MOSCOW — As communism collapsed in Russia, the Versace brand moved in.
In 1991, when statues of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin were being pulled down across the country, the label opened a Moscow boutique on a street favored by pre-Revolutionary aristocrats. Four years later, Donatella Versace visited St. Petersburg, which by then also had a Versace store.
Earlier this week, surveying the capital from a luxury hotel overlooking Red Square, Versace said she's noticed a transformation here. She said it's more than the influx of sports cars and grandiose restaurants — it's the clothes.
"Russians have started to learn that less bling is better, that more sophistication is in," Versace said in an interview. "The women here learn this slower than the rest of world, but they're learning for sure."
It's not only Russian dressing that has morphed from in-your-face to soft and subtle over the past decade. As Versace described it, her own designs have followed a similar trajectory.
Russia's economy is booming, thanks to record oil and gas profits, and along with China has become a key market for Versace and other luxury brands. Ralph Lauren opened its first Moscow boutique in May, while Versace will be unveiling a new flagship in the capital in the second half of 2008. The company has plans for 15 new shops in China.
"There is definitely lots of room for growth in Russia," said Alyona Doletskaya, the editor of Russian Vogue. "Ten years ago, we would never talk about the middle class. We had the top, the oligarchs, and then other people couldn't afford anything at all. Now wealth is growing enormously. It's like two different countries."
Whatever the economic prospects, what strikes Versace is the maturation of style here. As evidenced at a cocktail party she held at one of her three Moscow stores Monday, the days when Russian guests show up in head-to-toe labels, logos flashing, are mostly gone.
"What I like about Russian women is that they're not afraid to be daring," she said, adding, "Women are gorgeous here. The whole world envies them. The bodies are gorgeous, the skin's gorgeous, the hair's gorgeous."But the picture isn't all rosy. "They use a little bit more makeup than other women," she noted. Moreover, she thinks Russians could do with the following advice: "When you dress, don't do fabulous hair, makeup, a designer dress all together. If you're wearing great accessories, go easy on the dress. Russians put the whole thing all together like you see on the runway. We need to show the clothes like that because we need to sell them. But they're not necessarily to be worn like that."
Present at the cocktail party were Russian pop stars and some fellow designers.
"I think what she's doing is amazing," said an awestruck, Versace-clad Kira Plastinina, the 15-year-old who heads a fashion brand with 28 shops across Russia. "She's beautiful."
While Versace may sound confident in her verdicts on fashion, it wasn't always that way. Following the shooting of Gianni Versace outside his house in Miami Beach in 1997, the reins of the Versace label were thrust on her. For many years, she felt she was in her brother's shadow.
In recent years, though, Versace said she's become more sure of herself, and critics have hailed a new sensuality, rather than brash sexuality, that infuses her collections. If before a classic Versace look was "a very tight, knee-length dress with a split," now it's "a very soft, weightless jersey dress," Versace said.
"I don't need to reveal, to constrict the body," she explained. "I can caress the body and drape around the body."
Though she leaves Moscow today, Versace said the city's influence — the vibrant colors at an Impressionist exhibition and on the domes of St. Basil's Cathedral — will find its way into future collections.
"Russians are much more friendly, much more open" than a decade ago, she said. "Though they drive like they're crazy."
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