A Surge In Russian Nationalism Is Reflected On Moscow's Runways

Despite a declining economy, the government seeks to reinvigorate the domestic textile industry. In the meantime, designers tap into cultural themes to stand out on the runways.
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Left: A Dimaneu gown covered in iconic Kremlin stars. Right: Dasha Gauser designer her fall collection around fellow Russian Dmitri Mendeleev's periodic table of elements. Photos: Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Russia

Left: A Dimaneu gown covered in iconic Kremlin stars. Right: Dasha Gauser designer her fall collection around fellow Russian Dmitri Mendeleev's periodic table of elements. Photos: Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Russia

At the Fashion Futurum conference held last week during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia (MBFWR) in Moscow, Vogue Italy talent scout Sara Maino and Not Just A Label founder Stefan Siegel both encouraged emerging designers from less fashion-conscious countries like Russia to embrace their local cultures in their design. Siegel noted that the most successful brands on his e-commerce platform do so. But many designers affiliated with MBFWR are already incorporating the country's traditional fabrics or patriotic elements into their work. It mirrors a surge in Russian nationalism that has peaked in the last two years, despite the fact that the economy is tanking and the textile and retail industries are still being developed when it comes to production and e-commerce. 

The increased nationalism across the country at large has been tied to the annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula two years ago, and its consequences. In the beginning of 2016, President Vladimir Putin had an approval rating of 81 percent, according to Stratfor, just shy of his 86-percent record. Meanwhile, the Russian economy is rough: due to decreasing oil prices and western sanctions relating to the Ukrainian conflict, the ruble declined 24 percent in 2015 according to the International Business Times. The same issues have also resulted in increased "soviet nostalgia," according to NPR. The economic situation was a hot topic throughout last week's conference because it makes it even harder for emerging designers to build domestic businesses, meaning the ability to sell internationally — which heretofore has been quite difficult due to taxes and customs — becomes even more important. 

"We export a lot of oil, but we can export a lot of fashion," says Alexander Shumsky, president of MBFWR, adding that the Ministry of Trade is working to facilitate fashion exports by simplifying customs paperwork. "I'm confident it's going to be done this year because everybody is interested and understands [fashion] could be part of exports." 

Alena Akhmadullina's fall collection was inspired by Tibetan, Mongolian and Buryat mythology. Photo: Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Russia

Alena Akhmadullina's fall collection was inspired by Tibetan, Mongolian and Buryat mythology. Photo: Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Russia

Pressure is on for the Russian government to support the textile industry, not only because of state limitations on imports. "We understand that the textile industry needs a lot of attention now," says Shumsky. He used the leather industry as an example of a business that turned around in the last three years with government support. Shumsky moderated a panel at the conference about industry regulation with representatives from Italy, Spain and Russia. "After that conversation, I truly understood that Russia has more socially organized programs to support the industry than other countries," he says. "Every government supports export activity of its brands... but the system [here] works a little bit differently because Russian government pays all the bills... Russian government literally pays more to support local producers than some other countries." But, he says progress is still in early stages. "The Russian fashion industry actually is a start up." 

So what else, then, does the Russian government need to do to make its fashion and textile industries more viable? The initiatives addressed in the conference include providing accessible financial sources to textile companies producing exportable "high-tech" goods, simplifying customs logistics for exports and, in the long term, developing an international e-commerce platform. (Saint Petersburg has several initiatives in the works to support its fashion businesses, as Business of Fashion outlined in October.) But for some Russians, this is not enough. During a panel on e-commerce, a designer in the audience asked Denis Pak, a director of the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade's Department of Internal Trade, if the government could subsidize a multi-brand store for emerging designers just as Not Just A Label has organized in New York and London. "You have Russian national mentality that aspires for support, expecting someone to resolve all your problems," answered Pak (via translator). "It can be a good idea but if it is a long term project, there are a lot of question marks [and] I’m not sure if it will sure it will survive or be economically successful."

Saint Tokyo designer Yury Pitenin (here with model Sasha Panika) updated traditional Pavlovsky Posad floral shawl patterns. Photo: Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Russia

Saint Tokyo designer Yury Pitenin (here with model Sasha Panika) updated traditional Pavlovsky Posad floral shawl patterns. Photo: Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Russia

Meanwhile, the government-aided Russian Fashion Council supports individual designers directly with grants and discounted rates to show at MBFWR, and is launching a national contest this year that will award a winner €100,000 worth of "services and opportunities" including fabric and runway show presentation costs. 

The sweet spot for Russian designers, according to Shumsky, is an upper-middle market price point — catering to people who used to buy from international designer brands and now want to buy domestically. "On different levels, people would prefer to buy Russian-made stuff [rather] than Chinese-made stuff," he says.

Looks from Slava Zaitzev (left and center) and Igor Gulyaev (right) use traditional fabrications and silhouettes. Photos: Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Russia

Looks from Slava Zaitzev (left and center) and Igor Gulyaev (right) use traditional fabrications and silhouettes. Photos: Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Russia

The nationalist fashion impulse doesn't just impact production preferences: it's visible on the runway, too. The collections of designer Slava Zaitzev, who has been working for over 50 years, explore Russian heritage through traditional patterns, prints and use of fur. Igor Gulyaev's updated ushanka hats and fur coats are a modern take on Russian signatures. Meanwhile, Alena Akhmadullina interpreted Tibetan, Mongolian and Buryat mythology through fur, leather and traditional Russian embroidery. 

Younger designers were inspired by Russian history in more unexpected ways. This season, 25-year-old Saint Tokyo designer Yury Pitenin updated traditional Pavlovsky Posad shawl patterns in dresses and outerwear. Dasha Gauser designed her entire collection around fellow Russian Dmitri Mendeleev's periodic table of elements. And for spring, designer Dima Neu created a print covered in the iconic Kremlin stars. 

Soviet nostalgia even appeared in childrenswear. At the collective show for the Alliance of Russian Art-Engineers, a professional association that promotes domestic production and talent, tiny models debuted a shirt with a "Ready for Labour and Defence of the USSR" badge, referencing a 1930s-era Soviet physical education program Putin revived in 2014, as well as shorts with badges that read "I'm a patriot" and "USSR." These looks are clearly made with the domestic market in mind, and were perhaps the result of an economic system that makes fashion exportation difficult. It raises the question: If and when international trade in and out of Russia becomes simplified, will international customers be interested in Soviet influenced fashion? 

As Russia continues to assert its homegrown talent, we'll find out. 

Patriotic childrenswear from the Alliance of Russian Art-Engineers collective show. Photos: Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Russia. 

Patriotic childrenswear from the Alliance of Russian Art-Engineers collective show. Photos: Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Russia. 

 Disclosure: Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia paid for my trip and accommodations to cover the event.