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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sacrificing Bread in Favor of Designer Threads

Giorgio Armani just opened a salon a few blocks from the Kremlin, which might prompt a student of economic statistics — Russian per-capita income is $1,660 — to ask whether the House of Armani has any lights on in its attic.

Wrong question. Better to wonder what took it so long.

Armani, it turns out, is a Giorgio-come-lately. Zegna, Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, Bulgari and Versace have been here for months, some of them for years. Prada is said to be coming next spring.

Indeed, pretty much anyone in fashion whose name ends in a vowel — or in the case of Tiffany, sometimes y — is either here, or arriving soon, or opening a second store.

They are not coming for the climate. A certain class of people here have begun to buy clothes, shoes and jewelry as if money were no object.

"We are not a Third World country," said Alla Verber, a commercial director and buyer for a Moscow company, Mercury, that is the Russian partner for many of those and other high-fashion names. "Like anywhere else in the world, there are people here who are into fashion and want to spend money."

But Moscow is not like anyplace else in the world, not when it comes to clothes and baubles. In the last decade, it has been a binge-and-purge kind of place — an insecure teenager who spends the family lunch money on a makeover, even though she knows better.

Sales of Mercedes-Benzes here leaped by one-third in the first half of 2001, but the city has no reliable source of fresh milk, almost all of which must be hauled in from Finland. A handful of jewelers sell watches for upward of $1 million each, and jewel-encrusted jeans go for $3,000. But in the last month, 80 Muscovites have died on the streets of hypothermia, a rate which promises to exceed last winter's toll of more than 300 deaths.

The same sort of damning comparisons can be drawn in any place that is not a socialist paradise, of course. The difference, as many Russians will allow, is that consumption here tends not to be just conspicuous, but flagrant, and fashion is its highest expression.

"People most of all want luxury here, luxury that's visible," said Olga Mikhailovskaya, the fashion feature editor of Vogue Russia, a thick and glossy cousin of the American Vogue that sells about 250,000 copies a month. "Russians don't really appreciate cut, or form in general. But they're very much into what can be seen." That includes bright colors, gold and silver.

Verber said: "People, when they are working, everything they spend after expenses, they spend on clothes. They want to look good; they need to. It's a mentality."

Some of that, no doubt, is a reaction to a past colored entirely in gray. While fashion did exist in the Soviet Union — an early designer stitched her 1920s creations from old linen handkerchiefs and blankets — individuality was not only frowned on, but also could be positively dangerous.

"During the Cold War, women in stockings were considered enemies," said Alexander Vasiliev, a Moscow designer and author of "Beauty in Exile," a history of Russian fashion. "Some beautiful women went to gulags because they wore American fashions."

During Stalin's time, a plunging neckline was proof that a woman had fallen under Hollywood's bourgeois spell. Such strictures — and the lack of stores that sold quality clothing — gave rise to a rueful saying among Soviet women: "After I'm dead, no one will know that I had taste."

Whether today's abundance of stores has changed that is a matter of opinion.

Among Moscow's nouveau riche — what average Muscovites disdainfully call "new Russians" — women's fashion still tends toward painted-on jeans, bandanna-size skirts and flashy gold jewelry and gemstones.

The stereotype, deeply rooted in fact, is that such outfits are bought by the girlfriends, mistresses and occasionally even wives of Moscow men who struck it rich in the 1990s chariot race toward capitalism. And it is true that on any given day, the scene on the country's trendiest fashion streets — Kutuzovsky Prospekt, Tverskaya Ulitsa and now Tretyakovsky Passazh, a Soviet storage yard just remade with a $50 million investment — still runs toward pencil-thin young women with braces of buzz-cut bodyguards.

But while Moscow itself seems to have thoroughly recovered from the 1998 economic crash that swept over Russia, the rich alone could not sustain such a flock of designer stores, said Mikhailovskaya.

"There aren't so many who have such money," she said. "It's a real trait of the Russian character that people live beyond their means. Any person abroad who earns $2,000 a month won't spend $1,000 on a suit. But a Russian will, because for a Russian, it's important to show his wealth."

Such "tarty" behavior is changing, insists Vasiliev. "In the '90s, I would call Russian fashion ghastly and tasteless," he said. "Now, I would call it elegant and tasteful."