Moscow Gets Fashionable

Inside Victoria Andreyanova's Moscow boutique, the decor as well as the best-selling clothes are spartan and understated. Amid soft lighting, a Sinead O'Connor disc spins on a chrome CD player. Andreyanova meets her clients in the boutique's sleek underground cafe, where she shows them her tailored blazers and skirts, made mainly of Scottish tweed. The 40-year-old designer wears only the lightest of makeup, her hair cut in a simple blond bob. In a scene that would have been unimaginable a few years ago, a group of Italian cloth salesmen is gathered outside her door, suitcases full of exquisite material in hand. She keeps them waiting as she ruminates on the current state of Russian fashion. "Moscow's rich are tired of being showoffs," she says. "Everyone gorged on whatever they could in the '90s, and now they don't want to look like they're trying so hard. But don't get me wrong: everyone still wants to be noticed."

Not long ago the best way to get noticed in Russia was to wear a purple suit jacket, gold chains or the popular stiletto-miniskirt combination that endured even subzero windstorms. But these days, feather boas and white knee-high boots are losing out to the quieter charms of tweed and polished leather. In-your-face consumption is passe, disdained as an excess of the high-rolling gaudiness that followed the Soviet Union's collapse. Now prestige is marked by cool minimalism and "class." "Style is a reflection on the values of your community," says Levinson. "And what we see here is a high value on normalcy."

What's more, competition has finally hit the fashion marketplace. Muscovites once again have money to spend, thanks to high oil prices and a bit of distance from the 1998 financial crash. And they are spending it increasingly in European boutiques, which seem to open in Moscow on a weekly basis. But it's not just the wealthy "new Russians"--the elite group that made fast cash as the Soviet state was falling apart--who are taking advantage of the proliferation of Western shops. While chains like the Gap and Banana Republic have not yet arrived, a number of stores--including Naf Naf, Levi's and TJ Collection--have broadened access to Western fashions beyond the superrich. Even secondhand shops selling chic European clothing are beginning to crop up. In Moscow, the stilettoed, gangster-chic look is slowly fading away. "The idea of the 'new Russians' is starting to vanish," says Alexey Levinson, a sociologist and trend specialist with the Russian Center for Public Opinion and Marketing Research. "They are dissolving and creating a sort of upper-middle-class way of life." (Whether such a class even exists in Russia is the subject of heated debate--but in Moscow at least, the term definitely applies.)

The shift can be measured by the dramatic change in Russian tastes. When the cash first started flowing in the early 1990s, the style of post-Soviet capitalist cowboys was "pretty awful," says Levinson. "Take [oligarch-in-exile] Boris Berezovsky. He had two higher degrees--but even he didn't know how to wear a suit. How could he?" After all, Russia's nouveau riche had no examples to follow. "Social circumstances changed overnight, and those who got money created a new social class, where there were no rules yet," says Levinson. Like the nouveau riche in any country, they were drawn to flashy displays of wealth. Brands that were considered lower class in the West were prized in Moscow, simply because they were Western and previously inaccessible. The ravenous consumption of everything new, regardless of cost, spawned the popular "new Russian" joke of the mid-'90s, in which two men compare what they paid for an Italian tie: the one who spent $500 instead of $1,000 was furious that he got ripped off.

It's getting a bit harder to make jokes about Russian style now. These days, Muscovites want to--and can--wear the same clothes as Western Europeans and Americans, whether they buy them at Yves Saint Laurent or at a used-clothing store. Vladimir Kozhokaz, 25, is a coffeehouse hipster whose lime green cargo pants are secondhand German, his combat boots British and, though he's not sure where his corduroy jacket is from, "it's definitely not from Russia," he says. Some see all this as boring homogenization, others as evidence that Moscow has finally joined the West, culturally and materially.

Fashion is only the most visible sign of Moscow's lifestyle change. Minimalist restaurants with brightly lit interiors and smoke ventilation have replaced the meat- and-vodka dens of the early '90s. Green tea and espresso are the new prestige drinks, the halogen lamp is pushing out the over-the-top chandelier and the gym is the place to be at night. "The most fashionable thing right now is to be fit," says Andrei Kutazin, a 28-year-old banker, on a break from doing sit-ups with his personal trainer at an elite gym. "We've finally got money now, and we want to spend it on ourselves."

Western firms are rushing to cash in. All around Moscow billboards advertise Men's Health magazine, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor and the grand openings of Europe's top boutiques--from Ferragamo and Brioni to Gucci and Prada. The fact that import taxes can make Western designs as much as 30 percent more expensive than they are in Paris or Rome is no deterrent to many Russians. Three-hundred-dollar loafers are flying off the racks like scarce sausages did in the '80s.

The king of minimalist style, Giorgio Armani, is riding the wave. He opened a boutique in Moscow about a year ago, and is now weeks away from launching an interior-design store in his complex just below the old KGB headquarters. "I believe the Russian customer is becoming increasingly sophisticated and therefore more open to all kinds of fashion, particularly to cultivating their own personal style," Armani says. "We sell more beaded evening dresses in Moscow than in many other principal cities in the world." First Lady Ludmilla Putin is even said to be an Armani fan.

A new breed of Russian designer is eager to take him on. Igor Chapurin, 34, caters to the latest trend: new money trying to look like old money. He favors dark sweaters, wool pants and tailored leather coats. "I'd say my style is about aristocracy, delicate colors and a distinct intellectualism," he says. Though Andreyanova is more humble, one of her recent collections is also titled "Travels of the Aristocrat." She's hoping Russian fashion will soon win fans abroad; both she and Chapurin have shown their designs in Europe, to positive reviews. She describes her basic style as Italian, but with a "Russian soul"; some of her handbags are made from traditional Uzbek cloth. But she's not expecting her swimsuits to sell in Nice: "Russia has a cold image," she says. "Europeans only trust our warm, winter designs."

What sells at home in Moscow is simplicity and sportiness--but that doesn't mean that showiness has entirely gone out of style. One of Andreyanova's recent shows was modeled after a gymnastics competition. It's kind of a "play at being democratic," she says. "No one wants to appear that they are hungry for luxury, although everyone loves it." Just ask Muscovite Svetlana Merkulova, the 32-year-old wife of a metals trader. "I need something to wear when I take my child to play sports," she says, strolling into Moscow's Prada boutique to ogle a $400 pair of black moon boots. She's dressed simply, in jeans and a black blazer--but all of it, down to the accessories, is Dolce & Gabbana.

Russians' confidence about their own style is still developing, says Levinson. "Maybe in a decade you'll be able to describe Moscow fashion in as clear terms as you would Paris or London fashion," he says. "But for now, Russians are good pupils and can absorb a lot." A more deep-seated cultural shift will take time. "We've got people coming in and buying our clothes every day," says Armani manager David Kramberg. "But our client list is very short. People are afraid to give their names and addresses." Fashion is fluid; old habits, on the other hand, die hard.