On playing the generation game: how Russian fashion designers have learnt from the past to create a new social landscape

Anyone who has remotely followed international news over the last couple of years has noticed that Russia is often portrayed as one of the least diplomatic and socially sensitive countries in the world. An increasing number of conservative ways to coerce individual rights allied to overly harsh and authoritarian political measures within and outside its borders have painted Russia in a most negative light in news channels across the globe.

The public evidence seems undeniable: Russia’s vote against a UN Security Council condemnation of the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad for attacks on civilians in February 2012, the arrest in Moscow of members of the female group Pussy Riot following charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” in March 2012, the parliamentary approval of a nationwide homophobic law banning distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” in June 2013, and the arrest under accusations of piracy of a group of Greenpeace activists who attempted to climb onto an oil rig in the Arctic on 18 September 2013 to highlight the risks of offshore drilling to the environment have shown to the world that Russian politicians believe in the power of physical force and severe intimidation to prove Russia’s importance on the international political arena. However, within its borders, an eerie sense of contentment (derived from an indisputable improvement in living standards over the last 15 years) seems to pervade Russian society.
Across Moscow, examples of progress are noticeable and in large numbers: a drive from and to Domodedovo International Airport reveals a concrete forest of high-rise apartment blocks that are either reaching completion or are being enveloped by scaffolding and an army of builders and painters to make sure that public living spaces look pleasant and are enjoyed by those who inhabit them. In addition, parks have been redeveloped and new cafés and restaurants have been springing up in major streets across the city as signs that the new money of the 1990s has given way to a more urbane appreciation of what life can offer.

Furthermore, a look at how Russians dress and behave on the streets of Moscow or Saint Petersburg suggests that (in particular for older generations) conforming to the political system is a small price to pay for the adoption of hard-earned comforts and overall sense of style. In spite of the nation’s relatively young population, Russians still remember the poverty-stricken times before Mikhail Gorbachev advocated the concepts of Glasnost and Perestroika to open and restructure the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1980s. In a way, such an ostensible acceptance of coerced freedoms in exchange for new wealth within recent political history is perhaps best understood when examining how Russians approach sartorial mores and the meanings of style.

As guests gathered in central Moscow to attend the first show of the latest edition of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia on 25 October 2013, their conversations generally included comments about how the unusually warm and sunny weather was a good omen for the Spring/Summer 2014 collections that 50 Russian fashion designers were to present over the following seven days. However, as fashion buyers and journalists took their seats inside the Manege exhibition hall (an impressive venue located in the centre of Moscow and adjacent to the Kremlin) to watch the show by renowned designer Slava Zaitsev, the focus turned from an appreciation of a promising future to a demonstration of reverence and nostalgia for the past.

At the age of 75, Zaitsev is unquestionably the most prominent living fashion designer in Russia and someone with a career of five decades that has witnessed socio-political contexts as diverse as the oppression of the Soviet regime and the emergence of capitalist profitability and free trade. From the early 1960s onwards, his ready-to-wear and haute couture creations had him compared to distinguished international counterparts, with his name often mentioned in a small but prestigious list that included Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin and Christian Lacroix. To this day, Slava Zaitsev commands respect amongst the upper echelons of Russian society and can be described as the leader of a group of traditionalist romantic fashion designers who are not short of clients.

Labels such as Mari Axel, Julia Dalakian, Igor Gulyaev, Olesya Malinskaya, Natalia Slavina, Tony Ward and Zarina share with Zaitsev a staunch reliance on conservatively feminine sartorial formulas that includes fluid fabrics, primary colours and lavish ornaments that still appeal to older Russian women who grew up interpreting clothes as indicators of affluence and taste. In many ways, these designers and their clients perceive fashion as a realm of glamour, fantasy and make-believe framed by quaint, old-fashioned aesthetics and gender representations. Nevertheless, if this generation of designers used to dominate Moscow’s fashion realm, the fact that they now find themselves competing against a growing number of international luxury labels that have settled in Moscow and Saint Petersburg and also against the new home-grown designers that have honed their skills in fashion houses in London, Paris and New York is indicative of how much sartorial taste and style has evolved across Russia.

Following on the footsteps of Zaitsev’s generation, a slightly younger group of fashion designers (whose main exponent is the very popular Alena Akhmadullina) interprets fashion as a semiotic platform capable of narrating tales of new romanticism inspired by a nostalgic appreciation of the past, and national folklore and traditions. In this category, Ester Abner, Olga Brovkina, Laroom, Ruban, Tegin, Lena Tsokalenko and Tatyana Parfionova share a preference for traditional silhouettes that are made slightly more contemporary by being imbued with new uses of conventional fabrics such as lace, silk and velvet or by introducing certain levels of innovation through unusual (but yet not radically original) uses of patterning and detailing.

However, and mirroring the changes in society caused by political decisions and fluctuating economic indicators over the last few years, the landscape of Russian fashion has been made richer and more interesting by a younger and cosmopolitan generation of Russian, Ukranian and Georgian designers who have been able to engage in confident creative dialogues with their counterparts worldwide. During the last edition of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia, the very accomplished collections by Leonid Alexeev, Poustovit, Ria Keburia, Julia Nikolaeva, Biryukov, Dasha Gauser, Atelier Galetskiy and BEssARION revealed a proficient grasp of historical and socio-geographic trends, and confident command of innovative design and tailoring techniques.
From the fusion of high fashion with sportswear and streetwear that marked the collections by Poustovit, Leonid Alexeev and BEssARION to Dasha Gauser’s sleek and glamorous dresses, and including Ria Keburia’s reinterpretation of 1980s Japanese minimalism or the seductive play between lines and fabrics performed by Julia Nikolaeva, Atelier Galetskiy and Biryukov, the approaches to fashion and creativity by this group of designers reflect Russians’ growing appreciation of style as a form of pushing the boundaries of individual thinking and of freedom of expression within the confining frames of expected social behaviour.

In an article in The Observer on 3 November 2013, editor of GQ Russia Michael Idov summed up the collective behaviour of citizens in contemporary Russia by stating that “the main paradox of living in Moscow today is that you can carve out a very New York or London-like existence here. If you find these dots on the map and connect them and never stray from these routes, life is very comfortable. As long as you don’t interact with the state in any way, shape or form.” Bearing these words in mind, the latest Spring/Summer 2014 collections by the worldly new cohort of Russian fashion designers has revealed that their creative outputs are not only just well-made clothes but also (and most importantly) the embodiment of ways in which individuals can interact with the establishment and question the very nature of politics. In other words, Russian fashion has stylishly and cleverly learnt from the oppression of the past to allow individuals to stray outside their comfortable lives and seek solace in the regenerative qualities that originality and resourcefulness can bring to society.