. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Clothes for the Future, Inspiration From the Past

Ask Yelena Pelevina who her favorite Western designer is, and she looks puzzled. "It is embarrassing to admit it, but I simply couldn't name a single designer from the West," said the 50-year-old designer in her Moscow boutique. "To be honest, I am not interested in Western fashion. My inspiration comes from Russia and its rich history." Pelevina is just one of an increasing number of Russian designers who are looking to the past to traditional methods of dressmaking. Some, like Pelevina, take their influence from the fashions of the old Russian court. Others are encouraged by the simpler shades and fabrics of the pre-Revolutionary peasantry. Pelevina said she has broken away from the conventional mold of fashion designers in this country, who tend to imitate Western couture houses. Instead, she has created an idiosyncratic clothes collection, which combines a cool '90s edge with classical Russian design. Her boutique on Komsomolsky Prospekt is less an emporium than a museum dedicated to fashion. Stepping inside, you feel as though you have traveled back in time to imperial Russia. The walls are awash with hangings in warm, regal colors. All are made from natural fibers -- silk, cotton, linen -- and all depict classical Russian themes. A giant mural of St. Basil's Cathedral, interwoven with gold thread, makes even the original pale in comparison. Beside it hangs a vibrant portrait of St. George, his spear raised over the head of the dragon. Pelevina's elaborate scenes create the perfect backdrop for her stately clothes. Her best-selling numbers this season are the patchwork silk jackets and waistcoats, made from jewel-colored fabrics -- ruby, emerald and sapphire. While using elements of traditional Russian design, all her clothes look modern with their asymmetrical buttons and Valentino-style contours. "For me, design is not just about making clothes," Pelevina said. In her applique gown, which makes Joseph's technicolor dream coat look like a dishcloth, with the gold brocade collar pulled up behind her thick black curls, she looked like a mature version of Anna Karenina. "Design is a way of life. It is not just to do with clothes. It depends on one's whole outlook on the world." Pelevina trained with Slava Zaitsev -- Russia's most celebrated and, in the eyes of fashion aficionados, most talented designer. "Slava taught me a great deal," Pelevina said. "But after studying at his school, I decided against working at his fashion house. We have very different approaches to design." She concedes that her designs are expensive. "But you have to remember that the fabrics are all natural and often have to be imported," she said. Pelevina is particularly fond of her evening-wear collection, stitched from hundreds of scraps of multicolored silk, lending the clothes a soft, yet vibrant, effect. Her clients are mostly foreigners. "The Russians who buy my clothes are often the new rich," she said. "But they aren't the sort who want everything from the West. Like me, they are more interested in preserving our Russian heritage." Olga Pustovalova, 50, is another designer who looks back to look forward. While Pelevina has based her costumes on grand traditions, Pustovalova takes her inspiration from the Russian peasantry and folklore. "Tradition is not just what generations have passed on to each other through the centuries," Pustovalova said, sipping green tea in her studio. She wore a long knitted skirt, thick, yet graceful, like those the peasants from the Tambov region used to wear 80 years ago. "Tradition is like living wood -- it grows and develops all the time." Although she has tried to reproduce the peasants' methods of spinning, knitting and sewing, she said she could never re-create them entirely. "Today's materials are all made in factories," she said. "In the old days, the whole family would sit around the hearth, their farm work finished for the day, and the women would stitch or embroider. They sang and laughed and told fairy tales to the children, and all this was absorbed into the material. When the clothes were complete, they contained a part of the Russian soul." Pustovalova deplores the lack of traditional handicrafts in Russian villages today. Brought up in the small town of Yerofeyevka in the Tambov region, her family moved to Moscow when she was a teenager. "A whole generation of village-dwellers, my father included, were drawn toward the cities," she said. "When they arrived, they were ashamed of their humble peasant roots. They wanted to hide them. As a result, many of the old customs were lost." Still, she doesn't think the traditional methods have disappeared altogether. She draws a comparison between her work and the avtorskaya pesnya, or bard's song, that emerged in the 1970s. Vladimir Vysotsky, Sergei Nikitin and Bulat Okudzhava, the pioneers of the genre, were more than just singers, she said. They were poets and composers at the same time. "It was during the '70s, too, that the avtorsky costume was born," Pustovalova said. When she graduated from the Moscow Textile Institute in 1973, Pustovalova and some of her peers recognized the importance of their Slavic roots. "We weren't just repeating the old-fashioned methods of designing clothes. It was more than that. We were bringing them back to life and adding our own designs at the same time." Perhaps what shows her inclination toward tradition more than anything else is Pustovalova's collection of rag dolls. When she was pregnant with her daughter, she made 50 rag dolls to while away the time. "Russian designers shouldn't be afraid to emulate their past," Pustovalova said. "Our history is so diverse, our culture so unique. When it comes to fashion, we don't need to follow the West. We can design just as well ourselves." Yelena Pelevina's studio is located at 42 Komsomolsky Prospekt. Tel: 242-3726. Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Metro: Frunzenskaya. Olga Pustovalova's designs and dolls are also displayed there.