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Essay: The New Russian Fashion Landscape

by Julia Gordina on 6 March 2014

Consultant and Projects and Partnerships Manager at the British Council Julia Gordina considers the new breed of designers emerging from Russia.

Consultant and Projects and Partnerships Manager at the British Council Julia Gordina considers the new breed of designers emerging from Russia.

Still from 'Georgy Rushev A/W 14' (2014)

Russia has often been on the news a lot lately, and nine times out of ten for all the wrong reasons: Pussy Riot, anti-gay propaganda laws, social media debacle with embarrassing twitpics of Western journalists’ hotel rooms in Sochi that weren’t finished in time for the Olympics, and now Ukraine. Like most progressive young professionals I know, it saddens me deeply that the Russia I know and love is not in the picture that is broadcast to the world as readily and widely as the unfortunate and outrageous things above. I know a different Russia and - please forgive the patriotic pathos - I do feel for it. So much so that after thirteen years in the UK there came a distinct ‘the time is now’ moment that prompted me to pack up and leave the comfort and relevant predictability of London for the crazy 24-hour lifestyle and uncertainty of Moscow.

That kick came from a distinct knowledge that now is time to make an impact. It is what makes Russia so exciting today: everything you do with enough energy and determination makes an impact. It is encouraging and exciting to see a growing number of people getting that kick and starting their own ventures, never minding the naysayers, the incessant get-me-out-of-here whining of Facebook friends, the widespread ignorance and drift tendencies of the masses, or the purely financial, logistical, political and bureaucratic challenges that plaque the country. Nobody said it was easy, yet no one ever said it would be so much fun. Yes, fun: Russians are a notoriously tough bunch and overcoming challenges is a national sport. We walk around in -35 C frost, can handle a stiff drink or ten and survive in the worst conditions, yet we equally appreciate the finer things in life, are naturally adept at story-telling and, for the most part, are as 21st century as the rest of the globalised world. Speaking to entrepreneurs, artists and creative professionals I hear the same thing: the fun and satisfaction from making a tangible impact in the end always outweigh the lows.

Although it’s becoming really hard to be apolitical in modern Russia, fashion manages to keep things relatively light. Of course, it sometimes veers on escapism, yet the designers communicate such strong and concise visual messages that, to a keen observer, tell more about the country’s social situation than the mainstream news ever could. Russian names have been making waves over the last few years. Central St Martins MA graduate David Koma, a designer of Georgian descent who called St Petersburg home before arriving in London, has dressed everyone from Kylie to Gwyneth to Beyonce and has recently been appointed creative director at Thierry Mugler. Vilshenko, a label by Olga Vilshenko, has been a regular at London Fashion Week and received critical acclaim in The Telegraph, British Vogue and Grazia among others and impressed the buyers at Avenue32.com. Gosha Rubchinskiy, a self-taught designer, has captured the zeitgeist with his gritty take on Russian youth culture and modern sportswear and eventually received backing from Comme des Garçons’ cult retail spot Dover Street Market in London.  The list goes on.

Yet, when you think of Russian fashion, the so-called 'Russian Fashion Pack' immediately comes to mind. Editor and socialite Miroslava Duma, model Elena Perminova, stylist Anya Ziourova, designers Vika Gazinskaya and Ulyana Sergeenko have taken the fashion blogosphere by storm with their impeccable personal style and show-stopping appearances at fashion weeks captured by street style photographers in New York, London, Milan and Paris. Love them or loathe them, these five influential and highly photogenic women are fuelling the interest in the new Russian style, that has moved on from brazen and pretentious to polished, subtle and often ironically intellectual. After appearing on Tommy Ton’s Jak&Jil blog and The Sartorialist, the Russian Dolls, as they are also known, graced the pages of every imaginable glossy from Paris to Tokyo.

The two designers in the pack are also making waves with their collections: Ulyana Sergeenko stages romantic fairy-tale shows at Haute Couture Fashion Week in Paris, while Vika Gazinskaya sells at Bergdorf Goodman, Colette and online at Moda Operandi and Net-a-Porter. Gazinskaya’s story is one of a few successes of the Russian fashion scene: having dreamt of becoming a fashion designer, she managed to get where she is thanks to sheer talent, determination and an inimitable flair in wearing her own pieces, which immediately made her a street style pin-up and ultimately led to buyers and press taking note. All that without oligarch backing that still tends to magically make things happen in Russia.

On the other side of the spectrum, eons away from the glitz of fashion weeks and it-girls, one finds avant-garde designers whose aesthetics is gritty, edgy and starkly modern, spelling out a different message about Russia. Besides Gosha Rubchinskiy and his urban tales of youth culture, sports and eerie post-Soviet emptiness, there are a few names emerging as the ones to watch. The latest collection by Tigran Avetisyan, a Muscovite who trained in product design at Central St Martins in London before switching to menswear, is powerful in all its stripped-bare punk glory with messages like 'Nothing Changes', 'Stop Dreaming', 'No Jobs' and 'Too Much Pressure', scribbled on oversized denim coats and jackets. The collection was backed by  luxury group LMVH and this season the designer showed at Pitti in Florence. Forget Me Not, a cult Moscow-based label by designer-stylist Artur Lomakin, treads a similar path with messages of disenchantment mixed in with an ability to see beauty in the mundane. This translates into hand-finished oversized knitwear and textured jackets in a sombre palette.

And then there are designers that prodigiously combine glamour and edge: the likes of Dmitry Loginov (ARSENICUM) and Oleg Ovsiyov (Viva Vox) - both established names, highly respected in the industry yet avant-garde and aspirational, known for luxury finishes, sexy youthfulness and intellectual irony.

Somehow the tide has turned (possibly as everyone grew tired of wearing Russia’s favourite luxury Italian label Dolce&Gabbana) and suddenly pieces by Russian designers became de rigueur and worth every rouble in Instagram likes.

A quiet consumer revolution has also started to take place recently, as a wave of patriotic dressing swept the trendsetters and then the followers. Two years ago emerging labels were struggling to show their work or to get exposure in mainstream media. Although it didn’t happen overnight, somehow the tide has turned (possibly everyone grew tired of wearing Russia’s favourite luxury Italian label Dolce&Gabbana) and suddenly pieces by Russian designers became de rigueur and worth every rouble in Instagram likes.

The new breed of Russian designers are confidently harnessing the power of social networks and online media to grow their businesses. For some it is the only way to showcase their work and to reach out to international customers. The attention that Instagram and Facebook-savvy home-grown labels or recent graduates receive would have been impossible in pre-Internet age.

In fact, many emerging labels choose to ignore traditional fashion weeks altogether. It’s partly due to the fact that there are two opposing fashion weeks in Moscow with a somewhat confusing schedule that includes established names young designers as well as catwalk slots bought by oligarch’s WAGs all at once. It is no surprise that emerging labels turn to showcasing online, making films and lookbooks and staging their own private shows. The alternatives to mainstream fashion weeks are the edgier AURORA (an independent fashion week in St Petersburg) and the now non-existent Cycles&Seasons Fashion Week by MasterCard. Launched by former Executive Fashion Editor at Russian Vogue Anna Dyulgerova in 2009 with only five shows, Cycle&Seasons became an alternative showcase of fashion talent that grew to represent an impressive range of conceptual designers such as Nina Donis (the label launched in 2000, is listed in i-D’s world’s 150 most important designers and is considered the pioneer of the scene in Russia), Vika Gazinskaya, Vardoui Nazarian, Forget Me Not and Gosha Rubchinskiy among others. The PR machine behind Cycles&Seasons was successful in getting esteemed international press and bloggers like Susie Bubble in on the action.

PREVIEW, a Cycles&Seasons competition for young designers judged by fashion journalist and VOGUE.ru blogger Natalia Turovnikova, discovered a whole coterie of talent, including, for example, LES’ by Lesia Paramonova. After her first show Paramonova approached Susie Bubble and that online exchange resulted in blog posts and countless snaps of London fashion blogger wearing LES’. For her second show the designer eschewed the catwalk in favour of fashion film screening in an open-air cinema. A good example of new routes to market, Paramonova uses the Internet to her full advantage, taking roughly the same number of international orders by email and Instagram as she gets in Russia via offline and online channels. All her clothes are produced in Russia - even the intricately printed fabrics with her trademark fairy-tale illustrations and then shipped worldwide.

Walk of Shame, possibly the most wanted label among today’s Moscow fashionistas, can also partly attribute its success to social media and early adoption by a handful of influential style-setters such as stylist and ex-Vogue Russia fashion director Katya Mukhina, editor-in-chief of Interview Russia Aliona Doletskaya and Tatler’s editor-in-chief Ksenia Solovieva. Lauded for its fun, nonchalant and openly sexual vibe, Walk of Shame churns out one must-have item after another: a sweatshirt emblazoned with 'Glory for Russia', an infamous 'I’m a luxury' sweater and the prohibitively expensive two-tone fur coat have all sold out. A brainchild of an established stylist Andrey Artyomov, the label is now sold at Browns and Opening Ceremony. Needless to say, his parties and fashion shows are legendary and the guestlists read like a who-is-who of the Russian fashion world. 'It’s all about fun, parties and sex. I make clothing for girls who aren’t shy about male attention, who are sexy and attractive, but with a lively and somewhat ironic sense of humour, especially when it comes to themselves. The kind of girl who comes home from parties at 7 am – she is both my inspiration and my client,' says the designer. It seems that Artyomov, more than any other designer, has the essence of a new breed of Moscow socialites pinned down.

However, despite the wealth of talent and a growing customer base, Russian fashion, as the insiders keep repeating, is virtually non-existent as an industry. The infrastructure and production facilities are scarce, investment and sponsorships are extremely rare and the Soviet-era fashion schools need upgrading. In fact, many designers, stylists, photographers and filmmakers are self-taught – motivated by that kick to make an impact, yet forced to invent their own ways into their chosen profession. Unfortunately, their successes are, if anything, exceptions to the rule. There needs to be a switch from short-term thinking, common in Russia, to a strategic and consistent effort and investment to change the status-quo and to begin building an industry. That, of course, requires more than a handful of enthusiastic doers – they will need backing from the government and big-name consumer brands to scale up. Here’s hoping that the doers remain optimistic and plough on, no matter what comes up next on the news. Watch this space.

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