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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fashion Marches to Tune of Middle Class

MTA model carrying flowers down the runway during Deffinesse's military-themed show at Russian Fashion Week, which runs through next Sunday.
In two back-to-back weeklong fashion shows in Moscow, dozens of Russian designers are sending legions of long-legged models out to strut the catwalks in their latest creations.

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"Countries are brands," said Alex Nasard, marketing director of Procter & Gamble Russia, a sponsor of Russian Fashion Week.

"And today, Russia is becoming a brand. Today, Russia is considered pretty cool."

But while the interest in Russian designers is growing in the West, they have little hope of achieving large-scale commercial success abroad anytime soon, according to those in the industry.

Therefore, business-savvy designers are looking for opportunities closer to home and focusing on the growing middle class, said Anna Lebsak-Kleimans, general director and head of research at Fashion Consulting Group.

At a Moscow Fashion Week show last week, a woman wearing pink fur, ostentatious diamonds and flashy labels, and accompanied by her chihuahua, stood out in the crowd, which seemed to prefer understated outfits. The brand-crazy dress embraced by New Russians in the early 1990s is slowly fading.

"Three years ago, the situation was radically different," said Alexander Shumsky, an industry heavyweight who produces Russian Fashion Week. "Comfort and style is what consumers seek now."

RFW, in its fourth year, opened Friday at the new Forum Hall near the Paveletskaya metro station with the first of 73 shows by designers from Russia, CIS countries and the West.

RFW opened the day after the close of the city's original fashion extravaganza, Moscow Fashion Week. Organized by Russia's Association of High Fashion and Pret-a-Porter, Moscow Fashion Week began in 1994, showcasing local haute couture designers. Now, ready-to-wear lines from international designers are also presented at Moscow Fashion Week, which had 44 shows this year at Gostinny Dvor. The Nina Donis run-through was among the more crowded shows, since many fashion lovers wanted to get a peek at the local top-end label, which was noticed by industry publications during London Fashion Week in February.

Deffinesse, a less-known local label, tried to catch the audience's attention at RFW on Friday by showcasing flowing skirts and military-style outfits against a backdrop of black-and-white World War II films and photographs.

"Be yourself" and "Don't be wasteful" were the main themes of the Lo label's RFW show Saturday, which had street sweepers sharing the catwalk with models in the designer's slinky signature outfits.

"We want to show that stylish clothing does not have to be expensive," said Tatyana Nedzvetskaya, general director of Quoll, which owns the Lo label.

"No one needs haute couture anymore," she said. "Everything in fashion has already been invented, except, perhaps, for some new combinations of colors or new fabrics, but even that has been invented and reinvented several times over.

"The future is about the mainstream segment. ... The competition [is] on the price."

Clothes from Lo sell at retail centers across Russia for about $30 to $80 per item, compared with prices of top-end Russian labels such as Nina Donis and Efremov, which hover around $1,000 per item.

To cash in on their growing visibility, Russian designers need to establish a wide client base, Lebsak-Kleimans said. That means investing in advertising, production and distribution lines, all of which require smaller investments in Russia than in the West, where the competition is more intense, she said.

Double bookkeeping and undeclared imports make Russia's clothing and accessories market difficult to assess. Lebsak-Kleimans said the estimates ranged wildly, from $17 billion to $270 billion.

Several local labels, including Lo, VASSA and Vereteno, retain a strong foothold in the mid-range segment, which accounts for 70 percent of the country's clothing market, she said. Luxury brands account for no more than 3 percent.

Nedvetskaya said that competing with cheap Chinese and Turkish imports was more difficult every year.

Russian designers also face discrimination from consumers who prefer Western brands. "Dressing according to Western standards is considered safe," Nasard said. But as Russians grow increasingly confident in their own fashion sense, they are becoming more interested in buying domestic brands, he said.

"People who are 35 and older are hard to change," Lebsak-Kleimans said. "Generation Next is different."

Shumsky said demand for local labels grew every season. "What's stopping consumers [from buying more local labels] is the lack of Russian fashion in stores," he said.