Following the steep decline of the ruble at the end of last year, one might think that young Russian designers would have entered a boom period, with their European competition suddenly priced out of the Russian market. But a weak currency — the ruble has lost some 50 percent of its value to the dollar since oil prices fell and trade sanctions were imposed by Western countries late last year — hasn't been enough. While Russian consumers have certainly cut back on foreign luxury goods as a whole, homegrown labels haven't necessarily been given the home advantage.
For one, luxury consumers are still buying foreign goods. At Tsum, Russia's biggest luxury department store, brands like Dolce & Gabbana and Michael Kors are still among the best sellers. Some Italian labels — for which Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week director Alexander Shumsky alleges Russia represents 50 to 60 percent of business — have adjusted their prices downwards, taking a temporary hit in margins to retain business.
The ruble's fluctuating value has had an adverse effect on many Russian designers' businesses, too — namely, those that source their fabrics and labor abroad.
"The crisis is quite frustrating because, for example, I really wanted to build on the middle segment brands to be represented in Moscow, and it's quite hard now because all the middle segment brands became luxury now," says KM20 buyer Marguerita Zubatoba.
But there is still hope for these homegrown talents. "We did a lot of surveys and polls in the last 10 years," says Shumsky. "The last one we did, in 2014, the perception of the audience — the total audience across the country, not fashionistas, not wealthy girls, the general audience — 60 percent in Russia were ready to buy Russian designers. The perception of fashion designers is very, very good now in Russia, and the customers are ready to buy."
Where a massive operation like Tsum — which currently hosts a mere three racks of Russian designers in its entire store — may be slow or even unable to support these lesser-knowns, smaller local boutiques can pick up the slack. "Many of the concept stores are buying top brands; they are afraid to buy young designers because they want to make money," says IndexFlat owner Anka Tsitsishvili. "I am not afraid to do that, because I really believe in them and I really like them."
Indeed, many of these small brands are supported by boutiques: Saint-Toyko is currently sold in two small stores in St. Petersburg, and Yasya Minochkina is stocked in a number of multi-brand stores in Kiev and is closing a deal with another in Moscow. That's because there is a new, younger luxury audience that is not looking to dress in a cookie-cutter way. "I think now it's time that girls who spend money, of course they buy luxury brands but they want also something new, something that not everyone has already, and if you tell them new things, if you tell them why they should wear it, it's good," Tsitsishvili says.
"In Russia, clients are smarter now, because 10 years, 15 years ago they were only looking for brands and it was very important, and now it is not as important," says Shumsky. "So, it’s still big but the focus has changed, and Russian designers, Russian brands, they've got more opportunities now to sell and the retailers are ready to work with them, because they understand that it will sell if the product is great."
"In general, you know about Russian woman, they are very luxurious, with high heels and fur, but we have different client, a trend-oriented young audience," says Zubatoba, who calls Moscow "quite commercial" when it comes to retail. "We have our basic client, a particular client really looking for young blood and interesting design. We are happy to educate people this way, by bringing new names so they find out who it is, so our basic client is growing and that's nice."
This new, trend-driven client is being driven by the "It" girls she finds online, the Miroslava Dumas and Elena Perminovas, who so regularly dominate the street style blogs these customers follow. At J.Kim's presentation, several people noted they had seen one of the looks on street style roundups from Paris this season (on Tsitsishvili, natch); even Tsum is taking advantage of the trend, tapping Natasha Goldenberg to curate her own in-store shop (which, it should be noted, currently hosts two Russian brands: Walk of Shame and Vika Gazinskaya).
"[Russian customers] are absolutely open to new lines and to something new, some new Russian brands, I think now is the time they are really ready for that," Saint-Tokyo designer Yriy Pitenin says. "They understand that in fashion, the meaning is not just in the brand of the clothes, they are starting to look on the clothes and understand that they want to try to look interesting, they want to try to look different, and it's a really good thing. They're trying to express themselves."
If the customer is there, the question is: How do designers reach them? Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia is trying to bolster awareness via runway shows, but the general impression from the Russian fashion community is that the operation is slightly too cheesy to be taken as seriously as its international counterparts.
There is, however, an opportunity in street style placements. It was smart of MBFW Russia to bring on photographers like Craig Arend, Diego Zuko, Ed Kavishe and Adam Katz Sinding to Moscow. They have a combined Instagram following topping half a million, and regularly shoot for influential international outlets like Harper's Bazaar and Style.com. Already, brands like Outlaw Moscow, Yasya Minochkina and Liza Odinokikh have been spotted in their photos (and not totally by accident — MBFW Russia sets up times for these photographers to shoot, meaning it happens less organically than in, say, New York).
Still, none of that attention will mean anything if these brands can't find the support they need to grow beyond Russian borders. It sounds like Russia is catching up on this front, with the launch of its own Fashion Council late last year. Shumsky says the government has also been helping young designers for the past two years, helping finance production and education.
And finally, MBFW Russia will need to find a way to make its event more attractive to the big names in the Russian fashion industry, many of whom — like Miroslava Duma and Elena Perminova — were notably absent this past season. It is their approval, both and home and abroad, which can launch their careers internationally, while also upping their credibility at home.
At the end of the day, like with any young designer, it's about finding — and having the patience for — the right opportunity. "A good buyer sees things and when they see that the collection is complete, when they see that collections are from time to time the right one, they can feel it, they see all the details, what is wearable, what is not, and they're willing to come again," says Tsitsishvili of the designers she's supported both in Russia and abroad. "Some of [the buyers] made orders, but mostly, of course, they say they will come back next season. But you can see they're very interested."
Disclosure: Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia paid for my travel and accommodations to attend and cover the event.