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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

From Hardship to Fashion's Heights

Perhaps it was Svetlana Osipova's childhood that made her want to dress others up.


Born in one of Stalin's prison camps, Osipova, now a successful Moscow fashion designer, remembers being starved for color in her earliest years.


"I never saw colored pencils or crayons until I was 6 years old," said Osipova, whose father had been sentenced as a spy during World War II. "There were gray mountains, gray uniforms, gray everywhere."


But from that gray palette Osipova went on to create theater costumes full of color and whimsy and leather fashions that, if not as rich in color, boast a wealth of lacy detail.


Osipova, who has operated her Leather Lace boutique for three years, has shown the same sort of resilience on the business frontier.


When some mafia types tried to horn in on her operation, Osipova said she sent them packing. A common practice with the mafia, as Osipova found out, is extending a loan to inexperienced entrepreneurs and then demanding immediate control of the business.


Osipova sought help elsewhere, through U.S. assistance programs that helped her network her way to new partners willing to invest in her enterprise.


Her financial footing solid, Osipova can now spend more time creating the distinctive look of her leather designs. The filigree cut-out pieces fetch a handsome price -- $400 for a leather belt, for example.


Osipova studied design at the Moscow Textile Institute after finishing school in Dnepropetrovsk, where her family lived after being freed from the gulag in 1953.


While at the institute, Osipova discovered that she had radiation sickness, brought on by exposure to nuclear testing while in the Kazakhstan gulag. She had suffered for years from a mystery illness that only after perestroika did doctors dare name.


"I was almost an invalid from the exposure," Osipova recalled. "I lived 30 years with radiation poisoning. For 30 years the doctor never told me why I was sick. They just observed me." Osipova spent six months recovering in a hospital.


In 1984 she finished her degree and went to work at the Stanislavsky Theater as a costume designer, making a name for herself in Moscow artistic circles. She also designed costumes for the Bolshoi Theater, the Maly Theater, puppet shows and other theater productions around town.


The designer decided to experiment with the medium of leather and created her first all-leather garment with a lacy look. "I wanted to do something original," she said. "There are not many specialists in this field." It was her dream to open up a small shop offering feminine fashions in leather -- capes, vests and various other types of garments.


Osipova, 48, recently sold the rights to her design style to a Japanese investor for $200,000. "She's an artist in her mind, but a very practical one. She knows how to contact people and promote her product with great enthusiasm," said Alexei Tolokonnikov, the director of a U.S. government-sponsored program through which Osipova found a partner last year.


Today 30 people work designing, cutting and sewing for Osipova, including babushki as well as young artists studying at the fashion school. Two of Osipova's apprentices are working on a new kind of degree that concentrates on leather design.


Leather Lace has been recognized by the Russian Chamber of High Artistic Industries as one of the top artistic firms in Russia.