Cultural/fashion diplomacy and economy in Armenia: the story behind Udivila

Yerevan Armenia
A view of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, before the meeting with Udivila’s founders (Credits: SpecialEurasia)

Kavkaz Files ISSN 2975-0474 Volume 12 Issue 2
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi & Silvia Boltuc

During SpecialEurasia’s official mission to Yerevan, our team met with Armenian female entrepreneurs who founded the brand Udivila, which promotes Armenian culture and attempts to carve out a slide of a market where Armenia has not yet been present.

The Armenian economy registered a positive trend in 2022. Indeed, as the Armenian Minister of Economy Vehan Kerobyan reported during our meeting, Armenia’s GDP grew 14% in the first eight months of 2022 and will probably reach 15% at the end of the year.

There are several factors which have contributed to Armenia’s positive economic performance in 2022, such as the Russians’ relocation in the country since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict or the partial military mobilisation or the Government’s projects to stimulate specific sectors such as textile, agriculture, IT, and services. Another important factor is represented by local Armenian entrepreneurs who decided to act and create their companies and brand to stimulate the economy and fill the vacuum.

Textile and fashion industry in uncertain times in Armenia

Among these entrepreneurs, SpecialEurasia met with Mariam Loretsyan and Yelena Gevorgyan, the founders of the fashion brand Udivila. Indeed, also responding to the country’s need for creating Armenian brands in the fashion industry and textile instead of only supporting big foreign companies in the sector, in 2020, during the pandemic, Mariam Loretsyan and Yelena Gevorgyan founded Udivila to make clothes which might represent their Armenian view and perspective of the fashion trend.

During our conversation with Mariam and Yelena, we tried to analyse different aspects and issues of the world of small and medium entrepreneurs (SMEs) in Armenia. Indeed, talking about female entrepreneurship, Udivila’s founders stressed that “as women, they did not face specific problems. Indeed, the main issues are the problematic access to those markets where it is possible to find materials and services to realise their products. Since Armenia does not have factories where it is possible to buy materials for the fashion industry, businesspeople in this sector should rely on the Chinese or Turkish market, although logistics problems make the transport cost high.

A few years ago, maybe five or six years ago, it was hard to be a female entrepreneur. By contrast, now, we have many women involved in different industrial and economic sectors, and the situation has changed. We cannot deny that there are still some problems since we live in a post-Soviet country with a specific mentality, but the situation has improved. For instance, after the 2018 Velvet Revolution, the Government set up incentives for small enterprises to reduce costs during the first years.

Regarding Udivila, we established the company in the most troublesome year because the entire world was facing the pandemic. At that time, it was hard to find markets and reliable companies where we could buy materials since we do not yet have companies in this industrial field in Armenia.“.

If we look at the statistics, we should underline that in Armenia about 2,9 million people live in the country while the Armenian Diaspora consists of at least 8 million people. Some experts and local political analysts have stressed since the pandemic, especially after the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, that Armenia should embrace its Diaspora to give an impulse to its economy. By contrast, the pandemic, the following economic crisis as well as the constant Azerbaijani threat at the Armenian border, as the recent military escalation underlined, have discouraged local Armenians and those from the Diaspora from becoming an active part of the economic market and the society.

Even though some experts have pointed out the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict’s psychological impact on the Armenian population, Maryam and Yelena establishing their brand gave an alternative solution and the stimulus to the Armenian economic market that the Government is attempting to promote. On this issue, Udivila’s founders said that “instead of relocating abroad to some countries where the fashion industry has huge market and potentialities such as in Italy, France, or the United States, we preferred to start our business in Armenia because we love our country and our city, Yerevan. The main idea was to create a brand that may represent Armenia worldwide in the future. Furthermore, we wanted to give a positive image of our country and people. Instead of being depicted as victims, we wish that the world will know Armenia through our work with the hope that we can see our success, vitality and potentialities.

Of course, we live in a conflict zone, so we fear that another military escalation, such as what happened in September 2022, might lead to war. Let me tell you that this situation affects us mentally because you might always be nervous. This psychological status influences your productivity and daily life, and we cannot deny it. Of course, we could have moved abroad to Europe or the United States and set up our brand there, but we decided to start our business in Armenia because we wanted to send a message that we are not victims and that we can be successful also in the fashion industry which is a field where Armenia still does not have its presence. In addition, we are trying to do slow and sustainable fashion, so if the situation escalates or evolves into a conflict, we can continue our work abroad.

It is not easy to do business and emerge in the fashion industry as Armenians, considering the current situation that our country is experiencing. By the way, we are familiar with challenges and difficult times and believe we can succeed in our mission. Furthermore, while our soldiers are fighting at the frontline and borders to protect our people, we can say that with our work and brand, we are ‘fighting’ in the rear by supporting our economy and markets because every Armenian should help the motherland in the best way possible.“.

Silvia Boltuc and Domenico Nocerino with Mariam and Yelena Udivilas founders
Silvia Boltuc, SpecialEurasia Managing Director, and Domenico Nocerino, Opinio Juris editor-in-chief, with Mariam Loretsyan and Yelena Gevorgyan, the founders of Udivila, in Yerevan (Credits: SpecialEurasia)

Fashion/cultural diplomacy made in Armenia

Paying attention to Mariam and Yelena’s words, among their goals, there is not only business and profits but also promoting Armenia abroad, not in a classical way. Their brand and other Armenian brands in different fields might become part of that ‘cultural diplomacy’, which Yerevan should increase to engage more foreign countries and assess collaboration opportunities in different markets.

Indeed, looking at a definition of cultural diplomacy, we can talk in this case about ‘fashion diplomacy’, a phenomenon which refers to the subtle, sartorial choices made by world leaders (or their spouses) and is used as a form of non-verbal communication.

Expanding the concept of ‘fashion diplomacy’ and applying it to Armenia, it is possible to state that Udivila is a project from the bottom, which uses non-verbal communication to promote Armenian culture in a globalised world and, at the same time, strengthen Armenian national values inside the country’s border. Indeed, as Mariam and Yelena stressed, “their main current goal is to become famous in our country and then export our products abroad. Although now our focus market is Armenia, people can find our products and creations abroad in some stores in the United States. As you can see, the promotion of our country has just started, and we hope we can continue our work.“.

This report is part of the project “Discovering & Analysing Armenia” based on the official mission in Yerevan from October 21st, 2022, to October 28th, 2022.

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