TESTING THE WATERS IN RUSSIA: COUTURE’S MISSION TO MOSCOW

Byline: Natasha Singer

MOSCOW — The second annual Haute Couture Week here helped stir up Russian appetites for Western fashion.
Audiences, including many of Moscow’s beau monde, got to see firsthand the current fall-winter collections, shown in Paris last summer, of the French couture houses Nina Ricci, Lanvin, Jean-Louis Scherrer, Torrente and Lecoanet-Hemant. Other shows included collections from Gerard Watelet of Belgium, Enrico Coveri of Italy and leading Russian designers Slava Zaitsev and Valentin Yudashkin. Several of the new generation of young Russian designers also took to the runway in a group show.
For the Western designers — some of whom, including Scherrer and Torrente, already have Russian clientele — it was a chance to further test the waters of the emerging style-hungry Russian market.
“It’s very important for us to come to Russia now, with its extraordinary youth and energy, with its new generation besotted by fashion. It’s up to us to show them the best of what we have to offer,” commented Rosette Torrente-Mette, director of the house of Torrente.
For Russian designers, the week is the biggest event of the year in terms of visibility; each show was broadcast the following day on the national Russian TV channel. It also allowed these homegrown talents working in the still fledgling field of Russian couture to show their creations to an audience of Western professionals.
“Our aim is not only to acquaint Russians with international fashion trends,” explained Alexander Dostman, chairman of the Russian Haute Couture Association, one of the week’s sponsors, “but also to promote Russian fashion abroad. It’s a rare and indescribable opportunity for Russian designers to show on the same runway as such famous houses as Nina Ricci.”
It was sometimes jarring, though, to observe the Russian designs, highly embellished and often costume-like, walking the same runway used by the more assured Western creations.
The event included five nights of shows, running through Nov. 26, two shows a night, and took place in the massive Rossiya Concert Hall, seating more than 2,000 people. The shows were open to the general public, with tickets ranging from about $6 to $111 a night, and each night was filled to capacity. In the audience were such celebrities as pop stars Joseph Kobson and Alla Pugacheva — approximately the Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand of Russia — along with top Russian businessmen and women, politicians and their spouses, models and stylists.
Each show was dedicated to one collection, with the exception of the group showing of young Russian designers, including punk exponent Andrei Sharov, who favors polyvinyl chloride and biflex vinyl, creating such outfits as HotPants worn under clear plastic trousers; Irina Selitskaya, who pioneered a leatherizing technique for fish skins and who sent down the runway in a strapless evening gown of black petals made entirely of leatherized carp, and Vladimir Zubets, whose unconstructed layered earth tones created a chiffon grunge look. In addition to the Couture Association, the event’s sponsors included Vertex, a Russian trading company that imports consumer goods and is involved in the travel business, and Artes, a for-profit Russian cultural association, involved in advertising, TV programming, auctions and promotion for fashion, concerts and other entertainment. Also helping to sponsor the week was the office of the mayor of Moscow.
As for the Western designers participating in the event, some came out of curiosity to see Russia for the first time; some came to explore the market and some to increase their visibility in Moscow, which already has several European ready-to-wear boutiques, including Nina Ricci, Laura Biagiotti, Kenzo, Versace and Trussardi.
Hemant Sagar of Lecoanet-Hemant said, “I did not come with any commercial purpose in mind. I came with a cultural goal, to show Paris couture to a Russian audience. I’m really enthusiastic about Moscow, and my actual goal is to do a collection here for Russians, because I don’t think it’s realistic to make 150 outfits in Paris and expect them all to translate here.
“I haven’t seen a single Russian client in Paris yet, but I’m sure I will see some,” he added. His house, though, does dress one of the prima ballerinas of the Bolshoi Theater.
“Russian couture customers are becoming part of the worldwide micro-market that decides style,” Sagar noted. “You can’t be as sophisticated in Moscow as you can in Paris, but then again, Russia’s style evolution was broken [by 70 years of Communism]. Russians are much more enthusiastic about fashion than Parisians. No one but the press comes to the Paris shows.”
Coveri, meanwhile, came to Moscow to check out the commercial possibilities.
“I think Russia is a big new market,” said Sylvia Coveri, director of Coveri. “It’s an important occasion to test Russian interest in Italian clothes because we have an opportunity to open a boutique here and we are seriously considering it. The sensation one gets in Moscow is of very fast development, in terms of style, and of consumer sophistication and demand.”
Torrente-Mette of Torrente said she finds Moscow to be “a very francophile place.” She noted the house already sees a few Russian couture clients in Paris.
“My role,” she said, “is to demonstrate, to reveal to them what is beautiful and at the same time wearable.”
The Russian women who order couture in Paris are successful businesswomen (some with rich husbands who set them up in business) and the wives of wealthy Russian bankers, brokers, oil and metals traders, and real-estate developers. They go to Paris for their fittings, and many have second homes in such spots as London, Monte Carlo and New York.
On the other hand, the women who order and wear Russian couture, for the most part, are not the same women ordering couture in Paris. The wives of upper- and mid-level politicians wear Zaitsev and Yudashkin, along with some Russian actresses, TV announcers and rock stars.
Zaitsev, 57, who opened his own house in 1982 after serving as a leading designer within the Soviet system for years, is considered the father of Russian couture. His collection included such costume-like looks as Dickensian dusters, velvet stovepipe hats, bellhop pill boxes and cream-colored apron dresses that resembled Russian village frocks — called “sarafan” — of the 18th century.
Yudashkin, 32, is Zaitsev’s former pupil and started his own business in 1993. He has elan, but also a wild imagination. The signature pieces for his latest collection, “Ballet,” shown in Paris last July during couture week, feature thick horizontal channel quilting built into tubes which cover torso, arms and neck.

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