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October 22, 2017
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Ulyana Sergeenko at Milan Fashion Week 2013. Source: fashionmagazine.com.

In just three couture collections - featured alongside big-shot couture houses such as Chanel and Armani Privé, and a star-studded front row fashion designers dream about - photographer-cum-fashion-designer Ulyana Sergeenko has captured Russia's most prevailing cultural elements: the Orthodox church, military, royalty, peasants and fairytales. However, it would seem that these designs have been built upon irony so sharp that much of the fashion industry has overlooked it.

ulyana sergeenko autumn winter 2013 2014

Ulyana Sergeenko A/W 2013-14.
Source: vogue.co.uk.

For Sergeenko, the patchwork of cultural references within her work is of particular importance. "I just want to be a Russian designer. We have a very rich culture. I would love to show to all the world what great history we have[.] I can take and take and take; we have really a lot of things to take from our history," confessed Sergeenko to Style.com's reporter, Nicole Phelps. Indeed, it would appear that when you buy Sergeenko's designs, you are also buying a slice of patriotism.

"Women in Russia were once starved for luxury, and when we finally had access to it, we consumed it a lot. [Now] we are ready for something new, we know that luxury needn't equate [to] gold and diamonds," she explained after her Spring 2013 show to Alice Pfeiffer at Fashionista.com.

But, when it comes to her clothes, and ultimately her brand, Sergeenko explains, she hopes they "show the richness of Russian history and craft, and its delicacy." Sergeenko doesn't simply celebrate Russia, she is also interested in supporting the country: the Ulyana Sergeenko line is designed and produced solely in Russia.

Each of the cultural elements found within Sergeenko's work toys with nostalgia - they are indispensable to Russian history and heritage. She explains in an interview with AnOther Magazine, "For the latest collection [Spring Couture 2013], we were inspired by Medieval Russia. I am proud that we could use some of the traditional techniques that can be traced back to the Middle Ages. We also had Krestetsk embroidery."

"The Krestsy stitch was born in the Novgorod region where craftswomen transferred the whiteness of snow, intricate patterns on frosty glass and views of the winter forest covered with frost onto linen. We used this technique to create the sleeves of the cashmere dress with corset. And then there was hand embroidery with golden canitille, corals and river pearls in the collection - techniques known for centuries and traditional to Orthodox church-wear decoration."

Related: Jacqueline Durran speaks with The Genteel about designing for the award-winning Anna Karenina film.

Women in Russia were once starved for luxury, and when we finally had access to it, we consumed it a lot. [Now] we are ready for something new, we know that luxury needn't equate [to] gold and diamonds.

Indeed there are many references to Russia's tradition, techniques, and peasantry within this collection. Sergeenko's style - one that is highly in demand by Europe's nouveau rich, such as supermodel Natalia Vodinova and the rest of the Russian Fashion Pack - is highly influenced by her "babushka" (grandmother), with a 1950s flare.

The head-coverings and embroidery detailing that often pepper her couture collections, and personal style, are a direct reference to Russian folklore and peasant dress. As are the traditional thick weaves and fabrics found in some of her garments, like the heavy, bell-shaped, grey coat composed entirely of a traditional Russian carpet-weaving pattern.

Not only is Sergeenko influenced by Russia itself, but she is inspired by her own personal history. Born in Ust-Kamenogorsk (USSR), a small, poor town in Kazakhstan, she married a Russian billionaire, and eventually became a fashion Czarina. Sergeenko's grandmother played a key role in her involvement and adoration with couture; she taught Sergeenko how to sew and allowed her to "tweak the conservative practical patterns of Russian fashion," reports Derek Blasberg for HarpersBazaar.com.

It could be assumed that underneath all that fur, silk and jewels remains a small-town girl that credits classic Russian and Western literature, her Soviet upbringing and her grandmother for her design inspiration. Her Spring 2013 collection, for example, is charged with imagery of Western literature, referencing characters like Scarlett O'Hara and Huckleberry Finn.

Ulyana Sergeenko Spring Summer 2013

Ulyana Sergeenko S/S 2013.
Source: behance.net.

However, referring back to the past is not particularly unique; after all, what is fashion if not a continuous recycling of history and nostalgia? Sergeenko herself admits to having been influenced by Dolce & Gabbana's heritage-inspired approach to designing. As she describes to Phelps, "We just returned from Italy, from the Dolce & Gabbana Couture show, and I'm admiring them a lot. For more than 20 years, they are always using something from Italy, from their country's history, and they are doing it perfectly well. They are my idols. I wish I were something like them."

Related: Dolce & Gabbana Artfully Blended Fellini's Chaotic Aesthetic with the Regimented Opulence of the Byzantine Era in A/W 2013 Collection.

What is particularly unique to Sergeenko's collection, though, is the sharp irony that balances precariously upon her use of couture fashion as a platform for exploring the heritage of her homeland. After all, the grand and historic Empire has housed a great divide between royalty and peasants throughout history. For Russia, dressing has been (and still is) a major part of this divide; naturally, the wealthy could often afford luxurious, imported fabrics while the peasants' simple fabrics were instead decorated with various embroidery patterns and weaving in order to create diversity and interest.

When people are paying top haute-couture designer prices to dress in clothes influenced by peasantry, it all feels like a bit of a paradox - and one that the fashion industry seems to have entirely disregarded. Perhaps the luxury price tag makes people wish to turn a blind eye. Or maybe, it is the status of the designer herself. This irony, though, ultimately serves to highlight the contradictory mechanism that is omnipresent in the fashion industry.

Designs are often predicated upon opposing ideas. Modern day designs with historical backgrounds; simple collections with sky-high price tags. It is common, and often controversial. However, in Sergeenko's case, it is in fact this duality and irony that serves to make her clothes both dynamic and dramatic. Perhaps controversy isn't so bad, therefore, if it manages to bring together the broad culture of a divided Empire in a cohesive and beautifully presented catwalk collection.

Related: Russia's White Revolution was a Peaceful Protest Against Vladimir Putin's Third Mandate as Russia's President and the Alleged Gerrymandering Involved in his Election.

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