharchuk had.

He said, ‘I don’t know many things. “But if I need something, I’ll get it. That’s my special skill.”

They had to first research how such plates are made – and then how to obtain the necessary machinery. He combed job websites to find people he thought might be relevant, then cold-called them to ask for advice.

Eventually they discovered they needed a vacuum kiln, which was used mostly in Ukraine to produce specialty ceramics for Soviet-era nuclear power plants.

He called one factory after another, which was met with several rejections. Some companies had already closed, others apologizing, informing them that their facilities had been destroyed in the fighting.

A Ukrainian military patch inside a clothing factory in Lviv on June 1, 2022. (Diego Ibarra Sánchez / The New York Times)

After a two-month search, they found a nuclear power plant with a kiln, built in the 1980s and which had become dilapidated. He took a bank loan and bought it for $10,000.

The kiln, which can fit in the back of a small trailer, weighs more than 1,500 pounds. It consumes the same amount of energy as can power 3,000 apartments. But none of it was a problem.

The issue was location: the kiln was in a Russian-occupied southern Ukrainian city in March. Nevertheless, Zakharchuk was adamant.

“We bribed all the Russian officials at the checkpoints there, and they helped us get it out. You can call it my own ‘super-special operation,'” he joked – calling his invasion by Russia a “special military A reference to labeling as “Campaign”.

But even with the kiln, Zakharchuk needed technology. So he turned to a circle of Ukrainian academics aged 75 to 90, who were experts in Soviet-era physics and extra-hard metals.

“He has over 50 years of experience,” he said, but his advanced age meant that “sometimes, it’s difficult to communicate.”

An artisan folds leather into a suit of armor at Steel Mastery’s workshop, where the company is simultaneously making body armor prototypes and stage costumes, in Kyiv, June 6, 2022. (Nicole Tung/The New York Times)

Nonetheless, the initiative may pay off. His YTO group has now produced test samples. If the company can scale up, Zakharchuk aims to sell the armor for about $220 to $250, which is about half the cost elsewhere, he said.

In Lviv, 31-year-old Roman Khrustin also ended up in the body armor business. The invasion devastated his consulting business, which provided advice on logistics and crisis management after several companies fled the country.

Initially, they sought to help the war effort by providing supplies, including pasta, medicine and fuel, to front-line areas. But he quickly burned out with his resources and enthusiasm.

“Then I realized: I must engage in an economic battlefield, not a physical one,” Christine said. “I’m not a fighter, I’m not a soldier. But I can network, I can import and export. And I know how to start a business.”

That’s when Christine turned to body armor. “At the beginning of the war, 400,000 pieces of body armor were required. Now, it’s twice that. And as far as availability is concerned, it’s not even half that.”

He bought a large stock of the fabric needed to make the material for the bulletproof vest. His team tested and decided on their own formula for producing the metal plates inside them.

Khristin hopes not only to contribute to sustain Ukraine’s economy during the war, but also to provide himself with an opportunity to grow beyond this. “Right now, we are starting a sales team to start work on exports abroad,” he said.

Cherepnych hopes to maintain her new military uniform business, eventually separating it from her hotel and restaurant uniform business which she hopes to take up again after the war.

On the sewing room floor of her trendy, brick-exposed offices, bolts of bright, colorful fabrics have been pushed in favor of olive green, beige, and deep blue.

But she insisted they still insist on style: “We want our military to be something practical and comfortable — but that also looks cool.”

As for Zakharchuk, he is now seeking to raise $1.5 million from investors to help him repair his kiln and use it to increase production to his goal of 10,000 sets of ceramic plates a month . He has got 20 rejections so far.

As usual, this did not stop him.

“We will get 100, even 500 denials,” he said. “But eventually, we’ll get the money because we’ll show them we’ve got it.”