What do you design for people who are obsessed with everything new? Denis Simachev says the answer is simple: give them something familiar. The appeal of Soviet kitsch first caught on in Moscow a few years ago; billboards used Soviet propaganda posters to advertise rock-music stations, and Soviet-themed restaurants began popping up. But designer Simachev, 28, is the first to bring the Soviet look back to personal fashion. "It's not that I want the Soviet Union back," says Simachev, who was 11 when Mikhail Gorbachev first introduced the concept of perestroika. "But old people have nostalgia for their childhood, and people my age grew up hearing about Soviet life from their grandparents."
The designer is not looking to revive the gray suits and polyester dresses of Soviet days. He is far more interested in capturing the former empire's "sporty past." His T-shirts have ornate hammer-and-sickle designs, or contain the giant letters CCCP (the Russian initials for U.S.S.R.). "Everyone always wanted to be on the Soviet Olympic teams and wear shirts like this," he says. "Now anyone can." Ironically, his communist style is beloved for its uniqueness. "People who buy his outfits want to show off their individuality," says Yulia Radina, a saleswoman at Le Form boutique. But with his fanciest T shirts selling for about $200, not everyone can afford his brand of nostalgia.
Simachev also has a line of tracksuits, one of which he recently sent to President Vladimir Putin for his 50th birthday in October. As a former KGB man, Putin himself has a bit of the fusion Simachev is striving for: Western-leaning, sporty, but with a retro-totalitarian streak and a soft spot for propaganda and symbolism. Perhaps that's why Simachev has also designed T shirts with Putin's face surrounded by a border of roses. "It represents general love, that kind of idol worship, like in India," he says. He insists he's not making a political statement: "This isn't my opinion of Putin. I'm just trying to be a mirror, reflecting and concentrating public opinion into something tangible."
Like fellow Russian designers Igor Chapurin and Victoria Andreyanova, Simachev is also winning fans beyond the old Iron Curtain. His clothes are selling in Japan, England, France and Italy. But he thinks the Russian fashion world is the most fun. "There are still no rules here," he says. "You might be able to say 'Italian fashion' and imagine a certain look, but Russian fashion is still an open book." The potential seems great; Simachev's less expensive, simple CCCP T shirts are worn not only on the party circuit but also as the uniform for waiters at Zhiguli, a Soviet-style beer hall that plays synthesizer renditions of the old favorite "A Stewardess Named Zhana."
Camped out in the less expensive cafeteria section of Zhiguli, Simachev speculates on his fashion future. He's keeping mum about his upcoming collection, but says it is all about the military--and he doesn't mean the conflict in Chechnya. "I mean World War III," he says, sipping tea. Hey, if he can make the cold war seem fashionable, anything's possible.