Fashion

How To Dress Like A Russian Oligarch's Wife

The Russians have come—to the runway shows, that is. Valerie Stivers Isakov unpacks the matryoshka doll–like meaning nestled in the transfixing fashionomenon

The Editor: Anya Ziourova; Photo by Anthea Simms

The Editor: Anya Ziourova; Photo by Anthea Simms

I remember the moment that I realized Russians would eventually win the fashion game. I predicted today, when tastemakers Tommy Ton and Scott Schuman would be stalking Russian teenagers around Paris and designers Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano and Vera Wang would be reaching into the tundra for inspiration as a matter of course. Take note, Canadian devchonski! Before long, we will all be incorporating concepts such as babushka and constructivist-inspired into our style vocabularies and posting vines from Gostiny Dvor. The girls the world is watching—designers Vika Gazinskaya and Ulyana Sergeenko, stylist and editor Anya Ziourova, models, socialites, digital curators such as Elena Perminova, Dasha Zhukova and Miroslava Duma—are merely the vanguard.

The Journalist, Miroslava Duma; Photo by Anthea Simms

The Journalist, Miroslava Duma; Photo by Anthea Simms

The Couturier, Ulyana Sergeenko; Photo by Getty Images

The Couturier, Ulyana Sergeenko; Photo by Getty Images

I saw the future sometime in the mid-2000s while shopping on the fifth floor of TSUM, which is like the Barneys or Harvey Nichols of Moscow. I was searching, in vain, for a nosebleed-expensive garment that would deign to allow me to shove my elephantine size 8 frame within. Russian women with the money for high fashion just weren’t size 8s, no matter how tall they were. The salesgirls trembled when I asked for a medium. My quest to shop was futile, so I had time to contemplate TSUM’s brand representation, selection and mix, and what it all said for the future of Russian fashion.

People back then accused Russians of being all-money-no-taste, without a look of their own. But I thought they already had one. I saw a precise, formal, feminine aesthetic that loved sexiness, colour, statement and risk, and wore it with total commitment. TSUM had a wing of furs and a Pandora’s box of lingerie on the same floor with the Marni dresses and Chloé bags. This was an arena where you had failed if every piece of your outfit wasn’t perfect.

There’s power in that much ambition, especially if you have the money to pull it off and your genetic makeup tends toward the gorgeous. My Russian husband, dismissively but very Russianly, says that Natalia Vodianova isn’t anything special, she’s “like any girl you’d see in a market in Irkutsk.”

All that was left to achieve world fashion domination was to bring their own culture into it and stop apologizing for trying too hard.

The Model, Elena Perminova; Photo by Getty Images

The Model, Elena Perminova; Photo by Getty Images

That’s just what’s happening now. The current flock, dubbed the “Russian Fashion Pack,” are inspiring women worldwide (also check out their awesome social media feeds). The New York Times claimed it would “be difficult to overstate the impact that this clique of young Russian women…is having on fashion.” At home, “They are our heroes,” Oksana On, fashion director of Russian Glamour told me. “They have brought Russian fashion to a new level.”

Their success is widely being seen as a “very entertaining Cinderella story,” Gazinskaya tells me. The world knows that during Soviet times “people did not have fashion or even a single fashion magazine before their eyes,” she says. And then, what came after was a tacky, blingy ’90s, when the Russian woman consumed indiscriminately, often wearing so many pieces from the same line that she looked like “Chanel threw up on her,” as I remember one journalist at the time remarking. Even today, all the same coverage that touts the Russians can’t help but mention the “tight and bright” ’90s, as The Telegraph put it. Gazinskaya is vehement that this narrative unfairly blames Russians for lack of taste. “To me, it’s not at all funny when people mock our women (and men too) for the ’90s…From where were people supposed to learn how to dress?” she wrote to me in an email. “In just 20 years Russians have learned to dress wonderfully.”

She’s right, though I would argue they’ve just gotten reacquainted with what was already in their DNA. Her clique draws from Russia’s incredibly rich visual culture—responsible for stunning archives of folk, constructivism and socialist-realism design, not to mention the film, cartoons and fairy tales. Sergeenko’s tweaks on folk caps, headscarves and felt booties, reconceived as high heels, have become Pinterest sensations.

The abstract, sculptural shapes of the dresses from Gazinskaya’s Spring 2013 collection (just introduced at The Room at the Bay) recall constructivist painting, and the patchwork fabric brings in the hand-sewing skills of every Russian grandmother. Meanwhile, the patterns, taken from sketches from airplane windows, are as modern and jet-set as the country’s present. And a Gazinskaya top with an oversized, trompe l’oeil neckline is both a clever send-up of the Russian bling-addict cliché, and what that springs from— the 17th-century tsarist style of court clothes and architecture (eye-feast on the Nativity Church at Putinki’s elaborately iced towers to understand).

The Designer, Vika Gazinskaya; Photo by Getty Images

The Designer, Vika Gazinskaya; Photo by Getty Images

The Philanthropist, Dasha Zhukova; Photo by Getty Images

The Philanthropist, Dasha Zhukova; Photo by Getty Images

Duma, who runs the fashion website Bureau 24/7 and is a senator’s daughter, and Perminova, a model and girlfriend of political figure Alexander Lebedev, wear and promote their friends’ designs along with luxury lines, as does Ziourova, creative consultant for Allure Russia and fashion director at Tatler Russia. They never shy from mixing one showstopper (i.e. a colour-blocked Céline coat) with a witty accessory (i.e. a pink fuzzy toque) or wearing a sculptural silk-brocade minidress with bedhead hair. Ensemble, they bring a delicious counterpoint to the too-cool-for-school French icons, Julia Restoin Roitfeld et al., with braver, more unapologetically feminine statements. “It’s a mosaic of beautiful pieces,” says Anna Gorina, a Russian insider who designs the Bleu De Moi luxury fashion line.

There’s also the deeply Russian reverence for intelligence. Ask a Russian about her clothes and you’ll get a tale about ideas. On told me that the strongest aspect of Sergeenko’s look is that “she’s very educated, she has two advanced degrees. It’s not about how much money you have to buy Dior, it’s about…what books you read.”

Controversy—and there is lots of it—tends to dwell on the legitimacy of the Russian Fashion Pack’s virtuosity. Are they trendsetters, or just women with teams of dressers and labels who lend, or pay them to wear, their latest pieces? Is their runway approach to street style missing the point?

“I don’t think they are ambassadors of Russian style, I think they are ambassadors of Russian attitudes towards presenting oneself,” Andrey Abolenkin, a Moscow-based fashion consultant told FLARE. “It has nothing to do with the inclinations and personal tastes of the wearer. You present yourself in the best position, a person who is in constant touch with the hottest, in-your-face, immediately recognizable trends.”

The individual artistry the RFPs put on even a mono-designer look casts doubt on Abolenkin’s dismissive remarks, but they did remind me of a Julia Ioffe profile of Zhukova, written for The New Yorker, which describes her subject as having “almost virtuosic uncommunicativeness” with “an entirely neutral expression reminiscent of an empty tide pool.” The pristinely haute, magpie fashion Zhukova has been at the forefront of could be seen as an extension of this particular culturally specific implacability—peacocking as a facade behind which one can remain Unknowable Woman—as much part of a myth or fairy tale as reality. Or, even further from our Western perspective, an acceptance of reality as a construct we build out of myth and surface.

It’s fascinating to see a group of elites—and every one of these women is either the daughter of a rich man, married to a rich man, or both—working so hard. “I have huge respect for what they’re doing” Gorina says. “They are very driven, they are married but they’re also creating their own careers. It’s not just for their own vanity.”

Wherever you fall on the RFP— rich phonies, entrepreneurial feminists, or simply the latest iteration of the global aristocracy—you must admit it’s new (the lifeblood of fashion!), and a delight to be at the ringside seats (or tablet on couch!) watching the show and plucking wardrobe ideas. How else would I have known that the sweet red poncho I picked up on my last trip to Toronto calls for an oversized cloche? Na zdorovie!

Get The Look: Haute-Feminine Russian Magpie

Anya Ziourova, Vika Gazinskaya and other Russian fashion insiders gave us tips!

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Statement Pieces: Start with a bold, feminine item with patterns and colour.

Ted Baker London dress, $200, tedbaker.com.

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Designer Staples: Score a biker jacket from a luxury house. “They [all] make one every season,” says Ziourova, who swears by them.

Christopher Kane jacket, net-a-porter.com.

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Quality Accessories: Adorn yourself with panache. “You can always get good brands of shoes and bags on sale,” says Gazinskaya, whose favourite heels are Jason Wu. “If you have the desire, it will work out!”

Jason Wu heels, jasonwustudio.com.

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Done-Up Casualwear: Go luxe, even for basics. Ziourova recommends sweats from 3.1 Phillip Lim.

3.1 Phillip Lim sweatshirt, $565, net-a-porter.com.