LVIV, Ukraine — Yuri Zakharchuk once designed battle costumes for the stage, designing everything from medieval armor to space battle suits.
But after February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Mr. Zakharchuk decided to take his work out of the realm of fiction and into the real world of war, which was brought to his hometown of Kiev.
His company’s move into bulletproof vests and helmets makes some kind of sense, he noted with a wry smile. “We have always provided protection for every need,” he said, “from the days of the Roman Empire to the fantasies of the future.”
More seriously, he added, his business, Steel Mastery, has experience developing equipment that is lightweight and suitable for long-term wear. “We know how to make things comfortable,” he said.
Mr. Zakharchuk, whose 70-employee company once provided costumes for thousands of customers in Europe and the United States, is not alone in the shift to militarization. Across Ukraine, many companies are adapting to life at war by making it part of their business.
In the southern city of Odessa, the local fashion brand had all its departments, even underwear seamstresses, sewing cloth vests to match bulletproof vests.
In Lviv, some of the businesses that have flocked to this safer western region of Ukraine are working to install armor on existing vehicles, military uniforms and, more secretly, ammunition.
“We have many businesses that are retraining to help the army,” said Volodymyr Korud, vice president of the Lviv Chamber of Commerce. “Some even deal with weapons, but that’s something we can’t talk about,” he said for fear they could become military targets.
Many businesses operate on a charitable basis to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces. But companies are increasingly looking to establish profit models that they can sustain throughout the conflict — and perhaps even after it ends, with an eye toward exports.
The war between Russia and Ukraine and the global economy
A far-reaching conflict. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had a ripple effect around the world, adding to the stock market woes. The conflict has caused skyrocketing gas prices and product shortages, and has forced Europe to reassess its reliance on Russian energy sources.
Oksana Cherepanych, 36, said it was not just self-interest that prompted her decision to shift her company from making hotel and restaurant uniforms to a manufacturer of Ukrainian regimental clothing.
“It’s also about preserving jobs for our workforce,” she said. “We have to motivate people to stay in our country by making sure they can find work here. In this way, we support the economy of our country.”
Her plan worked. Her company, Gregory Textile, based in Lviv, now has contracts to make uniforms for Ukraine’s military as well as its air force. She managed to keep the jobs of the 40 seamstresses she had on staff and even added 10 new positions. She offered these jobs to women who fled fighting in eastern Ukraine.
And even though the company is making only 60 percent of what it made before the war, she said it is still turning a profit.
Others, like Mr. Zakharchuk, use this moment of reinvention for missions that border on the quixotic. He produces ceramic-coated bulletproof vests—a feat that involved smuggling in Soviet-era stoves and enlisting the help of octogenarian scientists.
Body armor usually consists of a vest made of bullet resistant fabric that holds the armor plate at the front and back. The simplest approach is to make the plates out of metal, a skill that would be easy to apply to a company specializing in costume armor. Instead, he decided to set up a new venture, the YTO Group, to manufacture ceramic bulletproof vests.
Ceramic plates are far lighter and are preferred by many military forces because of the increased mobility they allow. But they require sophisticated technology and equipment to manufacture — none of which Mr. Zakharchuk had none.
“I don’t know a lot of things,” he said. “But if I need something, I’ll find it. That’s my special skill.”
First he had to research how to make such plates – and then how to get the necessary machinery. He combed job websites to find people with skills he thought might be relevant, then cold-called them for advice.
In the end, he discovered that he needed a vacuum furnace, which was mainly used in Ukraine to produce special ceramics for Soviet-era nuclear power plants.
He called factory after factory, facing a series of rejections. Some companies have already closed, others apologized and informed him that their facilities were destroyed in the fighting.
After two months of searching, he found a nuclear power plant with a furnace, built in the 1980s and in a state of disrepair. He took out a bank loan and bought it for $10,000.
The stove, which can fit on the back of a small trailer, weighs more than 1,500 pounds. It consumes the same amount of energy that could power 3,000 apartments. But none of that was a problem.
The problem was the location: the furnace was in a city in southern Ukraine that Russia occupied in March. However, Mr. Zakharchuk was not upset.
“We bribed all the Russian officers at the checkpoints there and they helped us pull it off. You could call it my own ‘super-special operation’,” he joked – a reference to Russia branding its invasion a “special military operation”.
But even with the stove, Mr. Zakharchuk still needed knowledge. So he turned to a circle of Ukrainian academics, ages 75 to 90, who were Soviet-era experts in physics and extra-hard metals.
“They have more than 50 years of experience,” he said, but their advanced age means “sometimes it’s hard to communicate.”
However, the initiative can pay off. His YTO group has now produced test samples. If the company can scale, Mr. Zakharchuk intends to sell the armor for about $220 to $250 a piece, about half what it costs elsewhere, he said.
In Lviv, Roman Kristin (31) also ended up in the bulletproof vest business. The invasion destroyed his consulting business, which advised on logistics and crisis management, after many companies fled the country.
Initially, he sought to aid the war effort by delivering supplies, including pasta, medicine and fuel, to frontline areas. But he quickly burned through his resources and enthusiasm.
“That’s when I realized: I should be involved in the economic battlefield, not the physical war. 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.”
Then he turned to body armor. “At the beginning of the war, there was a need for 400,000 pieces of body armor. Now it’s double that. And in terms of availability, that’s not even the half of it,” he said.
He bought a huge supply of fabric needed to produce body armor material. His team also tested and settled on their own formula for producing the metal plates inside them.
He hopes not only to contribute to sustaining the Ukrainian economy during the war, but also to give himself an opportunity that could last well beyond. “Right now we are launching a sales team that will start working on overseas exports,” he said.
Ms Cherepanych also hopes to keep her new military uniform business, eventually separating it from her hotel and restaurant uniform business which she hopes to restart after the war.
On the sewing floor in her modern, exposed-brick offices, rainbows of bright, colorful fabrics have been pushed aside in favor of olive green, beige and navy blue.
But she insisted they still keep the emphasis on style: “We want our military to be in something practical and comfortable – but also look cool.”
As for Mr. Zakharchuk, he is now in the process of trying 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. So far he has received 20 rejections.
As usual, that didn’t stop him
“We’ll get 100, even 500 rejections,” he said. “But in the end we will get the money because we will show them that we have it.”