RUSSIAN FASHION GETTING A TRY AT CHICAGO MART

Byline: Elaine Glusac

CHICAGO--The Russian Manufacturers' Center, set up at the Merchandise Mart's World Trade Center in June to display a wide variety of goods, has gotten a taker for its apparel.
The 2,000-square-foot showroom is occupied by seven Russian companies, with wares ranging from cutlery to clothes. The venture is said to be one of the first attempts by Russian makers of consumer goods to gain U.S. distribution without intervening government-mandated price controls and trade supervision.
Thus far, Russian porcelain and beer have been drawing the most attention, according to showroom management, but a sales representative from the neighboring Chicago Apparel Center is taking on a Russian line to show at for the upcoming holiday-resort market here, which starts Friday.
Better sportswear sales rep Vivian Clark, with a permanent showroom in the apparel center, is the first distributor to make a commitment to the clothes. She is taking on a line of highly embellished handsewn undyed cotton dresses, ethnic embroidered blouses and mohair coats designed by Olga Moiseenko, which primarily sell for $100 to $350 wholesale.
"I do believe we are heading into a global society," said Clark, who calls the clothes "unique" and a good fit with her other lines, including Belford knitwear and Lady Western of Canada coats.
Discussing the overall aim of the RMC, Jim McDermott, a U.S. marketing executive who is one of three partners to organize the private initiative, said, "We are a showcase. Hopefully we can interest other distributors and keep the lines where we have strength."
The other partners are Russian-born, Chicago-based importer Andrew Gabricht and Moscow-based ad agency executive Eva Topuria.
"The whole [of Russia] is opening up and these are the shock troops coming over," said Jim Hitch, partner with Baker & McKenzie, a Chicago-based law firm with four offices in the former Soviet Union specializing in Russia-U.S. business ventures.
Prior to 1987 when foreign investment was introduced in Russia as a tenet of perestroika, the movement to restructure the Communist economy, "the Russian system was completely centralized," said Hitch.
"Foreign trade organizations, or FTO's, were the only legally authorized middlemen to trade abroad," he said.
The bureaucracy stifled entrepreneurs from getting timely, well-priced goods to their markets.
"The Russian Manufacturers' Center is a tangible manifestation of perestroika," said World Trade Center Chicago Association chairman Neil Hartigan at the opening of the showroom.
According to RMC president Gabricht, the group chose Chicago as its headquarters based on the high visibility of the Merchandise Mart and its central location in the country. Light industry has suffered with the dramatic changes in the Russian economy from centrally planned to open, but observers say this push may signal a change in their fortunes.
"Our main aim...is to pursue development despite the fact that the economy has difficulties," said Frida Bortkevitch, vice president of Roslegprom, an open-stock operation comprised of 1,000-plus member clothing manufacturers, occupying roughly 25 percent of the showroom with the wares of 10 design companies. Among the challenges of marketing Russian-made clothing in the U.S. are sizing and prices. McDermott said the foreign makers are in the process of translating European to American sizes and pinpointing wholesale prices once shipping is factored in.
The clothes in the showroom carry retail price points averaging $60 to $100 for children's outerwear and dresses and $200 to $300 for women's apparel, which includes wool suits, polyester trenchcoats and blouses, cotton dresses and mohair coats.
While optimistic about selling clothes in America, Roslegprom's Bortkevitch is mindful of the cultural gap in taste. American women, she said, prefer separates while Russian women like dresses. She also observed that large-size women in the U.S. prefer bright colors to the muted tones worn by similar-size Russians. She is showing a mix of dresses, separates, neutrals and brights as a result.

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