Born and raised in Eastern Europe, my mother once confessed to me that she chose to become a fashion designer because there weren't any beautiful clothes in that part of the world. Cheap fabrics and improper tailoring were the norm. Seldom would clothes look and feel luxurious unless you were from either Ukrainian or Russian millionaire pedigree.
Russia's cultural landscape changed dramatically after WWII and with the rise of the USSR as a world superpower. Amongst the reasons was the significant art looting by the Nazis, leaving private collectors and government-owned museums completely hollowed out. A failed artist himself, Adolf Hitler ordered his troops to strip Slavic countries of their cultural heritage. By the end of the war, Hitler's private collection totalled more than 6,000 pieces. After WWII, a majority of the artworks were gradually returned to their rightful owners, however, many were destroyed or simply lost due to the post-war chaos. For years, the victims of the Nazi plunder struggled to reclaim and conserve their cultural property - and the heritage of their nations.
|Miroslava Duma in a Vika Gazinskaya
at Paris Fashion Week F/W 2012.
Photograph by Francois Reinhart.
By the time the Soviet Union had collapsed in 1991, Russian society was struggling to stay afloat after a century of Bolshevik rule, Stalin's mass destruction, the ruins of two world wars and the Cold War. History reveals that without art there is no humanity, and without humanity, fashion is pointless.
For most citizens living behind the Iron Curtain, however, there was little to no room for self-expression through fashion and art collecting - in fact, there was no money for luxury full stop. Those that could afford to purchase artwork or dress well often had to travel to Western Europe or North America - a privilege ironically afforded to the wealthy elite minority - due to scarce resources for authentic art and well-made clothing. Russian society dimmed the lights on commercial art in all its forms and focused on developing its economy through natural resources, such as steel, instead.
Russia's cultural freeze-over has recently started to melt, reinvigorated by the hands of some of Russia's youngest, most ambitious and well-resourced individuals. The Gorky Central Park of Culture and Leisure is a paradigm example of this emerging movement; once upon a time, the park was an ideal social and cultural gathering place - complete with attraction rides and theatrical performances. But by 1989, the park was completely neglected as gangs frequented the once bustling space for shootouts.
Out of this bleak and lifeless mist came Dasha Zhukova; one of the world's wealthiest art collectors, a fashion designer, editor-in-chief of Garage magazine, and founder of the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow. Earlier this year, Zhukova announced that she would be moving the Garage Center to a prefabricated concrete building from the 1960s, situated within the park. With the help of architect Rem Koolhaas, combined with her passion for the arts, Zhukova is working hard to inject life back into Gorky Park, and ultimately, into Russia's art scene.
Zhukova elaborated in Newsweek, insisting that the Garage Centre will be a "center for contemporary culture…This is the new Russia…I hope this project will give Russia a new identity, an identity that will take everything the country has been through and bring it into 2012." Newsweek's Peter Pomerantsev recently reported: "Now Gorky [Park] is rejuvenated. Entry is free again. There are open-air cinemas, indie-rock festivals, Wi-Fi, and beach volleyball. The park is full of shiny, happy, pretty Muscovites…And soon Garage will sit among all this: Wi-Fi, beach-volleyball, and modern-art utopia. Squint hard and you can see a vision of what Moscow, what Russia, could perhaps one day be."
But the unfreezing of Russia's cultural landscape isn't bound to the homeland. Modern "Czarinas" - as the New York Times refers to them - are leaving a lasting impression on the global culture scene. Miroslava Duma, fashion writer and consultant, as well as editor and founder of Buro 24/7, is regularly spotted at fashion weeks and has caught the eye of Vogue, the New York Times, Jak & Jil, The Sartorialist, The Coveteur and countless fashion blogs. Duma has been stamped by the blogosphere as the Russian It girl.
Amongst Duma sits Ulyana Sergeenko (former model, couture collector and now emerging fashion designer), Elena Perminova (model and Sergeenko's close friend), Vika Gazinskaya (Russian fashion designer and Duma's close friend) and Anya Ziourova (stylist and fashion director for Russian Tatler). These fashionistas seem to have no restrictions when it comes to budget - and designers and their bank balances have taken notice.
New York Times writer Eric Wilson reported that, according to Karl Lagerfeld, "some Russian clients have bought as many as 35 Chanel couture outfits, which typically have prices in the five and six figures" in one given season. Further, "...designers in Paris increasingly cater to Russian customers. Two years ago, Jean Paul Gaultier took his entire couture show directly to Moscow…This season, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, who are presenting their first couture effort, asked the editors of Tatler to recommend Russian clients to invite to the show in Sicily on July 9," Wilson explained.
|Ulyana Sergeenko's Russian-inspired
haute couture for F/W 2012.
Besides being capacious spenders, these women are also turning heads because of their daring, yet timeless fashion sense. Ziourova told Wilson that it is the fashion risk-taking that differentiates Russian buyers from other consumers, "Nothing is too preppy. Nothing is too bright."
Fashion forward and creatively unrestricted, the girls of the Russki-Epoch seem to stick together. However, every pack needs a leader. Style.com has named Sergeenko the "unofficial mascot" of the glamorous Russki women. Recently Sergeenko debuted her first couture collection in Paris. The turnout underlined the world's enchantment with the Russian sartorial pack. Besides the roster of Czarinas, notables such as Carine Roitfeld, Grace Coddington and Patrick Demarchelier christened the show with their presence. It is undeniable that Sergeenko's F/W 2012 collection is heavily inspired by everything Russian - military coats and detailing, babushkas, luxurious furs and wooden heels make it quite clear that she is proud of her heritage.
The re-energising of Russia's cultural sphere, through art centres and fashion, affirms that history does repeat itself in positive bursts. History tells us that art equates to power and that robbing a culture of its art strips a nation's soul. The Czarinas that are recharging Russia's cultural scene offer affirmation; finally a generation that places great importance in the development of its country through both art and style.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Russki-Epoch has just begun.
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