“On Russian Fashion, Prophets and Grandiosity” Alexander Shumsky

For some, Russian fashion is a progressive, encouraging phenomenon that holds promise and gives reason for hope, but has yet to achieve international recognition. For others, it a purely relative concept considering its widespread imitation of Western models, a fashion of and by copycats, the first of whom was Peter the Great.

Judgments on Russian fashion range from ecstatic raving to critical. In order to address the prospects and phobias, as well as the achievements and complexes of the Russian fashion industry, DEPESHA spoke with Alexander Shumsky, the chief ideologist and producer of Russian Fashion Week.

Very often, «made in Russia» fashion is compared to a child taking baby steps into the world of the global fashion-industry. But sometimes it seems that the West perceives us much more adequately than even we think of ourselves. What is it – self-abasement or coquetry bordering on conceit?

I would put it somewhat differently: The West evaluates this process objectively, as it really is, but we look at it through the prism of personal relationships. In Russia, fashion is the lot of a quite closed-off community. Here, everyone has known each-other for many years: some are friends and some are enemies, some help each-other while others sabotage one another, some love, some like it and some leave it, some lend each other money… The communication system is quite complicated and Byzantine. That’s why our industry «leaders» are often those designers who have not done anything out-of-the-ordinary on the catwalk for years, but nevertheless have traditionally been considered leading figures. Meanwhile, young designers who create fantastic pieces are more likely to become recognized European players or make their careers at great Western Fashion Houses than they would be in our country. Judge for yourself: the Russian Fashion Week season hosts an average of fifty shows. But experts – be they the editors of «glossy» magazines, fashion commentators, or the usual suspects at fashion-parties – by no means attend every show. They «go» to those that they’ve heard about or know about, and more often than not to those that their friends run. And so, there is a certain sense of a good-old-boy network, of things being done behind closed doors. The next thing is that we perceive fashion as a secular event and as form of entertainment, which is partially true. The proverb “No one is a prophet in his own country” is especially true of Russia. Some of our journalists more willingly attend shows in Milan, London, Paris or New York than in our country. In Moscow, those on whom the masses rely in order to keep up with the latest in the industry simply busy themselves with the collections of their friends and acquaintances. Western experts have a fundamentally different approach. They come to us not as tourists, but in order to see and learn something new, and so always try to take in as many Russian shows as they can. They are accordingly more likely to notice young talent. So, figuratively speaking, they do write about Olga Samoschenko in the West. Of course she is also written about in Russia, but not in the way that she merits. There are many such cases. The fact is that, with the exception of Vyacheslav Zaitsev and Valentin Yudashkin, Russian designers are pretty much all on the same footing outside of Moscow, with their names relatively unknown. Meanwhile, Zaitsev and Yudashkin, being today’s honored masters, currently act more to «cement» the existing culture and less to determine contemporary trends. By the way, Vyacheslav Zaitsev puts in a serious contribution to nurturing the creative potential of young designers through his Fashion Lab – where a large number of today’s brilliant designers have been educated. Education is an essential component of the fashion industry, and in my opinion, Zaitsev makes his greatest contribution here.

Clothes by Slava Zaitsev

But returning to public awareness of the players in the industry… We conducted a study, and it turns out that Zaitsev and Yudashkin have the highest rate of renown, while only four or five percent of public name-recognition falls to about a dozen names such as Frantsuzova, Sharov, Dalakyan, Chapurin, Suprun, Tsigal, and Chernitsov. Meanwhile, news on other designers who truly deserve attention but who have come on the scene relatively recently is communicated only among the capital’s fashion community. At RFW [Russian Fashion Week], we try to evaluate designers by their actual deeds. A priori, we have neither darlings nor outsiders. Our objective when putting together the schedule is to make the Week as intense as it can be in an unbiased way. Naturally, those who are just beginning don’t get the prime slots. But, on the other hand, those making their debuts have great incentive to show their talent. For example, when Fresh Art did its first show at RFW, we met with them and saw what they were doing, and immediately put their show on during prime time. And we did not regret it. No Fashion Week could exist without elements of showmanship, the outrageous, or «eye candy». That’s just how Dmitry Loginov started out. And thanks his to talent he immediately «made a splash».

ARSENICUM by Dmitry Loginov

What explains the boom in all things Russian that overtook Europe several years ago and has yet to let up? Maybe it coincided precisely with when our designers finally managed to «make it» in the West?

Our country is now experiencing a renewed wave of interest in it. We made the project international and independent from the start. We spent a lot of time and energy trying to get people to talk about Moscow at least as an interesting phenomenon, if not as a new fashion capital. It’s now time to reap the benefits of such newfound and unusually intense interest. Russia has become one of the highest priority markets, and our designers have attracted attention as representatives of a new school and a new generation. It already makes sense to position oneself in Europe as a «Russian designer». RFW deserves a certain amount of credit for this, as we made international communication a top priority. Now we have support from the federal government – this is a plus, and it does not interfere with our ability to progress ahead. Sensational breakthroughs are yet to come – we are now experiencing an «upswing».

In your opinion, how long will Moscow need in order to become a top fashion destination, and for the domestic fashion industry to boom?

Fashion in Russia is already a large and prosperous industry. But it is still one tapped most intensively by foreign companies. However, Russians themselves have started to see the market opportunities presented in recent years. A wholly other issue is the fact that in order to make large amounts of money, it is necessary to readjust to the point of changing one’s mentality. This is something that, in my opinion, only young designers are capable of. It is quite difficult for Russian designers to make themselves known worldwide with High Fashion collections. Over the past several years, RFW has achieved a state of affairs where Russia now comes to the table as an equal, and no longer finds itself in a subordinate position. From this perspective, our relationship with the National Chamber for Italian Fashion, that is Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, is one of mutually beneficial cooperation between equal partners. However, in comparison with the Italian organization, which is one of the world’s oldest and unites the largest global brands, Russian fashion can be likened to the first green shoots of spring, still quite far from being the overgrown «wild jungle» of Europe. But in terms of positioning, we have achieved a situation where we are regarded with interest and respect. What would need to change in the mentality of the average citizen in order for them to prefer their own country’s designs over the Eurobrand? Russians are already ready to do so. The contemporary Russian designer’s problems lie not in producing, but in selling finished products. There are not enough sales outlets. Furthermore, not all stores that meet designers’ needs in terms of format venture to put Russian collections on sale. They don’t trust Russians to be reliable or on-time suppliers. They fear non-fulfillment of contracts, including non-delivery and defects. There are plenty of examples where the quality of garments produced by even the most renowned masters has left much to be desired. The fashion business requires not so much investment as specialized knowledge of the market and the trade. There are two fundamentally different approaches – the first one is geared towards the mass market (for example, the operations of Sultanna Francuzova or Olga Deffi), while the second one is orientated towards the elite (as with Julia Dalakian or Igor Chapurin). In the first case, potential sales volumes could reach tens of millions of dollars per year (they’ll get there sooner or later).

Clothes by Dasha Gauser

Meanwhile, selling «expensive designers» quickly runs into a wall due to the limited number of «end-users» out there in the world, few of whom will wear the same designer for their entire life. Being the favorite of a few clients will not last you long. In order to make big money, you need to go for the mass-market. Doing so means understanding marketing technologies, and requires specialists and consultants qualified on these issues. That’s the trick. The consumer is willing to support domestic producers, as shown by both Sultanna Frantsuzova and Evgenia Ostrovskaya’s entrance onto the market. The issue of where and by whom clothes are made is no longer all that important to the public. Prada Sport has already moved shop to China, but has in no way stopped being Prada. There are, of course, those orientated towards brands and luxury adverts, but most people just want to buy what they like. We conducted market research among the affluent on this point. Several years ago, brand-name visibility was the main motivation for making a purchase, while now the most important criterion is the subjective impression of «how well the clothes look» when tried on. It’s an issue of comfort and self-realization. That is, the psychology has changed, at least among the social segment that will sooner or later pass on its opinions and tastes to the wider population. People are «fed up» with garish labels and now want their purchases to meet all their needs in full. Pricing is another important aspect of all this. If you want to sell a lot, the price should be affordable. You won’t build up a large business on jeans with a wholesale cost of $200 a pair. Of course, the market is enormous, and any product will sooner or later find its buyer. But even if your stuff gets bought by an influential fashion editor, that’s no carte blanche, nor an assurance of success. Believe me, the business end is not about fashion. Positive indicators in this business are not determined by design or the press’s reaction, but by the amount of «turnover» per square meter. Fashion in our country still remains a extraneous type of entertainment.

Does it ever seem to you that designers whose names become buzz-words tend to quiet down after some time, give up «creating», and rest on their laurels, riding along on the reputations that they had built up over several years, without bringing anything new or interesting into the world? What goes on when their name is already working for them, and it often leads to what is clearly stagnation…

I don’t want to evaluate collections – that’s not my job. What I’m able to do is notice potential and identify it. And when it comes to discovering the creatively gifted, we have yet to make a mistake with anyone. What may happen are rather disruptions in human relations. But perhaps those of whom you speak have no incentive for development. Stagnation can occur when someone lacks professional habits – and a need arises to prove something to someone. But that can happen with any artist. Putting together collections every six months and coming up with something radically new, all while developing a unique style – this is a difficult task. Once Fashion Week has ended, you’ve got to think about the next one, and still tend to your current affairs. Such a rhythm creates a very full schedule. It’s possible that such figures simply fall short in talent, or never had it to begin with, and that the clamor around their names was able to be blown out of proportion by an uncanny ability to effectively mix and mingle with the right people. There are such «players» both in New York and in Milan – with collections that are, to say the least, nothing out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, they are aggrandized inside Manhattan or Milan’s small cliques, outside out of which they are not even considered to be designers. It’s a certain kind of illusion.

But the fact is that just that illusion brings profits and possibilities in New York, while in Russia it threatens to bring financial meltdown and oblivion… The «good-old-boy» system in Moscow fashion seems to be especially overgrown. What’s the reason for such snobbish hyperbolism?

Fashion is egoistic, that’s where it differs from other art forms. That’s why a designer who is practically destitute could fully well act as if he’s the richest man in the world. Meanwhile, it is true that in Moscow everything takes place in an overblown and caricature fashion. In the European context, the grandiosity of many capital-city «fashion representatives» is simply ridiculous and strikes one as parochial and provincial. In the West, nobody working as a mid-level bank clerk at an average-sized bank would be able to afford a Lexus. But that’s possible in Moscow. Once you know the economic underpinnings of the product sales and turnover volumes of most domestic designers, the falseness of the grandiosity becomes clearly apparent.

Psychologists explain excessive grandiosity as arising from personal complexes, with the most clear example being that of the «Soviet mindset». After long years of captivity, freedom is intoxicating and goes to the head….

That is possible. But grandiosity is not mainly a symptom of a hangover from the «old regime». In order to get your foot in the door in any society, you need to clearly express your individuality, accentuate your visual appeal, and have your finances solidly in order. The desire to dress loudly and flashily is much stronger in Russia than anywhere else in the world. This is mainly due to the fact that for a long period of time we had nothing but gray masses. But we’ve already gone through that stage, fifteen years have gone by. Everything has stabilized now. For example, wearing Versace today is no longer a sign that one has good tastes in style. In fact, fashion sets the style for high society. Look at who sets the tone at every banquet and event. The avant garde is composed not of businessmen or even showbiz stars, but models, photographers, fashion editors, promoters, producers, and freaks. Behind them, oligarchs, actors, the «golden youth» et al. are towing the line in a bid to become FASHIONABLE celebrities. Around the world, people from the fashion-community are the trend-setters and leaders – they dictate the trends, set the tone, are catered to, and quoted.

Clothes by Oleg Biryukov

What qualities must a designer have in order for his/her debut at the Russian Fashion Week to be considered successful?

It’s not so much about certain qualities as it is about creative and business potential. A show should not be a one-off event. It’s extremely frustrating when collections are only shown once. Designers themselves don’t get all worked up in order to shape the market. When they miss a season, they put themselves back by about two years. There’s a kind of game that can be observed today: designers endlessly moving and migrating between Russian [Fashion] Weeks – this disturbs the harmonious development of fashion as nationwide phenomenon, and warps it in a way. There’s always someone dizzy with one-off successes, and someone starting to sink into an undeserved grandiosity that has not the slightest creative component behind it. But I consider all of this to be growing pains, something that we’ll get over with time.

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