A tall glass of water in grey drainpipe trousers and a single breasted jacket examines a freshly-painted wooden matryoshka doll shell in his colour-splashed hands. Besides him, a group of hipsters finger the delicate Orenburg lace decorating the czarina figurines on display. We’re on the second level of the Neoclassical-style Central Manezh building in Moscow, adjacent to (currently freezing) Red Square. It’s Day Two of the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. As the runway shows – over 10 per day across five days – continue on the ground level, grim-faced pr girls in all-black ensembles and social media mavens take a break from their phones to dabble in art therapy, peruse folk crafts and attend lectures at the Russian Art Heritage set-up.
From the 80 designers showcasing their Spring Summer 2017 collection at the event, there’s a heady dose of native inspiration. Even as they look to break into the Western market, the country’s best known designers have made their fame and fortune channelling the dramatic opulence of Russian royalty for their client base of mink-loving oligarchs. Like Alena Akhmadullina; the Moscow-based designer has dressed the likes of Naomi Campbell and Eva Green with her signature fur embellished knits. Despite her foray into subdued wraps and shifts, her SS2017 collection returns to familiar territory, Russian folklore and fairytales - the runway was trussed up like a magical forest for her show – with featuring comfortable silhouettes amped up with patchwork fur trims, complex embroideries and trompe-l'œil effects and embroideries in emerald green, lilac, turqousie and gold.
The patriotic theme is on a high with the latest collection from the grand dame of fur couture, Julia Dilua, presented as a theatrical performance inspired Leo Tolstoy's novels. Like modern day Anna Kareninas at a chic chi ball, models stride onto the runway in fur coats, mantels and evening wraps made of sable, lynx, fox and mink.
For a more modern aesthetic with oomph Russian accents and a more political than physical connect to the nation’s current climate, there’s Julia Nikolaevato turn to. Her two decades old hugely popular eponymous label favours sleek silhouettes and sheer fabric with graphic tops and glossy jackets. Moving towards the au courant grunge trend, the label’s SS 17 collection stars cold-shoulder transparent blouses, floor length asymmetrical dresses and neat trenches, with feminine details of it like fur shrugs, feathered collar accents and bustier tops with fur accents. Nikolaeva’s 21st century interpretation of Russian heritage is reminiscent of designer, blogger and all-season it girl, Ulyana Sergeenko whose Spring couture collection marries two eras merged two time periods - Russia just before the fall of Communism (thereby making the 80s a legit hot theme du jour) and the turn of the 20th century - with a mood board encompassing Madonna, Boy George and eccentric Russian noble Nikolay Yusupov.
Too cool for old school
“We want our young designers to be inspired by traditional crafts and make them trendy on a global stage” says Alexander Schumsky, as we sip champagne while discussing his maiden trip to India,where he encountered Russian prints at a luxury decor store in Mumbai. TheExecutive President of the Russian Fashion Council and President of Fashion Week is bullish on creating a global identity for Russian fashion, one that can absorb and simultaneous move on from fur-clad socialites, breathtaking Rostov Finift enamelled accessories and the shadow of the legendarySlava Zaitsev, the first Soviet designer to show his collection at the Haute Couture Week in Paris way back in 1988 and have his art works displayed at Moscow’s stunning Tretyakov Gallery. Schumsky says the government – more than any other European state – is actively working on reducing export barriers and encouraging young talent to break out of the local market, however lucrative, and make a mark as a global Russian brand.
I visit the compact atelier of designer Vera Kostyurina on Ilyinka Street to get a feel of the new fashion vanguard. The soft spoken designer, an alumnus of ‘the Polimoda institute in Florence, pulls out cheery egg yolk chiffon blouse zippered through in the middle along with jackets, tops and dresses from her Spring 2016 ‘Alice in Won derland’ themed collection. . Her ‘quatro-sided’ technology is patented in Russia and shows up in tops and men’s jackets that can be worn four ways. That night, just before her show, I wave out to her as she lurks near the runway to run up, twist, knot and zip her garments on the models as they walk back up Back home after flamingo embellishments and Cheshire cat motifs, the new collection owes its vibrant colour palette – yellow, green, orange and scarlet red –and splashes of sequins to Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Firebird.
While Kostyurina is dressed on and off ramp in black and gray work clothes, Dasha Gauser can pass off as one of the tall leggy models poured into her figure hugging custom-print sheaths. I meet the yoga-loving designer – one of the most successful; fashion enterpreneurs in Moscow - at her loft-style studio over afternoon tea with sweet and flaky Ukranian halva. Reed thin and curvy at the same time, Gauser is wearing a blue and white sheath printed with names of countries, from her new travel-themed collection. Structured jumpsuits, trousers and skirts in cotton, wool, linen and silkand a whole load of accessories bear map prints and luggage tags. Like Kostyrina, Gauser has a brand new ecommerce website, and is reaching out towards a contemporary jet-setting client base from across the world.
The third designer on my radar is Lena Karnauhova, who’s more than a bit of a creative engineering disciple. I miss her show, but a browse through the designer’s Instagram account reveals more border-busting appeal – sensually flowing, satiny dresses, trenches and skirts with minimum tailoring that rely on mathematical precision in folding to achieve maximum fluidity. Her show-closing scarlet dress, devoid of any fur accents or embellishments – is sensational.