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Russian Style Hits Runways - and Hamlets

Enterprising designers replace Soviet-era drab with glamour rivaling the West's and find eager buyers even in far-flung villages

Russians are so taken with fashion these days that haute couture has even reached remote Yakutia, in northern Siberia. Valentin Yudashkin, one of Moscow's most acclaimed designers, took his winter collection last month to a region where temperatures can go down to minus 60 degrees C (minus 76 degrees F.) and where recently privatized diamond and gold mines have created a new and opulent clientele.

After Paris in the summer, he presented his collection here at the beginning of December during the Russian capital's second fashion week. Though the event was held in the gray Soviet-style Hotel Rossia, a few hundreds yards from the Kremlin, the glitter and glamour of the shows were more typical of the Western fashion world. Just as in New York or Milan, emaciated models were strutting up and down the catwalk to a mixture of operatic and techno music.

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Yudashkin's work, though, has a subtle Russian flavor. He studied art history and took a particular interest in the rich Russian tradition of embroideries; he now employs 25 embroiderers. His creations are a lavish display of workmanship rescued from the past. He mixes rich materials like taffeta and brocade with the hand-knit shawls Russian babushkas wear. His collection, with crinoline dresses and tall furs hats, has a deliberate turn-of-the-century touch, when Russia's splendor was at its peak.

"When I started 10 years ago, the words haute couture didn't exist," recalls Yudashkin. "And when I presented my first collection in 1987, I was accused of being too theatrical," as was Sasha Zaitsev, Raisa Gorbachev's designer.

Russian fashion has come a long way since the days when Mrs. Gorbachev's attempts at elegance were making headlines around the world. French designer Olivier Lapidus, who was also presenting his collection at Moscow's fashion week, is very impressed by the work of his Russian counterparts. "I have a lot of admiration for Russian stylists because it is easy to create a collection with $2 million, but they do it with considerably less. I am also convinced that Russian talents will soon have an impact beyond Russia, in the rest of the world."

For Lapidus, though, Russian fashion is still trying to define itself. "Russian creators are looking for their identity between the international market and the need to create a specific Russian style which is neither folkloric nor too surrealistic as it is now."

Russian women have not waited for their national haute couture to find itself. As elsewhere in the world, haute couture is the privilege of a very few. Lapidus thinks that around the world only 1,500 women buy haute couture. In post-Soviet Russia, though, many women care about fashion, perhaps even more than in the West.

Tania Nizvietskaya, managing director of a ready-to-wear company, thinks this trait has always prevailed even in hard times. "I have traveled to many countries, and I came to the conclusion that Muscovite women dress very nicely. In the past, when nobody could travel and when one could only find gray, black, and blue clothes in the shops, like many of my friends, I would go without food to save money to buy clothes on the black market. Russia is a great market; women would do anything for clothes."

Nizvietskaya divides the market into three categories. The $1,000 to $1,500 range and above is for a very small group of people who would buy a Yudashkin suit, for example, or go for the famous Western names like Nina Ricci, Karl Lagersfeld, or Versace. They have shops in exclusive Moscow shopping malls like the GUM on Red Square or in the even smarter Petrovka Passage.

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"Their clients are professional shoppers, women who don't work, the wives or the mistresses of the extremely rich 'new Russians,' " explains Anna Beck, chief stylist for the Russian edition of the magazine Elle.

The second category is centered around imported European clothes in the $300 price range and children's collections that are now available in Russia. Well-to-do professionals, new Russians again, fall into this category.

But when the average salary is about $140 a month, it is not surprising that the majority of Russian women buy their clothes in the yarmarkas. These open-air markets have sprouted all over Moscow and in many provincial towns. They are supplied by the shuttle traders who buy cheap clothes in Turkey or in the United Arab Emirates.

Nizvietskaya buys her fabrics in the Emirates as well, but she says she goes for the best quality. Back in Moscow, she puts her four designers to work before selecting and putting the final touch on the patterns she likes best. Then 60 copies of a pattern are produced and put on sale. If they do well, mass production starts in one of the four factories with which Nizvietskaya has arrangements. The products will be sold in the markets as well.

Nizvietskaya started out in the 1980s as a seamstress, making and selling copies of Western clothes on the black market. With two girlfriends she later launched a cooperative, when such businesses were still illegal in the Soviet Union. She is now an affluent and stylish businesswoman who wears silk ties and silver clips with heavy leather boots. She knows where success lies.

"We know our market," she says. "We started with primitive things like blouses. You have to go slowly here. A lot of women still wear elastic-band skirts with a hand-knitted cardigan. So we introduced jackets and trousers little by little, and suits only two years ago."

In the Burda shop - which offers everything home seamstresses dreamed of in the hardship years of the Soviet Union - shop assistant Victoria Marasova has noticed the changes. "People have grown more picky, and they buy more expensive fabrics," she says, pointing to a bundle of elegant woolen fabric with large pink, blue, and black checks, imported from France. At $60 a yard it is selling like hot cakes. "Women want bright colors and rich materials," she adds.

Elena Danasiev, a programming engineer, has come to the Burda shop looking for some nice indigo silk to sew a nightgown and robe for herself. "I cannot afford European clothes, but I don't like the cheap Turkish stuff so I do it myself," she explains.

Ms. Danasiev finds her inspiration in the fashion magazines, particularly in Elle or Cosmopolitan. And fashion journalism is appearing in Russia. "A year ago it simply didn't exist," says Maya Sheremyeteva, who hosts a radio program devoted to fashion on the Europa Plus station in Novosibirsk, in Siberia. Wearing a leather black miniskirt with a false leopard-skin top, Ms. Sheremyeteva came to Moscow for the fashion week and reported on what she saw, fulfilling what she sees as her role as an educator.

"Now we have the goods; what we have to build is taste. It is not only cultural, it is almost like a philosophy," she says. "To be stylish, you have first of all have to like yourself. And my duty is to help the women interested in fashion to demand more from life. Not only to help them get dressed but to help them measure the power fashion can give."

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