How Russia's new super rich are buying cool - Guardian
I thought this was a really interesting article about shopping and luxury brands in Russia and their move away from head to toe designer dressing. It starts off talking about the designers behind Kova & T and then moves on. From Sunday 13/01/08 Guardian.
Meet Dasha Zhukova. Young, gorgeous, ridiculously wealthy in her own right (thanks to her father's massive fortune) and the girlfriend of one of the wealthiest men in the world, the owner of Chelsea FC, Roman Abramovich. Zhukova, 26, is something else, too: a major force in the fashion world. Her label, Kova & T, sells in over 70 stores around the world and Zhukova rides the vanguard of a new style revolution - post-Soviet glamazons with a mission to prove that Russians are the biggest and best luxury consumers on the planet.
Russians don't do things by halves. In the mid-1990s Russia's nouveaux riches gained a reputation for their fascination with diamonds, logos and head-to-toe 'total-look' designer dressing. Fast forward a decade: sick and tired of its vulgar reputation, Russia's elite wants a makeover. Tom Ford approves. 'Russia is a country with a long history for a great appreciation of luxury and in a sense it's just been put away for a while,' he said recently. 'It is something that's in the hard drive of Russian people, in the same way that it is for Italians.'
So Russian style is being redefined and Dasha Zhukova is leading the backlash against post-Soviet flashiness. Her label (the Kova is from Zhukova, the T is from Dasha's design partner, Kristina Tang) is the 'casual luxury' brand that took the US by storm in 2006. It went on sale here, at Harvey Nichols, at the end of last year.
Zhukova is proud to be Russian but is adamant that she's 'not a stereotypical Russian living in London' - because that's still a negative, vulgar thing to be. Based in London, but constantly travelling through Miami, LA, New York, Paris and Moscow, she speaks perfect English with a transatlantic drawl. 'Moscow is in a state where it's transforming from the overly put-together look to something a bit more casual,' she says. 'That's why my line has done so well in Russia. People just want to wear a T-shirt and a pair of jeans instead of buying the whole look from Gucci's latest collection.'
Zhukova is typical of a new breed of international young Russian entrepreneurs. She has power and influence and a celebrity draw: Camilla Fayed is a friend, Drew Barrymore and the Olsen twins are devotees of her clothing line, Razorlight played at her latest party. She left the USSR in 1990 at the age of nine when her mother Elena, a microbiologist, was offered a job at UCLA in Los Angeles. Her parents split when she was three. Her billionaire father Alexander Zhukov, an associate of Abramovich, continued to manage his property empire between London and Moscow. At school in California, Zhukova met Kristina Tang, daughter of the Shanghai Tang mogul, David Tang, and her future business partner. The pair launched Kova & T in 2005. The label - which includes jeans, T-shirts, miniskirts, leather shorts and strapless dresses - was picked up by more than 50 stores in the US, including Henri Bendel in New York. Last November Kova & T launched in London and will be stocked by Harrods from this coming May.
Zhukova fell into fashion by accident: 'It was the summer after I graduated from university in the US and I started spending time in Russia. The idea for Kova & T came as a result of us doing a charity fashion show in Moscow in 2003. We were trying to find a "clean" pair of jeans we could embellish. We couldn't find any jeans without a very big logo. Once we got into the process it turned out to be very complicated so we thought, "Why don't we try to sell this?"' Dasha Skinny jeans at £100 are a sell-out in Moscow and Kova & T's £80 black leggings have already been re-ordered at Harvey Nichols.
Zhukova has replaced rags-to-riches supermodel Natalia Vodianova as every Russian girl's fashion idol. 'Lots of young girls come in and say, "We just want to look like Dasha",' says Moscow's boutique queen Aizel Trudel, 29. These girls are desperate to feature on Moscow's best-dressed list, alongside such women as Lidia Aleksandrova, the owner of several designer stores, with a penchant for Lanvin and Alexander McQueen; fitness diva Olga Sloutsker, who runs a chain of gyms; Gorbachev's socialite daughter Irina Virganskaya and granddaughter Ksenya; and Polina Deripaska, wife of £8 billion aluminium baron Oleg Deripaska. A new arrival on the scene is Svetlana Medvedeva, Russia's first lady-in-waiting (husband Dmitry is tipped to win the presidential election in March). Medvedeva is a close friend of society designer Valentin Yudashkin and an ardent supporter of flamboyant Russian haute couture.
Many young Russian girls dream of becoming socialites, oligarchs' wives or fashion designers. Kira Plastinina has achieved two of these three ambitions - but at 15 she is a bit young to be married. Her father Sergei Plastinin owns Russia's biggest dairy and juice company and has amassed a fortune of £350 million. Plastinina - dubbed the leading light of the new 'spoilt bratski' generation - opened a chain of shops last year with a gift of £50 million from her father. She is now the official designer for the hugely popular TV show, Star Factory, Russia's X Factor.
With prices from around £50, Kira Plastinina's clothes are aimed at the burgeoning middle class, who shop in Moscow's evolving high street at branches of Topshop, Mango and Zara. Obviously, most of Russia is poor: the average salary is £6,500 a year, according to Russian state figures, but a growing number of young people in the capital earn far more than this. (According to the World Bank, real incomes in Russia have grown by 65 per cent in the past 10 years - but they put the average national income at closer to £2,000.) Young Moscow, however, has a high disposable income: £20,000 a year is considered a respectable salary for a young middle-class professional in their 20s or 30s. Those working for international companies will earn far more. In real terms a salary like this in Moscow goes further than a Western salary of the same amount because many families still own property from the Soviet era and don't pay rent or mortgages.
In this climate Kira Plastinina already sells over 40,000 items a month in her 15 Moscow stores and outlets in 12 other cities across Russia. Her father recently paid Paris Hilton £1 million to attend his daughter's Moscow catwalk show. The company now has its eye on the US and has been watching the progress of Kova & T across the globe with interest.
Meanwhile, in Moscow's shopping malls, Russia's love affair with luxury expands beyond all expectations. 'Until 1997 there was hardly anyone to build a business on,' says Olga Mamonova, vice president of JamilCo, which runs Hermès, Burberry, Ferragamo, Chaumet and Escada in Russia. 'Then our client base was in the hundreds. Now it's in the thousands. But it's not just about money. To buy an Hermès scarf you don't need to be a millionaire. You just need to understand that it is a beautiful thing to own. That is real luxury. Not the price of the item.'
Mamonova is a feisty, beautifully groomed 46-year-old single mother of a 25-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son. She is elegant and understated in a black Burberry tunic dress and fringed cashmere Hermès coat. Over tea in Moscow's Hermès store (served on Hermès china), she explains that she was an English teacher in the Soviet era. Her golden opportunity came when she was approached by a businessman who wanted to set up a consultancy with international connections and needed her language skills. 'Doctors and teachers were working in retail, selling things. My generation was lucky - we were old enough to have specialist knowledge that was in demand but not too old to change our mentality. You could sit and do nothing and wait for someone to do something for you. Or you could do something for yourself. It is not in my character to sit and wait.' The company morphed into Russia's first importer of Levi's. 'I was just in the right place at the right time. As far as the state was concerned, two or three kinds of bread was enough choice for everyone. No one knew what "brands" were. Levi's were too expensive for the state and didn't correspond to their priorities. They were not interested in stupid things like jeans.' Mamonova's company's experience during perestroika with Levi's and Swatch meant that the big brand names came to them in the mid-1990s.
While the luxury market is expanding rapidly, so is middle-class interest in more affordable labels. Last month James, one of Moscow's first multi-brand designer stores, owned by Mamonova's company JamilCo, hosted a catwalk show for Levi's Blue. You Nguyen, designer for Levi's Europe, was there: 'There is a misconception that people are into bling-bling here. They're not any more. Before, it was all about adding rhinestones and gold thread - but that is the old market here. Now it's about quality, luxury, craftsmanship. Brand name is not enough for Russians any more.'
This is a typical attitude in today's Russia: that Russians deserve and appreciate the finer things in life. Women are at the forefront of this. Olga Mamonova has a fascinating theory about why Russian women - rich and poor alike - are so impossibly glamorous. There is a huge demographic crisis in Russia: 10 million more women in the population than men. This is a longstanding problem: many men died in the Soviet purges and in the Second World War. Now, because of a low birth rate and rampant alcoholism, life expectancy for Russian men is 59. For women, it's 72. 'Women really want men to notice them, to stand out,' says Mamonova. It's women who reclaimed 'roskosh', the old Russian word for luxury, emblazoned across the cover of this month's Russian Vogue.
Aliona Doletskaya is editor of Russian Vogue. We meet in her offices near Red Square. She's wearing a black sweater by - who else? - Kova & T. Zhukova is a good friend of hers. (As I wait to talk to Dolestskaya, she is on the phone to another oligarch about a dinner she is hosting, 'Yes, darling, of course Dasha and Roman will be there.') So where is all the money coming from to fund Russia's never-ending shopping spree? 'It's simple,' she says. 'Oil has got a good price at the moment. There are more jobs for young people on Western salaries now. And they choose to spend their money on luxury: they are quite happy to live in a one-room, 14-metre-square apartment but drive a Lexus.'
Russian's elite is not trashy any more, she claims, 'but they don't like deliberate modesty either - you must know that from the Russians living in London.' The Dasha Zhukova look is the future of Russian fashion. 'Her brand is unpretentious and trend- setting. It's an example for every young Russian who sees that there is an opportunity to go international.' Although it's much easier for Dasha to pull strings internationally because she grew up abroad, she adds. 'She's young and enthusiastic and she knows how to work the PR mechanisms.'
Others, however, are watching carefully and learning fast. Doletskaya is also wearing a pair of stunning high-waisted black trousers by Igor Chapurin, another hotly tipped Russian designer. Suzy Menkes is a fan, praising his 'modern simplicity'. Holding court in his shop on the banks of the river Moscow, Chapurin, 39, is softly spoken, elegantly coiffed and lightly tanned. Many believe he will be the first Russian couturier to break into the west in the way Japanese designers like Yohji Yamamoto did in the 1980s. 'There is a paradox here,' he smiles. 'The whole world is trying to break into Russia and I'm trying to break out of it.'
His look is a relaxed version of Tom Ford: dark Levi's and Lanvin patent baseball boots with an artfully unbuttoned white shirt. He has shown in Paris for the past five seasons and hopes to open a shop there later this year. Recently there came a breakthrough: a phone call from one Tina Knowles - mother and stylist to Beyoncé. Someone in Camp Beyoncé had spotted Chapurin's outrageous molten-gold catsuit at the Paris shows. The singer wore it last year for her US tour.
In Russia, he says, his clients are self-made working women who can afford to spend £2,000 on an outfit: bankers, lawyers, TV presenters, actresses, opera singers, media figures. Dubbed the Russian Armani, Chapurin's clothes are fabulous by any standards. There is a Roland Mouret feel to his sculpted dresses. But he does clever affordable accessories, too: silk corsages and velvet headbands for around £50, long wool scarves for £80. Chapurin sells in Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo and has showrooms in Paris and Milan. His mission, he says, is to make Russia famous for creativity and style, rather than caviar and vodka: 'I want to show the Russia that belongs to Chagall and Kandinsky.'
There's a palpable nostalgia for Russia's pre-Soviet greatness in Moscow. The central shopping area around Tverskaya (Moscow's Oxford Street) and Red Square has been in flux for years, with dozens of designer brands buying up prime real estate. Luxury shopping streets like Stoleshnikov Lane (Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Agent Provocateur) and Tretyakovsky Passage (Prada, Gucci, D&G) have sprung up. Until recently you could always find cheaper shops alongside these places. In the past year, however, a half-mile radius in central Moscow has become some sort of opulent, luxury-only zone. GUM, the department store on Red Square, used to sell ordinary things as well as designer labels: there were little supermarkets, tourist stalls, chemists and fast-food outlets in the building. Now all this has gone and GUM is 100 per cent designer: La Perla has replaced Accessorize and the chemist that used to have a massive selection of cheap shampoos and lipsticks has been replaced by Jo Malone.
Much of this is down to the influence of one woman, Moscow's original queen of luxury. Alla Verber is, according to Condé Nast's editorial director Anna Harvey, 'the most important buyer in the world right now'. Verber is vice president of Mercury, the first to import Prada, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana in the mid-1990s, and now the owners of Moscow's most fabulous department store TsUM, which opened in 2005. Verber is in her late forties and on her third marriage: she has a daughter, Katya, in her early twenties (who turns up later - a mini-me with a sheet of satin black hair and an enormous fur coat). Verber's office next to the Bolshoi Theatre overlooks the snow-topped golden domes and red-star-tipped turrets of the Kremlin. A mahogany desk is inlaid with huge gold angels, Lalique figurines and vases are perched on tables and on the floor. She shares the space with a nervous assistant wearing a black felt skating outfit with a puffball skirt and fur-trimmed boots. A lady in a powder-blue French maid's uniform serves green tea (fashionable Moscow's current detox drink of choice). This time the china is Fabergé.
Alla Verber sweeps in three hours late, having been held up in traffic in her Bentley (Mercury also own Moscow's Bentley and Ferrari showrooms). Everything about her oozes stealth wealth: well-worn Bottega Veneta boots, a Ralph Lauren cashmere dress sprinkled with cat hair, creased Hermès scarf, a solitary gigantic Chopard ring.
Verber was born in St Petersburg. She grew up, she purrs, in a house opposite the Mariinsky Theatre in a 'very happy, beautiful, aristocratic family'. From her bedroom window in the 1960s and 1970s she used to watch foreign theatregoers turning up for the opera and the ballet in their finery, and prided herself on guessing their nationality: 'I loved the Italians best - all the women dressed like Sophia Loren.' The only access to fashion in her childhood was through dog-eared German mail-order catalogues from friends abroad. She would buy things from tourists for herself or to sell on. 'I remember a pair of button-down jeans and platform shoes,' she sighs.
In 1976 the family's Jewish heritage meant emigration was a possibility. Although the family was once wealthy and influential, this had all been removed after 1917: her paternal grandfather spent 14 years in the camps under Stalin. By the 1970s Verber's father just wanted her to become a dentist like him. 'Our life was comfortable in Soviet times - we had more than most people. But my grandfather wanted us to take the chance to leave.' Verber was sent to Italy to await her Israeli visa: she was offered a job in a shop in Rome and ended up staying. 'I couldn't speak English or Italian but I did know how to dress people.' She saved up and bought her first ever handbag from Gucci. 'All my life I never wanted to buy anything unless it was luxury,' she says. Her second bag came from Louis Vuitton, the third from Hermès.
She later moved to Toronto and worked as a buyer. In the late 1980s US and Canadian companies began looking to Russia as a market: Verber was drafted in as the only Russian speaker around. In 1993 she joined Mercury, returned to the motherland and threw herself into bringing luxury to Russia.
Her target audience is increasingly shopping on home territory in Moscow, she says. 'Before, people felt they didn't have any choice but to shop in London. Now we've proved we have everything here - and more. Year after year I hear people saying, "I went to Milan and couldn't get the right size - then I came back to Moscow and found exactly what I wanted." We are more expensive here - because of taxes and shipping - but if you have to take a plane to go shopping that costs more anyway.'
A few floors down from her office in TsUM a mother and daughter in matching floor-length fox-fur coats are hovering between Pucci and Malene Birger. The daughter makes a dash for a £2,000 marabou shrug from Brazilian label Daslu and the two caress it approvingly. Downstairs in the beauty hall - the largest in Russia - a Viggo Mortensen lookalike in a Ralph Lauren beanie is scrutinising limited-edition aftershaves. Increasingly Moscow stores like this have designer one-offs not available anywhere else in the world. Tom Ford plans to open two Moscow stores next year, featuring items like £2,500 custom-made suits only available for the Russian market. Manolo Blahnik creates shoes with higher heels specifically for his Moscow clients. On Tretyakovsky Passage the branches of Prada and Gucci have a bigger selection of bags and shoes than in Milan.
Around the corner from TsUM, snapping at Mercury's heels, is an emporium belonging to the terrifyingly ambitious Aizel Trudel. She struts into the store that bears her name wearing sky-high zip-up Louboutin shoe boots, a fur coat falling off her shoulders which a minion struggles to catch. She set up her own shop four years ago, at the age of 25, after persuading her cousin's husband, a banker, that it was a good idea to lend her $5 million. She repaid the loan with interest within a year. She now owns three stores under her own name as well as running outlets for Agent Provocateur and J Mendel.
Born in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, her father was a diplomat and she grew up abroad. 'When I decided to start out on my own, money was not the biggest problem. Of course you have to have friends with connections. My university - the Moscow State Institute of Foreign Affairs - was like Harvard: it gave you good connections.' She now lives mostly in London with her new husband Louis Trudel, 34, a Canadian architect and property developer who designed the Moscow stores. Her empire celebrates Moscow's new style ethic: 'Foreigners don't understand what it used to be like here. Fifteen years ago there was nothing but Versace. Now the taste level is changing tremendously - I sell Libertine, Proenza Schouler, Peter Som - before, nobody here knew them and nobody would wear them. A few years ago it was all about "total look" - that has changed.' Russian society girls mix Alaia with Oscar de la Renta. She says. 'Over here it's the young people who have money. Not people my mum's age. It's the 18-year-old students who have young money because they have rich parents or husbands.'
At Trudel's store I bump into Shakhri Amirkhanova, the exotic new editor of Russian Tatler which launches in April. She has just popped out in her lunch hour to pick up a few new pieces. She is a typical customer: international lifestyle (educated at Central St Martin's in London), young (28), pared-down modern style (she is buying a Prada tunic and a Vera Wang LBD). The new 'tasteful' look doesn't come cheap, though, and Trudel's store is a masterclass in stealth wealth: a £14,000 Loewe leather jacket, a £7,000 Vera Wang crocodile miniskirt, Stella McCartney knits for £1,600.
In the short term, opulence at any cost remains a Russian tradition, says Olga Mamonova. 'People don't think about tomorrow. They want everything today. It's not because we're materialistic. It's because we're romantics and idealists. If a Russian woman asks a man to give her expensive presents, it's not because she's materialistic, it's about reassurance and wanting to feel loved. In Russia that's genetic. And it won't change for two or three generations. There were so many boundaries in the Soviet era and once they were removed, people went completely over the top - and that hunger is not quite sated yet.' It's just becoming a little less brash and a little more cool.
i hear quite a bit about alla verber as we used to share the same NY office/buyer but i am feeling that Tsum is also slowly on the way out.
Trudel seems to be the new to look out for if you really wanna be cool
This has the potential to be either a very good or very bad thing! It'll be interesting to see how the teenagers of Russia today grow up, and if their children also become rich.
And I had no idea the life expectancy for Russian men is only 59 years. That's awful!
I saw footage from Russia in the news sometime ago. The hospitals were stuffed with men - as in men with liver diseases caused by alcoholism. It was so obvious, their skin was all yellow I don't think there can be that many men who are working - that means more jobs to the women. The journalist mentioned a ridiculously high number of men who aren't able to work.
ten days of perfect tunes
the colors red and blue
we had a promise made
we were in love