Local designers: Too sexy for the public?

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By IRINA SANDUL / The Russia Journal

At 9 p.m. on a recent Monday, Tanya Yemelyanova strolled into the Marky boutique on Chistoprudny Bulvar, where the manager and a clerk were just about to close shop. But they let her in, trying not to show signs of fatigue.

Yemelyanova, who had never been to Marky before, decided to stop in when passing by its artsy window displays. She said she wasn't disappointed that the shop sells only Russian-designed clothing.

"On the contrary, that's a good thing," she said dryly, not taking her eyes off the $150 embroidered bags and silk corsets arrayed at the counter. "Russia should be ahead."

The fashion patriot Yemelyanova likes clothes that are out of the ordinary, and Marky – whose name means "stamps" and which resembles the costume storage room of a theater – is definitely a place for that, either in design or price. From a $145 skirt with sleeves sewn onto the front to a $160 helmet with glasses and $300 knee-high boots with cut-away heels, every item in the boutique looks eccentric and barely wearable. Often made of fabrics that are difficult to take care of, the bohemian clothes bear labels with their Russian designers' names in Latin characters but have no care instructions. Yemelyanova, who looks too conservative for the shop, leaves without buying anything.

"Russian designers think of themselves as artists. They don't give a damn about people," said Natalya Tyurina, general director of Fashion TV Russia.

Russian designers make art for art's sake, she said – something haute couturiers in the West stopped doing long ago. One of the last of these mavericks, she noted, was the recently deceased French designer Yves St. Laurent. "Only 200 people in the world can buy" cutting-edge fashions, Tyurina said.

The general public is left hanging – on a ready-to-wear rack.

Russian designers – who in Tyurina's opinion are still in a "pristine state" – have only enough money to make clothes for the runway, not the production line. She said they still make clothes manually, "held together with pins" and cannot open their own boutiques, often having just a single item in each design.

The designers themselves disagree. People with famous names can afford to buy their creations, they argue, and many designers are happy to serve their existing close circle of clients. They do not count people on the street among their potential customers.

Today, many regard 36-year-old Andrei Sharov as the best of Russia's designers. During Soviet times, haute couture, such as it existed, was dominated by Slava Zaitsev and Valentin Yudashkin. Sharov owns two brands – an eponymous line and Bureau 365, which is ready-to-wear. As for Sharov himself, he wears personally designed jeans and jackets and said he makes clothes only as originals, often ordered by Russia's business elite and pop stars. The fabric for the clothes comes from Paris or Milan.

Sharov sells his haute couture items for at least $1,500 and Bureau 365 pieces for $800 each, on average. His customers buy from deluxe shops and "drive around in good cars," he said, adding that his prices are a "little lower" than those of world-famous designers.

Selling clothes to members of Moscow's high society, or even presenting them with clothes of your own make, is a trend among local designers, Sergei Lunin, a buyer at Bosco di Cilegi, said in an interview. He added that mass production is expensive, and designers often elect not to create full collections in any case.

Some, however, think more of creating a well-known firm than promoting their own name. Vassa, a Russian designer who recently returned to Moscow after a decade in the United States, has a production line and wants to dress the mass market. She now has eight shops in Moscow and one in Riga, Latvia, with plans to open a boutique in St. Petersburg.

One of her regular customers is Olga Sosnovskaya, an employee at Sheremetyevo airport who often drops in at the Vassa shop in the underpass near the Teatralnaya metro station. Last year, Sosnovskaya said, she bought five or six pieces from Vassa Trend New York, without suspecting the designer was Russian. She did not seem to be disappointed, but said in retrospect that the prices could have been lower. The average price of a Vassa dress is around $90, while a pair of pants goes for $120 and a jacket $160.

"I do not think about couture because I passed through a ready-to-wear New York school," Vassa said in a telephone interview. "Perhaps I am like Yury Gagarin in Russia," she added, referring to her pioneering attitude.

She said her experience in the United States made her understand that fashion and business are inseparable. She learned this, she said, when she studied merchandising at university, along with art.

"They still do not teach that here," she added.

Vassa – she declines to give her last name, calling it a trade secret – says she does not want to gain prestige with high prices.

"We have a false, provincial stereotype in Russia," she said, explaining that her goal is to be recognized internationally.

Oleg Biryukov, a St. Petersburg designer who sells two of his brands – B!ryukov and 2B! – at Seventh Floor on Tverskaya Ulitsa, Bosco di Cilegi and Marky in Moscow, and at Defile in St. Petersburg, says he keeps an eye on which of his items sell out in the boutiques. However, he said he prefers concentrating on the creative side, believing his efforts eventually will translate into commercial success. A designer cannot win customers using "only cold calculations," he said in an interview. Despite being well known and commercially successful, Biryukov does not have a professional manager like many other local designers.

Nikolai Girsh, the manager of Marky, which sells the work of 20 designers from Russia and elsewhere in the Commonwealth of Independent States, said the lack of professional brand managers is one of designers' biggest problems. Without them, he said, designers cannot combine interesting ideas with an approach as to how their clothes should be made and sold.

Biryukov's firm of 10 people produces clothing locally, often from local fabrics, and turns out only three to 15 garments of each design at a time. He said he does not have the capacity to sell more.

"I just do not know how to do it," he said. "I am very cautious about any offers to start a production line because there has not been a precedent so far. No Russian brand has been developed this way. Everyone works the same way here."

The road for fledgling Russian designers is even rougher. Lora Glushchenko, a beginner from the Moscow region who showed her designs at the city's Fashion Week presentations for the first time this spring, makes clothes for adherents of spiritual disciplines such as yoga, tantra and osh. She said she has tried everything to draw attention to her handiwork.

"I showed my collections to many people in clubs and esoteric parties in Moscow," she explained. "I made a few garments and managed to squeeze them into small boutiques. I sold them to my friends. I have no means and no sponsors."

But even the most successful Russian designers still make little profit, if any. Sharov said that "it is too early to talk about big profits," though he hopes the investment will eventually pay for itself.

Vassa said she reinvests every kopek she makes in profit. She said the expenses for keeping her shops going are skyrocketing. She pays more than $1,000 per sq. meter in rent for her boutiques in central Moscow. Biryukov said his business does not bring him any significant profit, but lets him "live and make new collections." Glushchenko said she is ashamed to name how much she makes, adding that sometimes she cannot even pay her eight work-at-home seamstresses.

Another peculiarity of Russian clothing design is that almost all garments are made for women.

"Historically, since Soviet times, everyone has put the accent on women. No one made clothes for men," said Biryukov, whose collections are no exception.

He said the assorted flaws in the local clothing design business are like interlocking bricks in a wall over which designers can't jump. The result is that the level of Russian couture is lower than world standards.

Buyers hold different opinions on the quality of local designers' clothes and their popularity with customers. Bosco di Cilegi's Lunin – whose boutique sells clothes made by Biryukov, Lena Makashova, Lyudmila Dobrochotova and Denis Semachev – said that Russian designers' clothes are individual and have a national character. However, he said, Russian fashion "lags behind Italian fashion in fabrics, in how it sits on you, in curves."

He said his customers would rather buy a Dolce & Gabbana T-shirt for $136 than Semachev's highly popular $176 shirt emblazoned with a floral-framed portrait of President Vladimir Putin.

"Clients care about quality," he added, speaking about a residual lack of trust in local producers. He said most Russian designers have their collections assembled in Italy. "If it gets sewn in Russia, it will look baggy," he said.

But Natalya Chumakova, a buyer from the Depo boutique, disagrees, saying customers no longer care whether a garment is made at home or abroad.

"If they like how Russian designer suits look on them, they buy them. There has always been an interest in Russian designers," she said.

Chumakova said she thinks many Muscovites can afford the boutique's prices, which range from $70-$500 per item. Even those in the middle class making $700 a month or so can afford buying a designer shirt for $70, she said.

"This is not expensive. Everything is abnormal in Russia. Russians live for today."

LifeStyle staff writer Dima Mozheitov contributed to this story.