Byline: Natasha Singer

MOSCOW — The first lady of Russia, Ludmila Putin, wanted to attend the opening of the country’s first Chanel ready-to-wear outlet, so her security team called Alla Verber, retail director of the Moscow Trading House, and suggested the Russian secret service secure the site by closing the boutique to the public and barring traffic from the eight-lane thoroughfare in front of the store.
“But we couldn’t let down our clients,” said Verber. “Chanel is a magical name for Russians. She’s the first foreign designer people knew of, even in the Soviet era. We’d invited hundreds of people already. So, we couldn’t close the street or the store. Instead, we invited Mrs. Putin to join the celebration.”
The wife of the Russian president was about the only local dignitary who did not roll up in a chauffeured sedan and cross the beige double-C logo carpet under the klieg-lighted marquis to reach the ground-floor 2,150-square-foot Chanel in-store shop, which has its own entrance, within the Moscow Trading House. The French ambassador sipped champagne while Moscow’s fashion elite checked out Chanel’s luxuriously minimalist new-look boutique with its glass shelves, lacquered black walls and mirrors.
Moscow Trading House is an upscale department store that comprises lots of in-store shops and corners for selected products from labels such as Fendi, Gucci, Dior and Dolce & Gabbana.
For Muscovites, the opening of the country’s first Chanel megacorner is significant not only because it’s the first outlet here that offers the house’s suits and outerwear, but also because of the French label’s Russian connection. In addition to Coco Chanel’s friendships with Serge Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky and Grand Duke Dmitri, a cousin of the Russian czar, and the fact that his sister, Princess Maria, directed Chanel’s embroidery atelier in the Twenties, Moscow’s fashion forward are aware of Chanel’s 1922-1924 “Russian period,” in which she experimented with elaborate embroideries, peasant shapes and Byzantine-style jewelry. Many others also know that the czar’s perfumer, Ernest Beaux, who had spent most of his youth in St. Petersburg, created the house’s signature fragrances. Continuing the tradition, Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld has regaled the Russian press with stories of his merchant father’s ventures in Siberia in the early 20th century and with nostalgia for his own Russian nanny. So, Russian shoppers feel Chanel has, in a sense, finally come home.
“We’ve had a tiny accessory corner in the Moscow Trading House for the last five years, but we wanted to do here what we do in all the major capitals of the world, which is offer access to the whole range of Chanel products,” said Marie-Louise de Clermont Tonnere, Chanel’s general director of foreign relations, who was here for the opening along with Carole Bouquet, the actress and Chanel spokesmodel. The in-store shop carries the full range of purses, shoes, jewelry, cosmetics and fragrances, along with a more limited range of knitwear, suits and outerwear.
“About 10 years ago, we started seeing Russian clients in West Berlin. They came there and paid cash. A few years later, Russians started coming to the three Riviera boutiques, in Cannes, Nice and Monte Carlo. Then they started coming to Paris. I’m not sure they understand the idea of simplicity in fashion, but what they do understand is logomania. And we understood that it was time to open in Moscow,” de Clermont Tonnere related. Five years ago, when the Moscow Trading House devoted 270 square feet to Chanel, “the store was besieged by women from all over Russia, Ukraine, Siberia, Kazakhstan, who wanted to have anything Chanel — a bag, shoes, pearls, a camellia, even hair clips. Then a few years ago, we expanded to 1,076 square feet. Now that we have the whole range, our clients no longer have to travel abroad to get the clothes on the Rue Cambon,” said Verber, adding “Chanel retains the mystique it had in the Soviet period when Chanel No. 5 was catastrophically hard to find and you could only get it under the table, but everyone still wanted it.”
Chanel’s fragrances are no longer hard to get here, though they remain sought-after. The company has 38 doors for fragrances and cosmetics in Russia, including 11 in Moscow and six in St. Petersburg and plans to add another four doors in Russia by the end of the year. There are also seven points of sale in neighboring Ukraine, three in Georgia, six in Kazakhstan and two in Azerbaijan.
“It’s normal already for Chanel to open in Moscow. We opened in China last November and we knew that there was opportunity here with the nouveaux riches and the new economy. We had to be here,” de Clermont Tonnere observed.
Asked whether a stand-alone Chanel boutique could be in Moscow’s future, she said that “the time for a Russian flagship is not yet.”
She pointed out, however, “We’ll be opening more stores in China and, of course, we haven’t even looked at India yet.”