When faced with challenging circumstances, you always have two options: to give up and go with the flow or to put in every possible effort and try to transform the problem into a task that will undoubtedly have several solutions. It is the latter principle that Svitlana Tytova-Tolstyk follows. In 2017, she took on the position of director at the modern sewing factory TK STYLE in Chernihiv. She propelled the company to the top in its field, initiated collaborations with international and Ukrainian companies, and, following the onset of a full-scale invasion and siege of the city, restored the factory's operations with her team in record time.
We spoke with Svitlana about the activities and focus of TK STYLE, the production of uniforms for SkyUp Airlines, the siege of Chernihiv, maintaining the team during challenging times, and future development plans.
FOCUS IN BUSINESS MATTERS
To explain how our factory operates, let me first provide some background on the garment manufacturing industry. In the past, major global brands had their own manufacturing facilities, but over time, they started to outsource the production of their garments to partners. Now, they focus on designing collections, sales, and promotion, while the actual manufacturing is handed over to outsourcing. This is a rational approach because fashion is seasonal, and some brands exclusively create outerwear, which means their manufacturing facilities would remain idle for part of the year.
Therefore, collaborating with a garment factory for production offers two advantages. First, it optimizes costs and resources. There's no need to worry about keeping the factory busy or how to occupy the workers during periods of downtime. Second, it allows for a focus on collections and distribution.
Thus, over the past decade, almost everyone has shifted to outsourcing. This way, each party can concentrate on what they do best. Our factory also operates based on this principle – we serve as a partner for companies that trust us to produce their clothing collections. TK STYLE specializes in manufacturing outerwear, which involves intricate craftsmanship. However, this specialization is our focus and strength. For example, we collaborated with SkyUp Airlines in this manner, where we received the design concept and patterns for the coats from the client. By the way, we also developed the patterns ourselves for the production of a new batch of uniforms.
A BIT OF HISTORY
The TK STYLE factory is part of the Tekstyl Kontakt group of companies. Speaking of the group in factual terms, it encompasses over 1,500 employees, a network of fabric, haberdashery, and home textile stores, the largest online fabric market in Eastern Europe, 11 proprietary manufacturing facilities, and a network of branches throughout Ukraine. The Chernihiv sewing factory, TK STYLE, represents over 20 years of experience in professional work, with more than 150 employees and the production of 60,000 items annually. These numbers are backed by a long history of development, hundreds of important and complex projects, international market expansion, and, of course, the stories of every employee who is part of the big family.
Our factory is located in a building that was constructed during the Soviet era. It was originally intended to house an experimental factory for sportswear, but it never started operations. In 2003, the building was acquired by Oleksandr Sokolovsky, the owner of Tekstyl Kontakt, marking the beginning of the TK STYLE story.
I joined the team six years ago. From the beginning, our factory focused on fulfilling orders rather than creating our own clothing brand. This approach allowed us to stay ahead of global trends. We immediately started working with European markets and entered the US market four years ago.
Over the past six years, we have undergone five international audits, both technical and social. Independent auditing companies were invited by our clients to verify if our factory met their standards. These audits encompassed everything and everyone, including anonymous interviews and an examination of all processes and documents. We successfully passed all these checks. I consider this a significant achievement that exemplifies our approach to work.
PEOPLE COME FIRST
Our team is like a second family to me, without exaggeration. Supporting and preserving the team is one of my top priorities. For example, in order to ensure year-round employment for our workers and mitigate the impact of seasonal fluctuations, we expanded our range of products five years ago. We began producing dresses, pants, and skirts, which required our employees to acquire new skills. It was a challenging process, but it was an important step that now provides continuous employment for our workforce.
Another significant challenge we faced was the siege of the city. Almost all of our workers chose to stay in Chernihiv, even though the fate of the factory was uncertain at that time. We maintained communication under any circumstances, despite the difficulties of intermittent connectivity in the city. When the russian forces retreated, we contemplated our next steps and even considered relocating the factory to another location due to the substantial amount of raw materials we had in Chernihiv. This included orders from America and a government tender for jackets for the German police.
However, our employees did not want to relocate, and I didn't want to change the team either. Internally, I felt that we should continue working in Chernihiv. So, we did everything possible to retain our team and not only quickly resume operations but also create a safe working environment for everyone. We established a bomb shelter at the factory and ensured a strong internet connection so that our employees could stay in touch with their families regardless of the circumstances. Before the full-scale invasion, we had 150 people working with us, and we have the same number now. I'm extremely proud that our entire team stayed with us and that we managed to continue our operations without layoffs or significant interruptions.
RESTORATION OF OPERATIONS
The situation was indeed very difficult for us. Tanks, a large amount of russian military equipment, and russian troops were present in the city. People were living without food, water, electricity, and communication. Fortunately, the factory did not suffer during the shelling, and we were able to resume operations on April 26, 2022.
It was a challenging but correct decision. By resuming work, we gave our employees a sense of stability and confidence that everything would be fine. We have many clients abroad, and after the full-scale invasion, we immediately became a risky partner for some of them. Some were hesitant to continue working with us, requesting insurance guarantees that we simply could not provide, while others were waiting to see how events unfolded. Therefore, we understood that to fully restore operations, we needed to exert multiple times more effort.
Around the same time, we called Olha Tsaregradska, who was overseeing the order for sewing uniforms for SkyUp Airlines, and informed her that we were ready to start working. Despite finding themselves in a challenging situation as well, as flights were suspended due to airspace closures, the company decided to support us and not cancel the order. They also supported their own employees because receiving a new uniform was a sign that flights and work would resume.
In May, we resumed work on the orders that were in progress before the invasion, and in June, we were able to attract new orders. For example, we received orders from Germany and several from France, all through tenders! Within a few months after the restoration, we reached our usual production volume of around 5,000 units per month. I see this as a part of our mission as a Ukrainian company that continues to work and demonstrate good results and quality despite everything.
PRINCIPLE OF DIALOGUE
This experience of war and uncertainty was not my first, as I had to leave my hometown of Luhansk in 2014. Perhaps that's why this time I was more composed and approached the situation with more balance. I could support my family and the team.
Yes, I gained another experience in crisis management, which I didn't want, but it didn't break me; it only made me stronger. It once again emphasized that the most important things in life are my family and my team. Therefore, I can't say that I have changed as a leader during this extremely challenging year. It has always been important to me that people perceive me as someone they can come to with any problem, someone who listens and is heard.
My main principle at work is the principle of dialogue. It is also important for me to create and maintain traditions within the company.
COLLABORATION WITH SKYUP AIRLINES
This is already our second collaboration with SkyUp Airlines. The first one took place two years ago, when we were sewing leather coats for female flight attendants. For another factory, it would probably have been a challenging order because leather is a difficult material to work with. For example, if a stitch goes awry on some fabric, it can be unpicked and resewn, but with leather, that's not possible because it leaves holes. However, we are accustomed to working with very challenging materials, so we demonstrated our usual high quality and standards to the client.
And, of course, we are pleased to be involved in creating such a revolutionary uniform that has changed the perception of flight attendants' image worldwide. When clients visit us, and, among all our products, we show them the SkyUp coat and tell them that it is part of the uniform for a Ukrainian airline, everyone is amazed at how corporate clothing can be so cool and interesting.
By the way, we also sew clothing for foreign airlines, and it should be noted that everything there is very simple and lacking innovation. Therefore, we were delighted to continue our collaboration with SkyUp. I can say that in general, flight attendants always look beautiful, but in the case of SkyUp, they look like they are from the cover of a fashion magazine. And that is also important to showcase Ukraine to the world in such a way.
Just before the full-scale invasion, I had plans to establish an innovative department in Kyiv. We even started recruiting people for it. We wanted to create collections from scratch by working with designers, taking their sketches, developing the designs, and producing samples. I am confident that this will be in demand in Ukraine, and despite the war altering our plans, I have no intention of stopping. We already have a designer and a laboratory in Chernihiv, and I am convinced that I will be able to realize everything I have envisioned, including in Kyiv.
Also, the factory is in the process of implementing a large project: the modernization of the factory. Specifically, the launch of automated sewing production, which has no equivalents in Ukraine, with an increase in volumes by 4-6.5 times, the creation of even higher-quality products, and the involvement of new international and Ukrainian partners.
Today, the company is working with orders for which the raw materials are already in stock at the factory, and with new partners, all to ensure that the team is loaded with work for the next six months. For us, this is another testimony to our belief in Victory, and step by step, we are moving towards it.