Russia’s Leading Lady of Design

Alyona Akhmadullina says she had "inter-galactic athletes" in mind when she came up with her fall collection.

MOSCOW — Alyona Akhmadullina says she had “inter-galactic athletes” in mind when she came up with her fall collection.

This story first appeared in the December 27, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

How fitting. Akhmadullina, 29, looks like something of an intergalactic athlete herself: Standing 5 feet, 7 inches and weighing 108 pounds, Russia’s leading designer — now on the cusp of a multimillion-dollar, global push that will include flagships and advertising — is taut, spare and almost robotic.

Her fingers are long and narrow. Her hair, dyed black, is parted to the side. She wears a business suit and an off-white, button-down shirt, both of her own design, with rectangular cuff links and a rectangular watch. Even in Russia, where they don’t smile much, Akhmadullina comes off as a tad chilly.

Perhaps it’s just her northern roots: Akhmadullina is from Saint Petersburg, Russia’s so-called northern capital. “There is a huge difference between design from Moscow and Petersburg,” she said, holding court in her booth at the hip eatery The Most. The restaurant, with its lavishly decorated, Baroque interior, would be an odd place for the designer if not for the fact that her billionaire boyfriend, Alexander Mamut, owns it.

“This difference comes not only from the architecture of Petersburg, but the lifestyle,” Akhmadullina continued. “Petersburg is a cradle of intellectual and artistic life. It is a very creative city. Moscow is a city for making money, for business. It lacks depth, philosophy. Here, there is only a desire to shop and impress, to wear clothing that has some kind of status.”

She noted — disapprovingly — Russians’ love affair with Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and Versace, portraying this Italian fetish as a sort of post-Soviet fever that will eventually subside. “This is a historical period which we cannot circumvent,” she said, “but must pass through. This is the first generation of consumers, and Versace really is for the first generation of consumers, for the nouveau riche.”

By contrast, Akhmadullina, a graduate of Saint Petersburg’s University of Technology and Design, said her fashion, which is sometimes described as “constructivist design,” has been shaped by a long line of Russian artists — especially the painters Mikhail Vrubel, a symbolist, and Vasily Surikov, who specialized in historical subjects. She cited Surikov’s “The Morning of the Streltsy Execution” as particularly influential.

Not surprisingly, the designer favors colors that have a cerebral, even moribund, overtone — dark blue, dark brown, dark gray. In Akhmadullina’s world, the clothes spring from a carefully thought through concept. Nothing simply is, and there are no colors, fabrics or patterns that are used just because they look good or feel right. This is not about intuition; it is about the meticulous piecing together of a lovely thought.

Thought, theory and overarching ideas seem to pervade all of Akhmadullina’s design. Her goal seems to be to forge a truly Russian fashion consciousness, a way of thinking about beauty, clothes, color, light and texture that is not a reaction to Western tastes but an independent sensibility. And it is her distinctly Russian concoction, with all its mystical overtones, that is fueling so much buzz in Moscow, where there is hope that soon Russia will export — not simply import — fashion.

Hence all the electricity at Akhmadullina’s show in October at MosFilm, the Soviet-era film studio. The show, which drew hundreds of local celebrities, retailers, journalists and “trendsetters,” as Russians like to say, featured a runway refashioned to look like a track for a 100-meter dash.

The whole production was economic, efficient and to the point. The models, sporting a collage of muted purples, greens and oranges, had a pared-down, wan, even sexless air to them. Their hair had been pinned up and, in some cases, fitted with metal plates resembling solar panels. There were few frills, and the show lasted 10 minutes.

The effect Akhmadullina was after was a Thirties-style, Soviet gymnastics meet, the kind of Stalinist spectacle that would have included human pyramids and other testaments to the might of the many and the insignificance of the individual.

It was an ironic statement: To wear Akhmadullina in today’s Russia is to say no to Milan, to embrace something that’s not necessarily beautiful, and certainly not flashy, but definitely, unabashedly personal. To wear the uniform of the communist mass is to be one’s own person in postcommunist Russia.

And, in case Russians don’t get it — or, more likely, don’t take to Akhmadullina’s high-brow wit — there’s always the rest of the world.

The designer plans to launch a promotional campaign next year in New York, Paris, London, Milan, Tokyo and possibly Shanghai, among other cities. Akhmadullina said the campaign will cost roughly $30 million; a knowledgeable source put the figure closer to $100 million. The campaign will include flagships, fashion shows, an advertising blitz and an array of media consultants in Moscow and Paris.

The goal is to transform Akhmadullina from a local designer, now sold in a handful of boutiques and concept stores in Moscow, into an international brand name within five years.

While Akhmadullina declined to say where the money for the promotional campaign is coming from, it is widely believed in Moscow fashion circles that her boyfriend, Mamut, who has extensive banking and media holdings, is paying for it.

Even in the age of Vladimir Putin, with business supposedly having shed its criminal tendencies of the wild Nineties, there is great sensitivity to how Russian money, and especially big money, will be perceived outside of Russia.

“Mentioning Russian money can impact on the future of a designer,” Akhmadullina said. Moments later, she added, “When we speak of luxury lines, it’s not the money that’s important. What is important here is the personality of the designer.”

Still, Akhmadullina has a hard time defining her personality, circumscribing herself, erecting boundaries. She prefers to let her ideas float, gestate, develop into iterations of themselves she couldn’t have imagined just an hour or a week ago. “The profession of a fashion designer requires that every day you are open to tearing down all your old beliefs,” she said. “Being a fanatic of something means being rigid, and this is impossible in fashion.”