MOSCOW — It wasn’t the classiest beginning to Moscow’s two fashion weeks.
In the fortnight’s highest-profile show, by veteran designer Valentin Yudashkin, models had sashayed down the catwalk in Czarist-inspired outfits before an audience of Russian glitterati, including the city’s all-powerful mayor, Yury Luzhkov.
But before Yudashkin took a bow, spotlights suddenly illuminated curtains behind the stage. The drapes lifted to reveal an SUV, which an announcer said was a new type by the automaker sponsoring the show. The car was driven onto the catwalk and models draped themselves around it.
Such displays of questionable taste are perhaps one reason why first fashion week in Moscow, and then Russian Fashion Week, which ended Sunday, attracted little attention outside Russia. There were talented designers aplenty, including rising stars Igor Chapurin and Alena Akhmadullina, but foreign buyers and journalists were a rare sight. There were more, though not many, Russian buyers: Few major stores stock homegrown labels.
Foreign luxury brands are enjoying rapid growth in Russia and other emerging markets. Firms from Samsonite to Salvatore Ferragamo touted Russia as a key location at a luxury conference here in November.
Local designers, however, are playing catch-up. Confusion reigns about the two competing fashion weeks (a third event, which lasted three days, also took place). And many young Russian designers are starved for investment, and can only produce one or two copies of each item due to production constraints. What’s more, they’re lumbered by Russian fashion’s reputation as either over-the-top or dreary, as well as by affection among the elite for foreign labels.
It’s not surprising, then, that one of Russia’s most successful young designers chooses to stay away completely.
“The best way to show the collection is to show it in Milan,” Vadim Chernyshov, spokesman for Denis Simachev, told WWD after Yudashkin’s show. “Moscow is a bad way to show.”
Formerly, there were four main fashion weeks in Russia; the two that remain are keen competitors. Fashion Week in Moscow officials are dismissive of their rival event. Meanwhile, Alexander Shumsky, head of Russian Fashion Week, sniffs that the other gathering is “a low-profile trade fair.” Hobbling both fashion weeks, attendees whispered, were their workaday settings. Fashion Week in Moscow was held in an exhibition complex. Russian Fashion Week took place in conference rooms at the World Trade Center.
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Highlights of the first week included Chapurin’s show, inspired by the aristocratic grandeur evoked in Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” and the display by Slava Zaitsev. A stalwart of Russian fashion since Soviet times, Zaitsev put on a flamboyant, patriotic show of bejeweled Russian peasant outfits. While he might achieve greater renown showing abroad, he isn’t interested.
“I think that as a Russian artist, I should show in Russia,” he said. “At the beginning of the 1990s, I had the chance to show in Paris, and I realized that it’s not my place.”
At Russian Fashion Week, many of the most talked-about shows were those that eschewed the brashness that the country’s rich are notorious for being in favor of restrained looks and androgynous models. Newer houses like Max Chernitsov, Parfenova and Yulia Kalmanovich created a buzz.
But a stumbling block for young Russian designers is that prestige in the fashion industry here often hinges on seniority, not talent — lavish praise and bouquets at both weeks were mostly reserved for established, older houses.
Also stifling the fashion industry are difficulties that dog firms in other emerging economies.
“Russian designers all face the same problem,” said Tatyana Mikhalkova, wife of a prominent director and head of Russian Silhouette, which runs fashion contests, “of going from the small atelier to large-scale production.” Some issues are mundane. One talented dressmaker won a competition to study in the United States, but was denied a visa by the U.S. Embassy.
What’s more, well-off Russians have traditionally been more interested in buying Prada and Gucci than domestic labels, a trend that has only recently shown signs of reversing as high-end local stores start stocking Russian brands. According to a poll by Shumsky, the Russian Fashion Week head, the number of Russians willing to buy domestic designers has climbed over the past five years. Popularity in the West might ensue.
“It has become cool to wear Russian designs,” said Olga Slutsker, a society figure and head of a gym chain, though at the Yudashkin show she was wearing a hot pink sweater dress by U.S. designer Lisa Perry.
While the recent fashion weeks made little mark on the international fashion industry, Slutsker predicts that Russia will eventually follow the example of Belgium, where an informal group of designers gained prominence in the Eighties as the Antwerp Six. In Russia, she suggested, a Moscow Six could emerge.
“The feminine look is very popular here,” she said. “That will be the calling card of Russian designers — making women very attractive and sexy.”
KALMANOVICH PHOTO BY MAXIM SHIPENKOV/EPA/CORBIS; YUDASHKIN BY ALEXANDER NATRUSKIN/REUTERS/CORBIS; ZAITSEV BY SERGEL LINTSKY/EPA/CORBIS