By  on November 26, 2007

MOSCOW — The European Shopping and entertainment center, one of Moscow's newest malls, looms above a grimy downtown square where minibus drivers call out their routes and roadside kiosks do a brisk trade in cheap beer and vodka. There's a gloomy Soviet-era rail station next door, packed with passengers heading to Ukrainian cities and, come nightfall, homeless Muscovites.

But the mall is a different story. Fashion rules. The shopping center is lighted with blinding luminescent bulbs. It has marble floors and fake plants, and its 400 stores are thronged with shoppers from Russia's rapidly expanding middle class. Opened in November 2006, it houses high-end brands, including Hugo Boss and Tommy Hilfiger, as well as trendy chains like Topshop, Zara and Guess.

The European Center is the best known of a clutch of U.S.-style indoor malls and shopping villages that have opened in the Russian capital in recent years. They may promote homogeneity, but they're praised for making shopping easier in a notoriously tough city.

During Soviet times, Russians often bought their clothes at the ubiquitous kiosks that line streets and underpasses. Changing rooms were rare. State-run department stores were an alternative, although lines were long and shortages common.

That changed as oil and gas profits began to flow. Manezh Square, an underground mall with grandiose ponds and statues, was built near the Kremlin in the late Nineties. Another complex, the Atrium center, opened by northeast Moscow's decrepit Kursky Station in 2002 and is home to brands such as Mexx and Karen Millen. It's still a dicey area, though, and in the summer drunks and the homeless congregate on grassy patches.

Moscow has only one major downtown mall, Okhotny Ryad, an underground mall that abuts Red Square.

Moscow's most extravagant retail project is the Barvikha Luxury Village, located in the surreal Rubylovka neighborhood, where oligarchs, movie stars and, reportedly, Russian President Vladimir Putin live in sprawling mansions hidden in a pine forest west of the city. Most major luxury brands, from Gucci to Yves Saint Laurent, have an outlet in the pristine, eerily quiet mall, and Harley-Davidsons and Ferraris are also on sale.

"We think that the Russians prefer shopping at malls," said Herman Gewert, director of Ikea's Mega shopping centers. There are three Mega malls, which are home to midrange European and Russian labels like Zara on Moscow's outskirts. "Probably, the main reason for this is that a mall is like an outdoor market, but under one roof."Irina Osyanina, brand director of Topshop Russia, suggested that having malls in snowy Moscow makes sense.

"Stores on the street are only strong in the summer," Osyanina said. "But in the winter, sales are ruined — it's very uncomfortable to come into a store straight off the street if you're wearing a fur coat."

The 180,000-square-meter European Center was built on a west Moscow square that previously was home to an outdoor market, and was a reputed haunt of drug dealers. Mall representatives declined to comment, but real estate experts estimated that construction cost $250 million.

Its location, while run down, ensures substantial foot traffic. As well as a rail terminus, the square is a hub for three subway lines and buses. Some two million to three million people pass through daily, said Ilya Shershnev, a director at Swiss Realty Group in Moscow.

The mall is divided into two sections. The small prêt-à-porter quarter is hung with ultramodern LED chandeliers and is home to Diesel and other pricy brands. The crowded main section spans five floors and is anchored by an atrium with fountains and a stage for dance performances.

Topshop, Nine West and other brands chose the European Center as the location of their first Russian stores.

Shops selling expensive furs and domestic favorites like leopard-print apparel are few and far between. The flavor here is international, and outlets offering catwalk-inspired looks, like Topshop, predominate.

"It seems to me that a few years ago, Russian girls were dressing for their men — to emphasize their shape, their attractiveness," said Topshop's Osyanina. "It was obligatory that clothes were fashionable, but it was also obligatory that they were attractive to the opposite sex. Now there's a democratization of society where women are considered more independent and can dress how they want."

Muscovites, for their part, seem pleased with the European Center, and the new style of shopping that's hit their city.

"It's far better than those old Soviet stores of the past," said Viktor Ivanovich, a 60-year-old artist strolling the mall on Sunday. "Here, you already feel like you're in civilization — like in America or Europe."Vladimir Mukhin, a student waiting outside Next, added, "If you can't find what you want here, you're an idiot."

But some complained that the European Center is hard to navigate. There's no obvious logic to the arrangement of stores, and the signage is unclear. Many shoppers also bemoaned the relative expense compared with kiosks.

"I didn't buy anything, the sizes are very small and I need bigger ones," said Svetlana Ivashin, 40. "My fur coat costs 30,000 rubles [$1,230] here, but at the market it was 15,000 rubles — half the price."

Preservationists, meanwhile, say modern shopping complexes like the European Center are disfiguring Moscow. "Such big retail centers are contraindicated for the historical center," said Alexander Klimenko, a member of Moscow's planning committee.

City authorities don't take such concerns seriously, however. They've presided over the outright destruction of many historic buildings, including the Moskva Hotel, an iconic Stalin-era complex that stood by Red Square until 2004.

Even if a visitor can't afford anything there — the average wage in Russia last year barely topped $400 a month — the European Center at least provides an escape for a few hours from Moscow's cookie-cutter high-rise suburbs.

"We're pensioners," said Nina Natunina, 68, who has just enough money to come once a month to the mall for coffee with a friend. "We have nowhere else to go."

Retail Centers a Part of Russian History

MOSCOW — Despite its austere Communist past, Moscow is no stranger to sprawling retail centers and the treasures sold there.

Most major Soviet cities, from the capital to Novosibirsk and Vladivostok, had a large GUM, or State Universal Store, where consumers could often pick up goods unavailable elsewhere because of shortages.

The Soviet-era department stores remain a part of the retail landscape, but they're hardly recognizable. Few can afford to shop at them now that they've been transformed into the city's best-known luxury shopping centers.

In Moscow's GUM, a Czarist building with a glass roof on Red Square, meat and cheese counters have been replaced with Louis Vuitton and Gucci outlets. It's possible to have coffee in a chic cafe opposite the mausoleum containing Vladimir Lenin's embalmed body.Down the road, TSUM, or Central Universal Store, also has had a makeover. Its racks are lined with Alexander McQueen, Givenchy and Prada. The store recently hosted an exhibition by Yoko Ono, and Naomi Campbell is featured in the latest advertising campaign.

Cheaper malls are springing up all over the city, however, and although they don't look much different from the average U.S. or European shopping center, they've simplified shopping for millions of middle- and low-income Muscovites. The most prominent projects include the European Center, with 400 stores; the Atrium Mall, a smaller-sale project also combining retail chains, a food court and a movie theater, and Okhotny Ryad, a midrange underground mall close to the Kremlin.

Swedish furniture maker Ikea, meanwhile, has pioneered out-of-town shopping centers with vast supermarkets and sports labels such as Nike. Its Mega malls are difficult to reach for many Muscovites who don't own cars. But there's one thing the northern Moscow Mega center has that's absent at every other Russian mall: Starbucks. The Seattle-based coffee shop chain opened its first outlet in the country there in September.

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