Russia, a bread and butter
by International Herald Tribune
Picture it. Moscow, the year 2047. In some atelier, a digital mood board is perched high above a cutting table scattered with swatches, buttons and tools of the trade. Images of old photos, torn-out magazine pages and a host of other visual scraps of inspiration flick past the eyes of an anxious designer tapped to be next big thing in Russian fashion.
Who will this designer turn to for "vintage" references? Who will have invented a distinctly Russian style lexicon that the youngster can adapt to his or her own vision? And more importantly perhaps, who on today's Moscow catwalks will have become an iconic brand and symbol of national pride - the way Chanel is for France, Armani for Italians or Vivienne Westwood for the British?
Today, Russia finds herself in a peculiar position with regard to fashion design. A rich history filled with art, costume and culture sits behind a blank canvas. In the last decade, the number of designers here has gone from a handful to some 120 who now show at Moscow's two rival fashion events.
Aside from household names like Slava Zaitsev and more recently Valentin Yudashkin, virtually all the designers toiling away in Moscow and St. Petersburg's ateliers are products of the post-Soviet economic explosion. They are the same generation and, whether they know it or not, they are jockeying for position as future heritage brands. Essentially, the history of Russian fashion design begins now.
"Eventually, I think Russian designers will take over more of the domestic market and will force out some international ones," says Denis Simachev, whose cheeky, ironic twist on Soviet nostalgia, Russian kitsch and folk crafts currently makes him the toast of the town.
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For six years, Simachev has given new life to traditional khokhloma wood paintings and Gzhel porcelain on his printed fabrics and sketched parodies of Russian pop culture. He has become a bit of a designer celebrity and is one of the more high-profile Russian labels outside the country, having first brought his brand out in Milan before returning to the domestic market. Even so, his company reports that a modest 14 of his 60 wholesale accounts are outside Russia and former Soviet republics. The home market remains the bread and butter for even Russia's most international names.
"I'd say that only Simachev succeeded this way," said Alexander Shumsky, producer of Russian Fashion Week, which, in addition to its competitor event, Fashion Week in Moscow, accounts for most of the designer shows here. "I don't think this strategy is right for others. It is easier to conquer the local market first and then go worldwide.
The cult label Nina Donis once took part in London Fashion Week but now has opted for commercial showrooms in Milan. Earlier this year, Vassa had a similar stint in London and Alexander Terekhov brought his Terexov line to New York.
But for all those eager to desert Moscow for the bright lights of a bigger stage, even the successful who continue showing abroad admit that staying home has many advantages, particularly now.
Euromonitor International's market research, which appeared in a 2006 WGSN report, says sales of clothing and footwear in Russia reached $4 billion by 2004 and are forecast to be $8 billion by 2009.
"The present situation in the Russian market is extremely favorable for Russian designers," says Alena Akhmadullina, who began showing in Paris a few years after her brand's debut in 2001. "For many years financial flows in Russia were focused on 'serious' industries, such as oil, gas, etc., and only now when those markets are oversaturated, real money has started coming into the lighter industries like fashion."
From his stage design for the Bolshoi ballet to his interior "casa" and children's ranges, Chapurin's ready-to-wear and couture house is evolving into an all-encompassing lifestyle brand both in Paris and in Moscow, where he alternates shows.
The Russian market might be dwarfed by potential abroad in terms of sheer size, but high-rolling attitudes often make doing business at home more attractive, many say. "The difference is that a Russian will buy a $20,000 fur coat even if she has to put half of it on credit while for most Europeans, for example, it's only those with a million dollars in savings that purchase the same coat," Yarmak says.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, most of Moscow's younger designers are also focused on private clients or key boutiques in their own backyard.
"At the moment we rely only on our market and feel quite happy about it," says Leonid Alexeev, a young designer. "No one will deny that crossing our borders is important, but, personally, I think that the Russian market at the moment is the target. What we really need to do is to create our own industry here in order to keep some of our customers from switching to products from overseas."