Byline: Sara Gay Forden

MOSCOW — She came, she showed and she conquered.
Accompanied by the strains of Italian arias and current pop tunes, 40 Russian models paraded Laura Biagiotti’s latest creations before an audience of thousands inside the Kremlin. The fashion spettacolo, which included classical ballet and folk dancing, prancing Russian children and video projections of Biagiotti’s Milan shows, was the first show of its kind put on in Moscow by a Western designer.
Moreover, Biagiotti’s Russian apotheosis took place in the same cavernous hall that just a few years ago was the imposing seat of the Soviet Communist Party Congress.
“This was more than just a fashion show,” said a tired but satisfied Biagiotti afterward. “This is part of an evolution of a new culture. Every time I think of those 40 angelical Russian models walking down the runway in the Kremlin, I think their political leaders of the past must be turning over in their graves.”
“This was a discovery for us,” said 19-year-old student Nastiya Chernitskaya, who attended the show along with her mother. “These are clothes that can be worn every day. They are accessible to me, not like haute couture.”
The show was followed by an immense buffet of caviar, salmon and other delicacies for some 1,500 guests — including top political and cultural figures, as well as members of the diplomatic and business community — in an expansive ballroom upstairs from the hall.
Later that evening, the show was broadcast by state television networks to an audience of some 200 million people in Russia and the former Warsaw Pact countries.
For the fashion show/extravaganza, Biagiotti shipped over projectors, three huge video screens, a director and technical crew, and models Pat Cleveland and Dong Mei — not to mention a flock of journalists and some 200 Biagiotti outfits from the fall-winter ’95 and the spring-summer ’95 collections.
The entire four-day undertaking, which cost Biagiotti some $350,000 to stage, was not only the realization of the designer’s personal dream, but also the spearhead of an ambitious expansion program being developed by her husband, Gianni Cigna, chairman of the Laura Biagiotti fashion house.
“They say he who hits first, hits twice,” chuckled Cigna during the flight home to Italy from Moscow. “I want to make Laura become the best-known designer in Russia.”
His first step was to open — along with business partner Tino Fontana — a Laura Biagiotti boutique in Moscow a year ago in the Radisson Slvjanskaya Hotel. The store was so successful that after just five months, they had to triple the merchandise order, Cigna said.
The boutique, which carries Biagiotti’s top women’s line as well as accessories at prices ranging from $300 to $3,000, currently turns over some $700,000 in annual sales, which Cigna expects to double over the next year. Furthermore, he plans to bring over the Biagiotti Uomo men’s line and the children’s line by the end of the year.
So far, Biagiotti’s total investment in the Russian market, including the boutique opening and the fashion show, has been about $500,000, a figure Cigna says he expects to recover in the next year and a half. Cigna and Fontana plan to open another boutique in the city of Kazan in April, while a third store is slated for St. Petersburg by the end of the year.
“Our plan is to open a total of 20 boutiques in Russia between 1995 and 1998,” said Fontana, an Italian businessman who travels back and forth between Italy and Russia, and who also opened the Trussardi boutique just down the hall from Biagiotti in the Radisson.
Why such prospects of success for a designer who is popular, but not among the top five, in a country that up to now, at least, has been more noted for its political turmoil than its fashion sensibilities? One of the main reasons, according to observers of Russian society today, is the birth of the novyh ruskih (newly rich) class that wants to flaunt its new-found status.
Some signs of the times: Consumer spending jumped 15 percent last year, while the number of cars in Moscow alone quadruples each year, according to Moscow-based consultant Craig Kennery.
“There is lots of money involved here,” explained Svetlana Kunitsina, a journalist who covers cultural events for NTV, a private Russian television channel. “There is a hunger for fashion, but it has been taken to an extreme. The impulse for beauty and glamour is tremendous, something like it was in the West during the 1980s.
“Life is difficult here because of the dramatic changes that have taken place, so people look to so-called ‘normal’ things like food and clothing,” she went on. “The problem is that the products are either incredibly cheap or incredibly expensive. There still isn’t anything in the middle; it is still very much a society of extremes. The middle class hasn’t really developed yet.”
“Russians have become some of the biggest customers of fashion, particularly of haute couture,” concurred Yelena Miasnikowa, the Russian co-editor in chief of Cosmopolitan’s Russian edition, which has been unexpectedly successful and currently fetches three or four times the newsstand price on the second-hand market. “We don’t really have an upper class, we just have people who have lots of money,” said Miasnikowa, who pointed out that those who can’t find what they want in Moscow fly regularly to Paris for their clothes.
One reason why Biagiotti stands to be a success is because she has moved quickly to get into the Russian market at the beginning of the designer boom.
“The designers who are the first here will easily become the most popular because people know them,” said Miasnikowa. “Biagiotti was already present with the boutique, and now after this show, everybody will know her name — and people buy names.”
Another thing going for Biagiotti is that Russian women like her product — it works in a cold, snowy climate where elegance can be extremely inconvenient.
“I’d like to have her designs in my wardrobe because it’s fine knitwear, which works well in this climate, and because it’s comfortable. It’s white and light and feels good on your body,” said Evelyn Kchromchenko, a self-described fashion observer who attended the Biagiotti show.
And those who can’t afford Biagiotti’s cashmere sweaters and suits may find her fragrances more accessible.
“All the efforts to promote the core business in prêt-à-porter help support the licensing business, including the perfume,” explained Klaus Roeser, vice president of Biagiotti Inter AG, which controls Biagiotti’s licensing operations.
“While with the clothing you’re talking about thousands, in the perfume industry you’re talking about millions,” he added. Procter & Gamble, which produces and distributes the Biagiotti fragrances, already distributes her Roma, Venezia and Roma Uomo fragrances in Russia, where the Biagiotti fragrance business currently amounts to roughly $4 million (out of total net perfume sales in Russia of roughly $156 million). Venezia Uomo is expected to be introduced this year, while her newest fragrance, Laura, will be brought in next year, Roeser said.
But Biagiotti’s Russian adventure isn’t only about business.
“Russia has remained in my heart — this isn’t just a flirt, but a deep love,” the designer said.
“I can truly say it felt as though we helped kill the beast — fashion is a big part of democracy and liberty,” she added. “Those of us who live in the Western world are a bit spoiled, but the support of the fashion world is very important for us, as it is for women everywhere.”