Valenki Step Back Into Style

Valenki, or traditional felt boots, on display in Moscow this winter.

Sheepskin boots may be keeping feet fashionable across the globe, with young women sporting square-toed, pull-on styles. But boots made from sheep's wool have been protecting Russian feet for more than a thousand years, and they are now becoming a fashion item here.

Valenki, or felt boots, have been lifted from their rural use to haute couture by Russian designers, artists and entrepreneurs who want to reintroduce the traditional footwear with a modern edge.

Olga Chernikova, head of Moscow's Chernikov Studio, has been one of the most successful at convincing Russians that shoes can be both felt and chic.

'Valenki are our local answer to Ugg shoes,' she said while wearing a pair with flowers.

With seven years of business under her belt, she said she recently received an order for valenki from the government, with a state official telling her that the boots would be presented to guests at November's tiger conservation summit in St. Petersburg.

"I was very surprised that they sent a plane to grab my felt boots," she said.

Felt boots were a hard sell at first. Many Russians associate them with old village life or rustic childhood memories. They have been part of Russian dress since the 9th century.

"For many years, felt boots have been an integral part of Russian dress, the Russian way of life, Russian winter and the Russian character," said Elvira Garayeva, director of Moscow's Russian Valenki Museum.

Anti-Valenki Sentiment

Because the boots conjure up rural backwardness — there is the Russian phrase "dumb as a felt boot" — some would-be buyers were turned off by valenki, Chernikova said. She tried to change the public perception by showing the boots at a Moscow fashion expo and trying to attract a younger audience there.

"The first buyers were students from prestigious Moscow universities … who looked at valenki as something neat and wanted to wear them for self-expression," she said.

For Chernikova, designing stylish valenki for young hipsters, hunters, businessmen and fashionistas was a way to return to her cultural roots as a Russian.

"Valenki are our local answer to Ugg shoes," said Chernikova, referring to the popular Australian-designed boots produced from sheepskin.

"We are eating Turkish strawberries and wearing Chinese-made sneakers. Some day, we won't have anything of our own," she said with a touch of anger in her voice.

Chernikova started her business in 2003 after coming back to Russia from Nigeria, where she had been a business partner in an eye clinic.

"Felt boots are a means of communication, and you can use them to draw attention to your culture," Chernikova explained during an interview in her design studio while sporting dark blue felt boots with flowers.

 Her valenki come in various colors, shapes and sizes, and some include patches ranging from sunflowers to the image of Che Guevara. Some of the felt boots are ordered by corporate clients as presents for their business partners.

Chernikova's assistant, Oksana Kotsur, showed off a pair of felt boots featuring Christmas trees supposedly ordered by Gazprom managers. "We were against the Christmas trees, but they wanted them," she said, smiling.

Chernikova's prices range from $100 to $500 per pair. But apart from the price tags and the Latin American revolutionary logos, her valenki business has its traditional aspects. Her mother, Lyudmila Chernikova, creates the patches, while the boots themselves are made by relatives in the Tambov region.

Noted Russian designer Vyacheslav Zaitsev was the first to experiment with valenki as a form of design during the Soviet era. He shocked officials by showcasing colorful felt boots in 1963 while working in a factory producing quilted work jackets.

"I painted gray felt boots with orange and red gouache, which turned into a terrible scandal," Zaitsev recalled in an interview with the BBC Russian service in 2009.

Also in 2009, Zaitsev, together with fashion designer Yelena Moskalenko, displayed a collection of male and female costumes that drew inspiration from Russian folk art.

More Fans of Felt

As shoes with humble roots, valenki can have their drawbacks. They are made entirely from woolen felt, and traditionally, they have to be worn with galoshes to keep feet dry. Commercial versions like Chernikova's have a rubber sole.

Yet she is hardly the only entrepreneur to jump with both feet into the valenki market. Last year, Khabarovsk authorities carried out a field hockey championship with all of the amateur sportsmen dressed in felt boots. "We wanted to bring people's attention to this classical sport, and in Russia this game was traditionally played during the winter by players who wore felt boots because they didn't slip," Vitaly Afanasyev, a spokesman for the local Neftyannik sports club, told The Moscow Times.

Afanasyev said the championship was popular and will be held again this year. He added that valenki for adults are difficult to find in his city. Most of the buyers of valenki are parents with children. "The youth don't wear them," he said.

While Chernikova's felt boots have developed a cult status among Russian buyers, several designers in the regions are also cashing in on the popularity of valenki. Among them is Masha Ivanova, a designer from Novosibirsk.

Ivanova, who used to work in the publishing business, said she has turned to designing felt shoes because she simply "was freezing."

When she first wore her felt boots, her feet may have been warm, but the reaction was not. "Some five, six years ago, people looked at me strangely when I came to the office wearing valenki," she recalled.

Today, the majority of her clients come from her native Novosibirsk and from Moscow. "Most of the buyers are young girls, as well as women with children. Men are generally more conservative," said Ivanova, who sells her felt boots, made from wool that she imports from Kyrgyzstan, for prices ranging from $150 to $250.

Though designer items aren't affordable for many valenki fans, they can choose from the less-expensive, mass-produced items made at the few remaining valenki factories.

"Felt boots are in high demand in Siberia, the Far East and northern Russia, and during the last five years the demand also has been growing in central Russia," said Grigory Shmykov, deputy head of a Yaroslavl factory that makes 600,000 pairs of valenki and other felt shoes per year.

"No winter shoes are more reliable than valenki," he said.

Moscow Guide Winter 2011
Moscow Guide Winter 2011
<p>A fresh snowfall can make any street in Moscow beautiful. No matter how familiar we are with what lies underneath the snow — a smudgy kiosk, a dusty road, last year’s remont — that layer of white makes our city new.</p>
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