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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Red, Black And the Blues

From the leather jackets and Mausers of the Bolsheviks to the yellow maxicoats of Slava Zaitsev, Masha Lipman looks back at Russia's love affair with style.

All over Moscow these days, two razor-boned young women look out from poster-sized advertisements and watch over the citizenry with the sort of gaze that images of Lenin and Marx once cast on us. Amber Valletta and Kate Moss, who are wearing sleeveless turtlenecks f one fuchsia, the other magenta f implore the masses to buy copies of Vogue, which began publishing a Russian-language edition in August.

Through no fault of the editors, the timing of the launch turned out to be problematic. These are distinctly in-elegant times. The ruble has lost value, banks have failed and President Boris Yeltsin is evoking memories of Brezhnev in his senescent last days. On Sept. 1, two weeks after the Russian stock market lost about 40 percent of its value, measured in dollars, Vogue canceled plans for a black-tie opening gala close to Red Square. It was a sensible decision, as we are tumbling deeper into a financial and political abyss.

For me, that's all the more reason to turn to Vogue, and also to Marie Claire, Elle, Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan and a rack of other glossies. Fashion, more than ever, seems like another world. If only for a moment or two, one finds relief in its fantastical optimism. "Moscow is the place where you've got to be right now," Donna Karan told Russian Vogue's inaugural September issue, and Gucci's creative director Tom Ford added, "I'm dying to come back and see Russia after all the changes."

When Ford spoke to Vogue, however, he was undoubtedly referring to democratic changes and market reforms. Will he really want to make another visit if the second round of changes throws Russia back to, say, 1986? The October issue of Russian Vogue says, "provocative luxury is one of the trends of the season. In this red is uncontested." For a few hours on Oct. 7, it did appear as if red was hands down the color of choice. Communist protesters marched through downtown, sometimes amid luxury stores that kept their windows shuttered so as not to provoke the demonstrators. This season, red is the color of my blues.

The three saleswomen who greeted me in late August at the Christian Lacroix boutique on Kuznetsky Most had their own blend of complacency and concern. At first they sounded confident. They had been in business since December, and they had special clients whom they rang up whenever there was something new and chic on sale. Right now, they were running low on merchandise, but they really did expect the fall collection to arrive any day. Furthermore, they assured me, Christian Lacroix was coming in person to introduce it. I couldn't help asking, "Don't you expect this crisis to affect your business?"

"Not unless there's revolution and people begin to kill each other," one of them said.

The conversation continued in a casual, friendly fashion, but the mood abruptly changed when I asked, "Do you think a revolution is likely?"

"Of course it is," another said. "I'm talking not as a boutique representative but as a woman and as a mother. Anything can be expected in this country. And nobody trusts this country. Over the past year and a half or two years, nobody has trusted Russia." Apparently, Christian Lacroix' faith in Russia is fading, too. After my visit to his boutique, the designer's Paris headquarters said that his trip to Moscow had been postponed.

Not far away is the Gianfranco Ferre Studio boutique, which opened in June in Petrovsky Passazh near the Bolshoi Theater. The mall features all manner of international boutiques: Kenzo, Givenchy, Lanc?me. But the foot traffic here, once brisk, was somewhat hushed. "All through the summer, we might sell as many as 20 articles a day," one saleswoman told me, smiling with pride. "Even though we've been in business only since June, we have already begun to form a permanent clientele. They call us asking when the new collection is arriving. They even called after the crisis began. Unfortunately, we can't tell them anything about prices."

"There's always a crisis in this country," another salesgirl said. "It will calm down." Then a little chill of anxiety seemed to hit her, and she added, "Do you think it's worse this time?"

Around the corner from Christian Lacroix there's a jeans store called Big Star. An English-language notice on the door read "Closed." There was also a Russian sign saying "Closed for technical reasons," a newly coined euphemism meaning "We haven't figured out any new prices yet."

I can't say that all of this is not strange sometimes, even for those of us who have spent half our lives yearning for a radical change. After decades of solemn reports on the wheat harvest, our journalism now occasionally uses the hermetic style of the fashion press, which we parse at our peril. Even seven years into "post-communism," the Russian ear (or mine, at least) has a hard time adjusting. Not long ago, a miniskirt was described as "reminiscent of patchwork"; it took me a minute to figure out that the barbarous-sounding Russian word pechvork, which I came across in the August issue of the Russian magazine Woman, was, in fact, "patchwork." I suppose most fashion readers know the word, because it was not included in the accompanying glossary, which did include the words "teddy," "bodysuit" and "French knickers."

Over the years, foreign friends f mostly Americans f were always shocked by the idea that Russians might take any interest in fashion. To them, the Soviet Union was the incarnation of anti-style, so much so that the Wendy's hamburger chain used to run commercials featuring a Soviet "fashion show" with a very fat woman wearing burlap. Well, no one would deny that we are still a poor country, and poverty does not allow for much crepe de chine, but for decades our realities and private aspirations f even our rebellions f have been reflected in what we've chosen to design and wear.

Fashion has almost always come to Russia from the West. In the 19th century, Russian noblemen emulated their European counterparts in attitudes, literary taste, lifestyle, even language. And, of course, clothes. Here is Pushkin (in Babette Deutsch's translation) on Eugene Onegin, a Russian aristocrat:

What London haberdashers hallow

We buy with timber and with tallow:

'Tis here, to please a lavish whim,

With all a dandy's mind can limn,

And all that Paris in her passion

For the most costly merchandise

So elegantly can devise

To tempt the sporting man of fashion

Observe his closet well, and gage

Thereby our eighteen-year-old sage.

In the early 20th century, however, Europe was overrun by a wave of Russian refinement, particularly Serge Diaghilev's extravagant Ballets Russes, which came to Paris in 1909. Audiences were taken as much by the innovative sets and elegant costumes by Leon Bakst, Alexandre Benois and Nikolai Roerich as by the dancing of Vaslav Nijinsky, Michel Fokine, and Tamara Karsavina. Suddenly, the stereotypical Russia of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky f the literary Russia, eternally in search of truth, the obsessive country that rejects the banality of surfaces f displayed a grace and a subtlety unfamiliar to European audiences. Yet all the stylish promise of the Ballets Russes never spawned a lasting Russian fashion designer, to say nothing of a Russian fashion industry. If there was a fledgling elegance in the country, it disappeared shortly after Lenin arrived at Finland Station. And, at the same time, all our would-be fashion titans, many of them White Russians, left for Paris and elsewhere. Little did we know that the son of one of Lenin's confidants, the young Alexander Liberman, would emigrate and go on to shape the American taste-maker Conde Nast.

The October Revolution tried to cast aside the old world: Anything deemed bourgeois was condemned, and dressing nicely was distinctly f fatally f bourgeois. Out went anything remotely feminine for women and formal suits for men. In came the leather jacket of the commissar (with Mausers as accessories). My grandparents, who saw the Revolution as the coming of a new world, adopted the ascetic style of the Bolsheviks. Not only did they reject fashion; they stopped celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, threw out all their furniture and ate their meals off butcher paper.

Lenin himself, after spending so many of his pre-Revolutionary years as a political exile in Europe, continued to wear a three-piece suit and a tie. But, unlike his ideas, Lenin's fashion statement never became the rage. The generation of the '20s combined narodny, or folk, style with the severe utility of military dress. "A service jacket cut from a gray blanket together with a malorossiisky [Ukrainian] embroidered shirt showing from underneath": such is the outfit of a Soviet bureaucrat disguised as the devil in Mikhail Bulgakov's novella "Diaboliad." Most of Bulgakov's works were inspired by his hatred of the Revolution and of the Bolsheviks' elimination of individual style. In photographs, Bulgakov invariably appears in a conservative suit and hat, an outfit that underscored his alienation and made him a suspicious figure in a world in which a fellow playwright, such as Vsevolod Vishnevsky, appeared at rehearsals wearing a politically correct leather jacket and, of course, a Mauser.

In the early '20s, the New Economic Policy brought back some elements of capitalism f the taste for the good life, good clothes and food, music and entertainment f and genuine revolutionary spirits were disgusted. Nevertheless, the Russian avant-garde took a keen interest in fashion f although, to be sure, revolutionary fashion. Alexander Rodchenko designed his own overalls. Kazimir Malevich's paintings suggested a kind of Suprematist color scheme f all bold, stark shades. Lyubov Popova brought a Cubist edge to her costume designs for the theater, and she designed coats and dresses as distinctive as any abroad. Even beyond the artistic world, the yearning for style blossomed under the New Economic Policy. In Ilf and Petrov's novel "The Twelve Chairs," a Soviet engineer's wife is obsessed with emulating a rich American woman she reads about in a French fashion magazine.

Even in the most terrible days of the Stalin era, after the New Economic Policy was crushed, citizens remained aware of style. Movies from the West were occasionally shown, and one could try to copy the clothing worn by such movie stars as Mary Pickford. Meanwhile, Communist Party officials and secret-police bosses, diplomats and bureaucrats enjoyed the privilege of foreign trips on business or for medical treatment; they brought back from Paris and London crates of dresses, bottles of perfume and, generally, a sense of style, however rudimentary. Years later, high party officials would establish top-secret tailor shops; in the most elite of those shops, tailors with security clearances made mannequin replicas of Politburo members so that the men of the party leadership could order their new gray suits on the telephone without wasting precious time.

In the late '50s and '60s, as the Iron Curtain pulled back slightly, we began to see Soviet versions of Western hipness. The stilyagi (our Beats) adored Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and craved outfits consisting of skintight pants, a big-shouldered jacket and thick-soled shoes. The lucky stilyagi bought their clothes from the rare foreign visitor; others had to make do by taking in their Soviet-made trousers. They would strut along the streets of Moscow and Leningrad in their stylish stuff, defying the police who would sometimes chase them down and "slash open their seditious narrow pants," as Vasily Aksyonov recalls in his autobiographical novel "The Burn."

Young people in big cities tried to keep up with their Western counterparts, but Soviet industry kept grinding out the same drab, gray stuff. Legend has it that the French actor and singer Yves Montand was titillated by a kind of Soviet women's underwear called a shtany f a longish, baggy, thick ugly thing. The writer Tatyana Tolstaya recalls in the September Russian Vogue that there was nothing more shameful for a girl than for somebody to see her shtany: "Maletskaya fell down and her shtany could be seen f warm, flannelette lilac. How horrible!" As for Montand, the story is that he bought a collection of Soviet undergarments to take back home to Paris, where he planned to organize a private exhibition.

Under Brezhnev, the Soviet Union became a consumer society without consumer goods; in the face of shortages, the people developed clothes obsessions. The tiniest detail f a collar line, the shape of buttons or pockets f would be reproduced at home by self-taught tailors. To create the flared trousers you saw in foreign films, you sewed in a wedge running from the knee to the rim of your old trousers. You'd spend an entire day waiting in line for a rare imported article; you'd think nothing of spending a month's wages on a pair of tight knee-high boots; you dreamed of a suede jacket.

And if you had the privilege of foreign trips, you could take everyone's breath away. The symbol of all we did not possess was a pair of blue jeans. You would "readily give away all your damned principles for a pair of genuine jeans," recalled writer Alexander Kabakov in a preface he wrote for a recent memoir by jazz musician and fellow stilyaga Alexei Kozlov. "A boy from a rich jeans family," a girlfriend of mine would say dreamily as she described somebody whose nomenklatura parents worked abroad and spoiled their pampered son with denim. To have both jeans and a jeans jacket f this was the fulfillment of an impossible Soviet dream. In Aksyonov's "The Burn," a foreign wife of a Russian playboy longing to outdo and outdress all the local women adorns herself in a "long suede skirt with a front cut running up to her pelvis, suede underwear, high suede boots, suede jacket, suede ... pelerine, suede umbrella and a suede bag for vegetables."

More recently, in the post-Gorbachev, post-perestroika years, clothes have returned to the Russian market. This has produced some distinctly un-Soviet situation comedy. Russian Vogue's editor in chief, Aliona Doletskaya, described her delight in finding a terrific Issey Miyake outfit in London and then her disappointment to discover, at a Moscow soiree, that someone else was wearing the same garment.

For others, fashion developed as a semiotic system indicating degrees of economic position and even of physical threat. The leather jacket, once the symbol of selfless struggle against capitalism, became in the early '90s the preferred garment of the post-Soviet hustler. In a recent interview in Kommersant Daily, an Italian tailor tells the story of his first Russian client: "It was like in a bad thriller. Two minutes before lunch break a handsome guy entered my shop. After he made sure that I was the man he was looking for, he announced, 'I wear two pistols on me. Make me a suit that would hide them even with the coat buttoned.'"

But in the age of reform, as business life became respectable and a middle class began to emerge, people became more sophisticated about clothing. Now this tailor has permanent clients in Moscow. Some of them are members of the Duma.

Probably the person hurt most by the invasion of foreign fashion designers to the Russian market was Slava Zaitsev, who was for years the only clothing designer of note in the Soviet Union f in fact, the only designer authorized to introduce Soviet haute couture to the world. Zaitsev's look f close-cropped hair, black suit, tuxedo shirt and bow tie f is familiar to all.

The other day, I stopped by to see Zaitsev, now a youthful 60, at his House of Fashion on Prospekt Mira. When the economic reforms began, Zaitsev told me, he lost many customers to his Western competitors. "Now is the first year when I've begun to win back clients," he said. "I think the Russians have had enough of mass-produced imports. And all these clothes in the boutiques lack soul, they lack my energy. I charge every piece. My clothes are alive."

Perhaps. What is true is that, in an empire of uniformity, of burly outerwear and industrial undergarments, he was the exception. (Like the poets Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky, he was given official license to be rebellious, not least because Soviet officialdom could trust him not to take his rebellions very far.) Even in the gray days of late communism, party officials put up with Zaitsev's orange pants and tomato-red shirt, his canary-yellow maxicoat and white fur hat. He was the token designer, and he played the role with panache.

In 1988, in the full flower of perestroika, Zaitsev became his own boss at the House of Fashion and a true celebrity. People waited in line to buy Slava Zaitsev clothes. (Even Raisa Gorbachev, the first Kremlin clotheshorse, took an interest. According to Zaitsev, Mrs. Gorbachev used to insist that her clothes had been designed by him f which he says wasn't the case.) After the collapse of communism, he endured, and prevailed: He was entrusted to design robes for the justices of the Constitutional Court, the first such court in the history of Russia.

These days, Zaitsev tries to show a certain magnanimity toward his Western competitors. In principle, I salute the appearance of their boutiques," he said. "They exist all over the world, so why should we be different? It's especially good for our young designers and for the older ones who cannot afford to travel abroad." Zaitsev conceded that if Western boutiques have to leave Russia as a result of economic collapse and political backlash, it will be good for his business. "But, as a person, I highly respect my colleagues," he said. "My ambitions yield to my benevolence." His alarm about the current crisis is tied, above all, to his fears about the look of Russia, and Russians: "If, God forbid, something happens, and an embargo is imposed upon us and borders are closed, what will people wear?"

What will people wear if the Communists succeed in turning back history? Zaitsev recalled the early days of his career, when he designed his first collection for peasants and workers f telogreiki (padded jackets), skirts and valenki (felt boots). But these days even Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, is looking rather natty as he seeks to defeat his capitalist enemies. Indeed, when I see him wearing elegant suits I find myself wondering where in the world he bought them.

The original version of this story ran in the Sept. 21 issue of

The New Yorker.