Fashion Week takes place all over the world — from Milan to Omaha. Each production takes on the context of its location, marrying a unique history, culture, and government with style. This past October, we sent reporter Valerie Stivers to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia to investigate the impact of Putin's recent actions on Russia's fashion industry.
Russia Fashion Week fell during troubled times this year, with the glitz and glamour, models and catwalks, minibus heels and faux topiary set against a political background of war with Ukraine, international sanctions, and the rapid devaluation of Russian currency. The grim headlines from Moscow affect the whole population — the ruble at the time of this writing hit 54 to the dollar, a historic low that has helped devalue ordinary Russians' savings — but also fashion in particular, as the Putin government introduces laws to keep foreigners from owning too large a stake in fashion magazines, and targets hipsters and It Girls.
I went to Moscow to undress the matryoshka, find out how fashion was faring in the chilly political environment, and learn what I could from Russia's Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. It was the first Russian Fashion Week I’d attended since 2005, when I lived and worked in Moscow as a freelance journalist. That year, there were a handful of people I knew in town for the shows, and I have hazy impressions of heavy snow, cab rides full of drunken Italians, late-night vodka shots at Café Pushkin, and getting hilariously lost in the Metropol Hotel, where the foreign press is put up. This year, the atmosphere was more subdued.
First, some history: Fashion Week in Russia was launched 15 years ago as Russian Fashion Week on a very different stage, at a time when the Putin government was new and still democratically elected, and when Russians were just stepping out of Soviet scarcity and into couture, with great enthusiasm but notoriously mixed results. The event, which picked up the Mercedes sponsorship in 2011, is now five days long and shows nearly 80 designers from Russia and some neighbors like Georgia. It has moved from earlier locations on Red Square and in the Central House of Artists to the Manezh, an exhibition hall and former tsarist horse-parade ground a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. Audiences are local, mostly wealthy private clients and the Moscow fashion crowd, but with only a few buyers and little independent foreign press coverage. (My trip and accommodation were paid for by MBFW Russia.)
Designers participating in MBFW Russia this year were a mix of emerging talents, many of whom received government grants to show, whose wares are only available via private orders, and those well-known within Russia. Arguably, the biggest name was Alena Akhmadullina, a lavish traditionalist in the Russian hyper-feminine style. The standout of the week was Tegin, whose collection was “exquisite and terse, a rarity in Russian fashion practice,” according to Andrey Abolenkin, a Moscow-based fashion consultant. The main paparazzi stars of the first day were a group of beautifully dressed, anonymous young girls who posed coatless in front of a white Mercedes parked in front of the Manezh. Anyone seeking the iconic balaclavas of political dissident band Pussy Riot would have to look elsewhere, since that type of open activism is dangerous and nearly nonexistent in Moscow today.
Though there were several excellent shows at the Manezh, they did not reflect the widely agreed-upon emergence of Russian fashion as an international force to be reckoned with since the end of the Soviet Union. Russian models like Natalia Vodianova were perhaps the country’s first exports, but in the past few years, Russian designers and street style stars have declared victory in Paris, London, and New York. “The Czarinas are back,” trumpeted a 2012 article in The New York Times. Designers like Vika Gazinskaya and Ulyana Sergeenko sell to devoted high-fashion buyers out of Paris showrooms, and plenty of small labels are making it big, like Gosha Rubchinskiy, who until recently did a line for Dover Street Market in London. None of the internationally famous Russians were in attendance at MBFW Russia, despite several being in Moscow at the time.
Partially, the no-shows were a function of local relationships — MBFW Russia organizer Alexander Shumsky is a polarizing figure in the Russian fashion world — but the event’s low profile also indicated the current troubled times. Russia has the largest emerging market for fashion in the world, but it’s expected to shrink by 20% by year’s end, as the direct result of sanctions, inflation, and the political isolationism of the Putin government, according to a two-part investigative piece by London-based publication The Business of Fashion.
Moreover, the difficulty of doing business in Russia tends to drive successful designers abroad. Daria Razumikhina, famous for making badges with articles of the constitution on them in the '90s, told me via email that she has emigrated to London, and finally closed her shop in Moscow’s trendy Vinzavod warehouse space in August. “It is impossible for independent designers without oligarch partners, husbands, or fathers to struggle anymore with all the Russian laws, corruption, and other nonsense,” she said.
Sergeenko does not maintain a Moscow showroom. Gazinskaya, who does, met with me for coffee not far from the Manezh and said she has stopped showing in Moscow since “there were no journalists, no buyers, no press. I put this money to go to Paris instead.” She has also been outspoken about the difficulties of doing business in Moscow, and claims that as a Russian patriot, “I think if we live in a democratic country, I can say this and should not shut up. I like complaining. When I’m doing that, I’m saying, 'Help me and help others to stay here and make my country proud.'” The Business of Fashion article expanded on some of the difficulties people like Gazinskaya face, mentioning that high import tariffs and lack of local garment-industry infrastructure make it expensive to bring in the raw materials necessary to make clothes in Russia.
The new law consolidating government control of the Russian media by limiting foreign ownership in publications is also expected to make it more difficult for Russians to stay in touch with global trends. Russian versions of Vogue, Glamour, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, Tatler, and Cosmopolitan will have to find new, state-backed owners, who may directly or indirectly push a more nationalist ideology.
In Moscow, the dominant trends as seen on red carpets, in store windows, and on runways have been nostalgic and patriotic. Long dresses and folk headdresses were everywhere at Fashion Week — some of them beautiful and elaborate, like those from Masterpeace by Evgenia Linovich — and the windows at downtown department store TsUM showed bears, sunflowers, and a khokhloma pattern as backdrops for the designer clothes. An emerging talent who showed at MBFW Russia, Maroussia Zaitseva, mixed a '40s communal apartment vibe with athlete-hero nods to the Sochi Olympics in 2014, including a barbell-shaped handbag that was the must-have of the week. Elsewhere, a hot-ticket lookbook for a new secondary line from the brand A La Russe used the wife and children of politician Vladislav Surkov as models; Surkov is known as Putin’s chief ideologist and creator of the term “sovereign democracy,” a euphemism for Putin's rule within Russia.
Government-backed newspapers have also been weighing in on fashion, with frequent denunciations of “hipsters” as unpatriotic and Western-sympathizing. Artemiy Gavryushin, 21, a student at the Peoples' Friendship University of Russia who attended the MBFW Russia shows, told me that it had recently become dangerous to look “hip” anywhere outside of the city center. “The gopniki [gangsters] will think you’re gay and beat you up,” he said.
In fact, recently there was a smear in the state-controlled newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta of Russia’s internationally successful fashion stars — Vika Gazinskaya, Ulyana Sergeenko, Miroslava Duma, the model Elena Perminova, and others. The paper claimed these women were a bad influence on Russians, and that their various public statements were unpatriotic. The paper twisted some of Sergeenko’s words about street photography. Duma was criticized for not attending a showcase of young Russian talent at a recent Fashion Week in Milan. In Perminova’s case, the article made a reference to her "being known for having fallen into an ugly situation with drug trafficking," referring to something that had happened when she was 16. She’s now 28, married, and a mother of two children.
This article had “perfectly Soviet-era rhetoric,” according to fashion consultant Abolenkin, “and caused much ado.” In response, Gazinskaya told me, “I don’t just like my country, I love my country,” and dismissed the article as “paid for” and personally motivated. “I do not think the people in the government are thinking about me,” she said. “I think they are busy with other things.”
Nonetheless, MBFW Russia organizer Shumsky touted a “new fashion ideology” that will turn away from the wealth and excess embodied by the street style stars and toward local talent. “Glamour is not like it was before. You need to be more solid. If you are showing off that you are spending 100,000 Euros on clothes, it’s not good anymore,” he said. “The Russian government supports Russian fashion. It doesn’t support daughters and wives of oligarchs and state officials.”
On my last night in Moscow after dinner at Door 19, a jam-packed and very expensive pop-up restaurant (evidence, my Russian friends told me, that people were spending their money while it was worth something), I stuck with Fashion-Week tradition and continued on to Café Pushkin, in a complimentary Jaguar supplied by Door 19. There, it was quieter than I remembered it having been at 1 a.m. One of the few other first-floor diners was the stylist Sergey Zverev, who played a footnote role in the scandal that followed the Rossiyskaya Gazeta article. On my way out, I noticed that Zverev was being hassled by two drunk men — it was something about his long hair, possibly, but it seemed affectionate. As we walked out into the crystal-cold night, we heard Zverev’s bodyguards laughing — a perfect reminder that no matter what else changes in Russian fashion, bodyguards are likely to be a crucial accessory for some time to come.