Last week in Moscow during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia's 32nd season of shows, I darted around the venue near the Red Square observing celebrities, socialites, bloggers and models in their natural habitat. As as a foreigner with negligible understanding of who is Important — not to mention zero ability to speak or understand Russian — I focused on body language and following the people who really know what's going on: the photographers. Where cameras flashed, a celebrity stylist or "Madonna of Russia" (actual description) was sure to be found.
So when my trusty assistant Irina Loskutova pointed out model Sasha Panika as "the Gigi Hadid of Russia" when she opened the Saint Tokyo show — one the of most exciting young designer brands — I kept an eye out for her. Panika is nowhere near Hadid-level yet, of course, but I understood what Irina was saying: The model has a solid Instagram presence (61,000 followers) and is recognizable to an audience outside of Moscow's fashion bubble. Backstage photographers followed her around before her shows — at one point our interview was hijacked by a cameraman who just wanted to get footage of her talking — and she's a prime street style target. (A friendship with photographer Adam Katz Sinding doesn't hurt, either.)
But perhaps most importantly, she doesn't look like the typical Russian model. She has olive skin, bold brows, a pierced septum, visible tattoos and a jawline that could cut glass. It's a look. The kind of look that launches modeling careers.
Despite evidence of some past affiliations online, Panika says she is unsigned at the moment, which is unusual but not uncommon for the models at MBFWR. Panika has only walked runways in Russia and has appeared in some small-time editorials, but she has no doubt she will break through internationally just as soon as she manages to gain more exposure. She certainly runs her social media account with the considered curation of someone much further along in her career.
Is Panika poised to follow in the footsteps of runway regular Valery Kaufman or Victoria's Secret model Vita Sidorkina, both of whom hail from Russia? When I interviewed her before her second show of the week (Loskutova translated), the 21-year-old opened up about her experiences in European showrooms, her biggest obstacles to international attention and why she feels modeling isn't taken seriously in Russia.
This interview was conducted with a translator, edited and condensed.
How did you first start modeling?
It all started when I moved from a small village with only a couple thousand people to the big city, Saint Petersburg.
Did someone spot you? How did you get signed?
I don't really know how it happened, but I try my best not to be unnoticed. The thing is, I'm not as confident but I'm really fierce.
Are you signed with an agency?
I have been working for three years without an agency and doing my PR on my own.
Were you signed with an agency at any point?
My main agency was Ford Models Paris but recently I have broken up with them.
Where have you modeled?
Because I don't have a modeling agency, mostly it is Russian fashion weeks. I do work in Europe, but in showrooms... it's all because of the lack of the model agency.
Based on your experiences so far, what is it like to be a model in Russia right now?
Actually, the thing is you can't be a proper model here in Russia if you are only working in Russia; I was working in showrooms in Europe and saw a real difference there. Here in Russia, people do not take this job seriously. When someone says, "I'm a model," people do not take this information seriously — sometimes they think it's a funny thing.
How is it different in Europe?
The attitudes from the employers, personal and professional. Here in Russia, if you say you are a model, people laugh at you a bit. But on the flip side, if you go somewhere abroad, if you say, "I'm a model," people do take it seriously, really.
People [in Russia] do not understand that by being a model, you can earn your own money and it's a proper profession for a strong woman. Here in Russia, practically anyone who is skinny and pretty tall can be a model. Here, people do not look at your facial features or your charisma, whereas in the west, it's all different.
What's been the most important moment of your career so far?
The first catwalk I did. It just couldn't be expressed into words how I felt. It was three and a half years ago, the show was terrible. But it was a very important moment for me, really essential because I felt, for the first time, how to be in the spotlight.
How has this season gone for you?
This season I've walked only in the shows of designers I like personally. My favorites are Saint Tokyo and Pirosmani.
What are your goals for the next year?
Learn English. I come from a small village, from a small city, that's why when I went to school I didn't learn English at all.
What the name of your village?
Artem in the Novgorod region. There are bears there, and wolves and stuff.
What else do you hope to accomplish soon?
My main goal is to get a job abroad, and I'm confident that as soon as I [do], I will be noticed by an established agency and will get a proper agent. It's not because I'm super self-confident, but I know that because of my appearance. The world will know about me, definitely. Modeling is really my thing — my cup of tea, so to say. I am 100 percent sure that in a year or a bit I am going to blow up and explode all over the world.
Disclosure: Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia paid for my trip and accommodations to cover the event.