These women are hard to spot with the common eye. They’re often engulfed by a circle of paparazzi at fashion shows. Ostentatious wardrobes paired with long legs and beautifully contoured faces make these women look ephemeral in pictures. But they aren’t the typical familiar faced, front rower of fashion runways. They live and breathe in politics and money; more so, than a celebrity who merely vouches for a presidential candidate. These women are the Russian “It Girls.”
These women have close connections to the highest rungs of Russian society: from oligarch billionaire husbands to powerful politician fathers. Miroslava Mikheeva Duma is considered one of the most influential trendsetters of the group. She is also the daughter of Russian senator Vasily Duma. Ulyana Sergeenko is married to Russian billionaire Danil Khachaturov. In 2011, she started her own couture line and has gained publicity ever since. Elena Perminova, wife of Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB spy, billionaire businessman, and an anti-corruption campaigner, is a Siberian born stylist who began her career as a model.
The Russian Fashion Pack reflects a greater value that Russians embody which is looking one’s best at all times. As entrepreneur, Aleksandra Efimova explains this cultural phenomenon as ironic. Women in Russia are more likely to prioritize how they look due to first impressions and great presentation rather than comfort and efficiency when getting ready every day, whereas more so in America, the latter seems more important. Whether it’d be going to the grocery store or using public transportation, women in Russia are often donned in beautiful, flamboyant clothing with their hair and makeup done. Made up of women with a keen sense for high end couture, these “It Girls” are at the forefront of fashion in Russia.
The “It Girls” represent a new kind of Russian woman.
“In Soviet Russia there existed ideological and economic obstacles to fashion. Soviet femininity was based on ‘modesty’ and ‘simplicity,’ ‘prettiness and elegance.’ Sexualized fashion was not permitted. Most Soviet women did not know about western ideal of femininity until Gorbachev’s perestroika,” explained Larissa Rudova, Yale B. and Lucille D. Griffith Professor in Modern Languages at Pomona College.
In recent years, she explained, “‘Putin glamour’ challenged the dominant notions of Soviet femininity. The “It” girls like Perminova and Duma are products of Putin “glamour culture” that thrived during the first two terms of his presidency.”
Over the last 23 years since the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia has grown to become one of the world’s most promising markets for fashion. According to Fashion Consulting Group, the country’s fashion market was worth 2,448 billion rubles—roughly 53 billion dollars—in 2013. The next year, however, the market took a turn for the worse as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s isolationist policies combined with the fragile financial climate made the country’s economy plunge. Tariffs have increased on imported goods, certain imports of products were banned altogether, and the international community imposed sanctions in response to Russia’s military actions in Ukraine and Crimea. As a result, the inflation in the country has hiked above eight percent. This economic downturn had a noticeable impact on the fashion market. In the first six months of 2014, Russia’s fashion sales declined by seven to eight percent compared to the same period in 2013.
Moreover, Russian fashion designers have proven that the difficulty of doing business in Russia tends to drive successful and already established designers abroad. Most fashion designers import their materials, and the high import tariffs along with the weak ruble have become too costly. Sergeenko, for instance, does not maintain a showroom in Moscow anymore. In response to sanctions imposed by the international community, the Russian government has imposed import bans on some Western goods. Though this ban currently only applies to food products, Putin has threatened to expand these bans to apparel if Russia is dealt more sanctions, which would jeopardize the market for international fashion retailers operating in Russia.
Retailer New Look announced it was removing its business from Russia because of “political uncertainty.” And other companies from watchmaker Omega to jeweler Pandora have closed their stores in Moscow’s elite Tverskaya Street. What used to be a promising outlook in Russia’s development for the fashion industry has become a shaky and fragile environment for the retail sector.
“Russia is becoming a more complicated and difficult market, therefore it becomes less attractive,” explained Anna Lebsak-Leimans, chief executive of Fashion Consulting Group.
Ekaterina Petukhova, a retail specialist at international consultancy Teere Advisors added that “a great problem is that international companies, international brands, really are reluctant about development in Russia. Because you don’t know what you will have tomorrow.”
However, Harry Broadman, senior fellow at Johns Hopkins’ Foreign Policy Institute maintains that the revelations of western businesses struggling in Russia is nothing new.
Broadman stated, “They’ve been punctuated in the last several years because of the deterioration in the political relationships between the West and Rest as well as the economic sanctions as a result of the aggressive nature with respect to Ukraine.”
He maintains that Russia has always been a challenging business environment.
“The problems stem from intervention by the state whether at the central level or at the city level. The interventions, while still at some extent explicit, they have morphed over the years to implicit whether it’d be the tax-inspective front, questions of bribes, and so forth,” Broadman added. The government in Moscow is “not terribly concerned” with the decline in western businesses because European businesses still present in Russia have not been greatly harmed by these economic sanctions.
In another aspect of Russian fashion, there is a new law consolidating government control of the Russian media by limiting foreign ownership in publications. Thus, Russian versions of Vogue, Glamour, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, Tatler, and Cosmopolitan are in dire need of finding state-backed owners who would most likely hint at a more nationalist ideology in the publications. Jana Reynolds recalled that when Vogue Ukraine was first published it was so highly politicized that it became clear.
“Fashion isn’t just fashion in countries like Russia and Ukraine, but rather has the incentive to become more and more nationalized,” explained Reynolds.
The “It Girls” represent a meeting point between fashion and national government. In the state-controlled newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, an article put the Russian “It Girls” on blast, criticizing them for their bad influence and unpatriotic ways. The article manipulated Sergeenko’s words about street photography, Duma was criticized for not attending a showcase of young Russian talent at a recent Fashion Week in Milan, and Perminova was criticized by an incident that occurred when she was the mere age of sixteen.
What used to be the glamorous image of the “It Girls” is now becoming more patriotically oriented. As Mercedes Benz Fashion Week organizer Alexander Shumsky explained, there seems to be a focal change from ostentatious nature of style street stars toward local talent.
Maroussia Zaitseva, a new fashion designer, debuted her line during 2014 Russian Fashion Week and included a notable aspect of the Sochi Olympics by introducing a barbell-shaped handbag, the ‘must-have of the week.’ Zuhra Fashion brand increased its popularity after including Putin’s portrait along with patriotic and military symbols on its clothing. Top fashion designers have been designing uniforms for the government as well. For instance, Valentin Yudashkin designed a collection of fashion forward military uniforms. The brand, A La Russe, used the wife and children of politician Vladislav Surkov as models. As president’s chief ideologist, Sukov is an image of Putin’s rule. This ubiquitous sympathy towards the government is what the newspaper, Novaya Gazeta calls “patriotic glamour.”
Fashion has also become a tool of foreign policy. As Russia launched its campaign in Syria last fall in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, so too did an army of designers. It is no surprise to see Russians wearing shirts that feature Russian warplanes and slogans like “Support Assad” splashed across them. And no patriotic ensemble would be complete without Putin himself. His face and undressed torso can be found printed prominently across t-shirts, bikinis, bomber jackets, and of the like.
As Behnke stated, “[such merchandise] is normalizing the military aspect of Russia.” Fashion has evolved as a mechanism for the Ministry of Defense to propagate propaganda.
Russia’s socially conservative mindset also bleeds through into fashion. Government-backed newspapers have denounced ‘hipsters’ as assimilating to the West and therefore unpatriotic. Homosexuals have had a particularly difficult time displaying their sexuality. This results in an interesting double standard: while many gay designers are revered by Russians, they are also belittled and looked down upon for being gay.
A few years ago, Reynolds attended a London Fashion Week event that featured a program of Russian fashion films. After the feature, a question was asked with regards to the homosexual propaganda laws in Russia. The predominantly Russian audience erupted in a storm of anger as they did not see what such a law had anything to do with the discussion on fashion.
“Russia is one of the most restrictive and anti gay countries within the European countries,” said Andreas Behnke, professor in international theory at the University of Reading and author of The International Politics of Fashion: Being Fab in a Dangerous World. There is the issue of Russian fashionistas showing off their clothing, some of which are designed by those that belong to the LGBT community, but at the same time not recognizing and even sometimes denouncing a part of a designer’s identity: His or her sexual orientation.
However, not all Russian artists abide and conform towards the conservative and political norm of Russia. Rudova stated, “although Russian designers use fashion for expressing their political loyalty to Putin’s Russia, others use political symbolism ironically or for fun.” One of the most prominent of which is Pussy Riot, a band that has repeatedly produced music which includes lyrics that go against the established Putin regime along with introducing more feminist and liberal ideas. Behnke explains, “Both in terms of [Pussy Riot’s] music artistry and the way they dress is anti-Putin and even anti-church. [Their music] has picked up on the close relationship between the government and the Orthodox church.”
Such opposition does not go unnoticed. Members of Pussy Riot have been severely denounced by the establishment and have gone to prison. Behnke added, “They are marginalized as is most of the opposition in Russia.” Though Pussy Riot has, according to Rudova, “popularized colorful balaclavas as a symbol of subversion and resistance to Putin’s power,” Putin has had phenomenal success at subverting such opposition whether it’d be explicitly or implicitly.
As for what the citizens of Russia think of their future in this society? While there is no accurate polling of what they think, courtesy of censorship under Putin, what can be said is the current leadership is stable and won’t be replenished any time soon. Behnke explained, “[Putin] has the support of most of the economic leaders because their wealth depends on him and above all the Orthodox church,” which lends a different facet of legitimacy towards his rule.
The Russian “It Girls’s” lack of a legitimate vocal muscle inhibits them to have any significant impact on the people of Russia. But the evolution of this form of art which is now finding President Putin’s hyper-masculinity more appealing along with his international political actions begs the question: Can creativity still prevail in a growing conservative society?