Anna Karenina, the new film from Joe Wright starring Keira Knightley as the love-struck heroine, opens on Friday in the UK to great anticipation. And this summer, the National Museum of Scotland is running an exhibition devoted to the life of Catherine the Great, complete with imperial court dresses and glittering jewellery from her vast collection. Little wonder that for their autumn/winter line-ups, many designers also had Russia on their minds.
At Louis Vuitton, models evoking 1920s Russian émigrés stepped on to the runway from a steam engine in glamorous A-line multi-layered suits with giant jewel buttons, sequinned brocade pieces in bold patterns and a luxurious black ostrich frock coat. At Balmain, jeans, jackets, dresses and tops were embellished with lattice patterns inspired by Fabergé eggs, while MaxMara Atelier’s super-soft cashmere and mink coats came with bejewelled collars. Temperley London showed fur hats and bright folk prints, while Hermès had Cossack-inspired trousers, and Valentino quaint matryoshka doll dresses. Everywhere, there was oodles of fur – whether faux, mink or shaved ruby beaver fur, as at Lanvin.
Even this season’s streetwise puffa jackets take their inspiration from Russia, in Peter Pilotto’s funky prints, Burberry’s down-filled cropped bomber and Acne’s Suzette stitching.
“When I saw Céline’s big coats I thought about Russian wartime,” says Maria Baibakova, a US-based gallerist and daughter of the mining magnate Oleg Baibakov. “They are all about surviving the Russian winter more than anything else.”
Yet the Russian influence on style is hardly new: the land of the tsars has been a part of the modern fashion lexicon since the Ballets Russes inspired the designs of Paul Poiret, Yves Saint Laurent and Jean Paul Gaultier’s 1986 Russian constructivist collection. However, this season it has a more commercial twist.
At Clements Ribeiro, for example, Russian-inspired smock tops, peasant blouses and dresses were combined with leather leggings and dramatic accessories to contrast “aggressive futuristic modernity with folk styling”. Osman Yousefzada described his subtle references to Russia, such as embroidered oversized flowers on rich brocade, as “touches that evoke Russia, because people don’t want to wear a pastiche of themselves”.
According to Jane Pritchard, curator of the V&A’s touring exhibition Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, “We’re seeing Russian fashion neatly packaged into the best part of the culture and mythologised to appeal to a wider audience.”
Indeed, Russian It girls are the new global fashion ambassadors, often to be found in the best front-row seats. Dasha Zhukova and Natalia Vodianova sat either side of Antoine Arnault, heir to Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessey (LVMH) at Christian Dior in March – where sophisticated silks, embellished brocades and ladylike looks recalled the tsarist heyday.
It makes sense: Russia is a market with almost 150m people, a growing number of whom are able to afford international designer pieces. And London has been a magnet for wealthy Russians for years. Vadim Lapin, co-owner of the new Mari Vanna Russian-style restaurant in Knightsbridge, says: “There is huge demand from Russians for property in London and there are bookshops, restaurants and design agencies opening. Russian children go to English schools and universities. All of which strengthens the Russian influence. The city therefore becomes much less foreign to our compatriots and brings more Russians.”
Selfridges has seen a 10 per cent increase in Russian visitors since February, with an average customer spend of more than £1,000. In Moscow, the annual sales turnover for the luxury sector is more than $2bn, according to a recent report by the UK Fashion & Textile Association. Prada opened one of its largest European boutiques in Moscow in March. And luxury etailer luisaviaroma.com reports a 910 per cent growth in the Russian market in the past year. “The middle class has more money to spend, so the number of customers is growing,” says Andrea Panconesi, the site’s owner.
Richly detailed clothing, such as Gucci’s jewel-embellished gowns, sells well because it reflects the Russian way of dressing, says Ksenia Apestina, a deputy head buyer for Mercury Group, which includes the Moscow department store TsUM. According to Paul Alger, director of international affairs at the UK Fashion & Textile Association, “Jenny Packham does well in GUM [the Moscow mall] and TsUM because her pieces are elegant and sexy.”
Victorya Davydova, the editor of Russian Vogue, concludes: “For western women Russian-inspired trends represent something exotic. For Russian women, it is a comeback to roots, to historical heritage.”
‘Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress’, at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, until October 21, www.nms.ac.uk