Lotta Volkova, one of fashion’s most coveted stylists, is having trouble keeping a straight face long enough to have her picture taken. Crossing her arms, she shoots the photographer the kind of impassive look familiar to fans of her Instagram feed, but repeatedly collapses into fits of giggles between poses.
In less than five minutes, the session is over, with Volkova opining that the first image was the best. The session was fast, fun and instinctive, an insight into the working process of the 32-year-old Russian stylist who is instrumental to cult label Vetements and new-look Balenciaga.
Volkova is part of a cadre of creative types from Eastern Europe that has taken the fashion world by storm with a raw, underground aesthetic shaped by the experience of growing up after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Alongside Demna Gvasalia, the Georgian designer who heads both Vetements and Balenciaga, and Russian streetwear star Gosha Rubchinskiy, she is championing a lo-fi aesthetic marked by oversize volumes, garish color and a fluid approach to gender. It’s a group that thrives on a collaborative approach and a postmodern take on references borrowed from Nineties sportswear, uniforms and subcultures. Collectively, they are revolutionizing luxury fashion.
“I just feel like we have energy to believe that it could be fun and it could be different,” Volkova said in an interview between appointments in the run-up to Paris Fashion Week Men’s. “It doesn’t necessarily have to stay in one place.”
Volkova is also fashion director at large for Re-Edition and Man About Town magazines; styles shoots for other publications, including System, Dazed and Confused and i-D, and models in Vetements’ runway shows, which have been held everywhere from a Chinese restaurant to a sex club.
Growing up in the port city of Vladivostok on Russia’s eastern border, she had limited access to clothes and magazines.
“We looked at fashion as something quite inaccessible, in a sense, and that’s why it was quite exciting. You couldn’t necessarily go and buy whatever you wanted. You either needed to have it made for you by a seamstress or get somebody to go abroad and to buy it,” Volkova said.
Her father, the captain of a cargo ship, would return home with foreign clothes and music. Her mother, a physics professor, instilled in her an early love of art and dressing up. But Volkova said her wake-up call came from watching “Eurotrash,” the irreverent program presented by Antoine de Caunes and Jean Paul Gaultier. “I was like, ‘Wow, I want to be like these people,’” she recalled.
By her early teens, Volkova was devouring images of fashion shows on her computer. “It’s funny how kids have such an ability to find out all this information. I knew when the fashion weeks were, I knew who was showing where,” she said.
Her mother suggested she attend London’s Central Saint Martins, which produced many of her favorite designers, like John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. In between studying fine art and photography, she immersed herself in the electroclash club scene and started customizing clothes for friends.
“It was nothing crazy special. It was very punk rock, studded — all embellished by hand. Then it just sort of caught on real fast. I think that’s what’s great about London: whenever something new comes around, people are so thirsty for information…that they give you a chance,” she said.
Her hobby rapidly evolved into a unisex men’s wear line, Lotta Skeletrix, carried by stores like Kokon to Zai, The Pineal Eye and Dover Street Market. Still, Volkova said she never envisioned building a brand. “I was 19 years old. I just did it because it was fun,” she said.
Her move into styling happened just as spontaneously. After moving to Paris in 2007, she started working with photographer Ellen von Unwerth and — aside from a short-lived foray into women’s wear in 2009 — dedicated herself to editorial work. “In a way, it was sort of a natural evolution. I was happy to not have to produce a collection, to be really honest, and just to make pictures with it,” she said.
Her career spiked after she met Rubchinskiy and Gvasalia, with whom she shares a spitfire approach to using cultural references, which she credits to social media. Volkova wryly noted that her signature DIY aesthetic was shaped initially by a lack of access to clothes from leading brands. Recently, labels like Mulberry and Kenzo have enlisted her help to bring that edgy look to their collections.
“It’s a challenge to adapt your taste, your vision to the vision of another brand,” she said.
At Vetements, she not only has a hand in the casting and styling, but also acts as a creative catalyst for Gvasalia. But even though she is recognized as a talent in her own right, Volkova does not envision branching out on her own.
“I think the best work I have done has always been through collaborations with people. I really value that idea of collaborating and mixing different ideas together, different tastes, different backgrounds,” she said.
“It’s about the energy of how these people fit together and what they bring. I think that’s much more interesting, to be honest, than me doing something by myself.”