Moscow's had a fashion revolution

By Luke Leitch

As a new generation of Russian It-girls cause a kerfuffle on the international catwalks, we take a look at Moscow's fashion revolution

Models display creations of Russian designer Alena Akhmadullina at the Volvo Fashion Week in Moscow, Russia. Photo / AP
Models display creations of Russian designer Alena Akhmadullina at the Volvo Fashion Week in Moscow, Russia. Photo / AP

Even Moscow's grim hinterland of Soviet-era tower blocks bears the airbrushed evidence of international fashion. Billboards for Chloe, Guerlain and Glamour magazine line the gridlocked eight-lane motorway. And as we crawl down it, a high-rotation radio ad exalts: "Myarc Jyacobs, Yarmanyi, Dyor - Tchyanel."

By the time you make it to Red Square, the titans of commercial fashion are as visible as the 25-year-fallen icons of communism. Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Moschino and MaxMara all have windows in the department store GUM, facing the Kremlin, Lenin's Mausoleum and the onion-topped St Basil's Cathedral.

The last time I was here (1990), there were almost no Western consumer goods in GUM, and although my allowance of a few pounds represented a small fortune in rubles, the only tempting purchase was an icecream that memorably contained a chewy hidden sliver of toenail.

Today, at a rendezvous with Glamour's editor, Masha Fedorova, the Perrier costs £5 ($9). She sips, then says: "For a long time fashion was not so important for Russian women.

Well it was, deep in our hearts, but we were not able to buy what we wanted. We were not able to even dream of having a dress from Versace, or Dior. Then we were able to dream of having a perfume ... and now, well: it is different."

Russians reportedly spend between €3 billion and €5 billion ($5.4 billion and $9.1 billion) a year on luxury clothes and accessories. For years, all they wanted was famous foreign logos - the bigger the better - and plenty of bling. As Fedorova says: "The traditional fashion cliche of a Russian girl is that she is dressed very bright and sparkling - and in one brand only.

"Sometimes in Paris or Milan, as I leave the shows, I still hear colleagues from other countries saying, 'Only Russians would wear this designer'. But that's not true any more."

The proof of that was all around us earlier this month in the Manege, a magnificent 19th-century neoclassical hall that sits beneath the Kremlin. This was the venue for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia, a five-day, 70-designer, 42-show exhibition of home-grown fashion.

As Fedorova and I jostled our way into the home debut of Olga Vilshenko, the Muscovite elite jostled right back; Elena Perminova (the model and wife of former KGB man turned Evening Standard proprietor Evgeny Lebedev) was wearing tri-circle ear-studs and a soft, panelled white jacket and loose leather trousers, while Miroslava Duma (a nascent media mogul and daughter of a Russian senator) had gone for distressed Chanel tartan.

An angular local celebrity stylist named Vlad Lisovets sported braces and indoor sunglasses, and a sizeable entourage, while Moscow's answer to Christopher Kane or Alexander Wang - a young designer called Alexander Terekhov, whose dresses look lovely on his website - had unkempt hair, skijump cheekbones and a powerfully auterish aura. Everyone air-kissed chummily.

Once in our seats, Fedorova peered around: "This is a proper front row. All the publishers are here - Conde Nast and Hachette Filipacchi - all the celebrities, and all the important buyers."

And although some of the gentlemen looked rather disconcerting - particularly one with tribal tattoos rioting across his receding hairline - almost all of the women were dressed as Fedorova suggested; in a mixed up, unashamedly extrovert but well-chosen and eclectic selection of international fashion ranging from Comme des Garcons to Isabel Marant via Tory Burch.

In fact, so strikingly dressed has the key Russian It-girl gang become (along with Perminova and Duma, its members include designers Ulyana Sergeenko and Vika Gazinskaya) that some commentators now believe they are affecting the flow of mainstream European fashion. The theory is that these tasteful and tremendously rich extrovert Russians are pushing more established fashion figures towards more sober clothing selections - because they simply can't compete with those It-girls. Fedorova says: "I'm proud of them - they've shaken up European fashion."

That evening Vilshenko's collection featured long puff-sleeved dresses in sheer black polka-dotted chiffon and a pretty poppy print. There were dramatic leather capes and a closing section of subtly reflective weathered paisley dresses with discreet studding and matching ruffs. Moscow's starry in-crowd rightly approved, and pushed backstage to congratulate the designer.

And then they disappeared. For two more days in the Manege, no other show remotely matched Vilshenko's for buzz, press or celebrity. Yet although there were some stinkers, the schedule featured some perfectly fine collections, too; a Russian reality-show winner named Dmitry Sholokhov presented a slickly produced commercial offering, while a Georgian named Ria Keburia went for entertainingly impractical geisha shoes, orange-peel-effect halo hats and elaborately folded black dresses. Between shows the Manege teemed with locals - not nearly as well-dressed as the It-girls, but all terribly enthusiastic about being photographed with a new Mercedes-Benz, or the girls in ballgowns promoting wool-cleaner who roamed the room.

There is even a gripping fashion family saga to catch up on; Slava Zaitsev, a nationally famous, Soviet-era design veteran who favours metallic suits and whose collection was the first to be presented at the Manege, sat front-row at the show of his grand-daughter Maroussia Zaitseva. As Zaitseva's models skipped up the catwalk, pretending to shiver as they showcased her selection of softly tailored check dresses, fringed skirts and a red-dyed cowhide show-closer, the guest next to me reported that following a tiff with his son (also a designer), Zaitsev is nurturing his granddaughter to become Russia's next big thing.

The only thing missing was the journalists - at most of the shows, there seemed to be barely any around.

According to Alexander Shumsky, the manager who founded this fashion week in 2001 with just 20 designers, Russia's glossy magazines are missing a trick by not following the home-grown designers on his schedule more assiduously. He sniffs: "For some editors, it is more important to be seen in Milan than in Moscow."

But as one magazine fashion editor, who will remain anonymous for the sake of local diplomacy, said: "We are asked to be patriotic, but I prefer to be professional.

"We cannot be too partisan. Our job is to look for clothes that are good, modern, and fresh - not just clothes that are Russian. That would be a provincial point of view."

And what, about those It-girls? "They are just rich men's wives."

Buoyed by public enthusiasm (45,000 people visited the shows that week, apparently), packed with beautiful people, and riven with caste-based cliquery: Russia's fashion week really isn't all that different from London, Milan or Paris.

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