Byline: Natasha Singer

MOSCOW — The emerging Russian middle class is swarming to Western style, and savvy international resources are licking their chops at the prospect of this new fashion frontier.
Thousands of retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers and civilian clothes horses descended on the four-day Moda Trade Fair, held here last month. Astute fashion executives in Europe and America see an opportunity to capitalize on the huge gap left by the collapse of the Russian textile and clothing industries.
“Russians and Italians have one thing in common: If they have $100 in their wallet, they’ll borrow $500 from friends and go out and buy an expensive suit,” quipped Aras Azarov, director of Crocus International, organizer of the Moda Trade Fair.
Fashion fever is gripping this city. Dozens of European and American fashion resources, from designer lines Gianfranco Ferre, Escada, Sonia Rykiel, Valentino, Trussardi and Gianni Versace to such bridge collections as CK Calvin Klein and DKNY, to beauty companies including Estee Lauder, Clinique and Nina Ricci, have opened freestanding or in-store shops within the past year or so. More, including Gucci, are on the way.
Trade fair participants included 230 exhibitors from all over the world, including German stalwart Steilman, Dallas eveningwear producer Watters & Watters, the Dutch manufacturer Berghaus, Canadian ready-to-wear maker Joseph Ribkoff, British shoe dealer Grinders and the Finnish Trade Council. The value of contracts signed during and after the exhibition totaled more than $110 million, according to Boris Fantaev, marketing manager for Crocus.
Of the 15,000 visitors to the trade fair, executives from Crocus estimated that more than 9,000 are in the fashion trade. Crocus has been holding the Moda Trade Fair in Moscow twice a year since 1994.
In particular, Russians, whatever their buying power, seem to have an ongoing affinity for Italian fashion. At the high end, a growing number of Russian businessmen favor suits from Ferre, Versace and Trussardi; trendsetting Moscow women are gobbling up Gucci and all the Gianni Versace lines, including Istante and Versus; Russian jet-setters are coming home with Prada, Giorgio Armani and Missoni, none of which are available yet in Moscow; and working mothers are wearing Max Mara and outfitting their teenagers in Benetton.
The amount of apparel exported from Italy to Russia has almost doubled, to about $161.2 million (143.9 million ecu’s, or European currency units, at current exchange rates) in 1996, up from $80.7 million (72.1 million ecu’s) in 1995. Italian clothing represents 38 percent of the yearly total of European apparel exported to Russia. Meanwhile, German clothing exports to Russia increased 25 percent, to $105.7 million (94.4 million ecu’s) in 1996, up from $84.4 million (75.4 million ecu’s) in 1995.
“Prior to 1995, Germans were the leading clothing exporter to Russia, but since then, the Italians have taken over in every price range. Russians love European style, Italian in particular,” explained Fantaev.
“We try very hard to encourage American manufacturers, designers, wholesalers and retailers to attend the Moda Trade Fair, but they’re not very enthusiastic about coming to Russia. It may be that, although Russians love American jeans, European style makes more sense to Russian shoppers,” he added.
One firm that thinks Russians are ready and eager for American clothes is Dallas-based Watters & Watters, which already exports its eveningwear to Greece, Japan, France, Germany, Canada and England.
“As far as Russia is concerned, American clothing executives are behind the times. They believe Russians are still plodding around in oversized furs, and they don’t realize there is a huge market here and women are hungry for fashion,” said Maria Prince, marketing manager of Watters & Watters. “Russians are westernized now, and Moscow is a huge, cosmopolitan city. There is a vast, untapped market here for American apparel. Russians want well-made clothes from America.”
“Moscow obviously is the biggest market in Russia, but we’ve also just had negotiations with retailers in other regions, like Siberia and Tatarstan, and we’re looking at Armenia and Kazakhstan,” said Boris Brodsky, marketing manager for Lis Fashion, a New York bridal company that showed at Moda Fair for the first time.
Already established in the hearts and closets of the Russian youth are Grinders shoes from Essex, England. The Grinders label has been available in Russia since 1996, and Russians are buying 20,000 pairs of the trendy shoes annually; 16,000 pairs sell in Moscow alone.
“Our customers are mainly students in the 16-to-25 age bracket, and they don’t hesitate to spend $150 for a pair of boots. They buy expensive street-fashion pieces, too. Moscow is where the money is,” said Graham Vint, manager director of Grinders.
In a country where the official minimum wage is less than $50 a month, and a bank teller earning $200 monthly will invest in several $300 suits yearly, fashion for many remains paramount. Russians, said Fantaev of Crocus, “spend much more than they save.” And buying habits, he noted, have changed drastically in the Russian apparel market since the first Moda Trade Fair of 1994.
“Back then, there were a few shops that sold a limited number of items from one or two imported brand names, but Russia never had a tradition of making chic clothes. This dates from the Soviet era, when the domestic clothing industry produced uniform-style clothes and serviceable coats for Communists,” Fantaev explained.
“Back then, our goal was just to connect, to introduce foreign and Russian retailers and manufacturers,” he said. “At that time, Russian retailers were so desperate that they were buying samples from the exhibitors. Today, major European brands have local partners and producers. Steilman works with a factory in Nizny-Novgorod, and Mustang makes clothes in St. Petersburg. We’ve come a long way in three years.”

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