If you look at any of my childhood photos, you would be hard-pressed to find me pictured in any clothing that wasn't pink, red, yellow, or brightly patterned. I was put in pink onesies, pink winter suits, and overalls with pink tees. My hair was always adorned with colorfully stacked scrunchies and my dresses were big and puffy—like, really puffy. While I was always dressed tastefully, “the more colorful the clothes, the better” was the philosophy that reigned in my mother's household.
It would be easy to dismiss this as the result of my mom’s penchant for color, but it wasn’t just that. I was born a few years before the official collapse of the Soviet Union, though, in Copenhagen, where my Russian parents have already been based in for a few years prior due to my dad’s aviation job. Growing up, I was discouraged from wearing black, gray, or brown or anything that read as boring or plain (the concept of having a stack of plain-colored tanks or tees to layer underneath was never introduced to me until college), and the first time I told my mom I hated pink in middle school, she was perplexed: “But you’ve always worn pink.”
“Because you’ve dressed me in pink.”
Born in 1959 in Moscow, my mother entered the world at a time when Russia was still recovering from the destruction of WWII and in the early stages of the Cold War. With relatively little Western fashion entering the country, and following a movement in Russia where people were judged primarily on their capability for work, rather than their appearance, clothes were purely functional—as well as being almost identical. Yes, fashion was becoming more of a priority for the country than in years past, and there was even a counterculture movement called stilyagi—loosely translating to "style hunter," and not unlike the Greasers stateside—that was peaking in the ‘50s and early ‘60s and boasted colorful and government-defying clothing, but fashionable apparel was still hard to come by. American-made jeans were a particularly desirable item when my parents were growing up, with both of them queuing in line to hopefully get their hands on coveted Levi’s; truly bright colors and style options were few and far between if you didn’t have a lot of money; everything was uniform.
As such, my mother overcompensated when dressing me; it, of course, helped that my parents were living in Europe at the time of my birth, so she had no shortage of colorful clothes—or Levi’s, for that matter.
It was following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the attendant increased awareness of Western fashion that Russian designers began to think of clothing as more than just functional; they began instead to look to stylish cities like Milan and Paris for inspiration. And while to some, Russian fashion might bring to mind tacky, skin-tight, crystal-adorned, logo-bearing mini dresses underneath giant floor-grazing furs paired with sky-high stilettos and oversized gold jewelry on an oligarch's flavor-of-the-week (and, if we are being honest, that was common in the aughts), in its current iteration, Russian fashion has evolved into something increasingly sophisticated, subtle, and uniquely its own, even attracting consumers beyond Russia.
Proof of this occurred just last week, when Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia descended upon Moscow. Happening on heels of Paris Fashion Week, the Russian runway shows can be more closely compared to the experimental ones from Berlin Fashion Week than to any from the Big Four cities that make up fashion month. The designs are more daring and future-leaning, which can be attributed to the freedom and the creativity of thought that had an explosion post-USSR and continues to this day. As a response to both internal restrictions and being closed off to the Western world for so long, Russian fashion designers emerged on scene for the next two-plus decades to provide an antidote to sartorial uniformity—a movement that has evolved through many iterations over the years, from the ‘90s skate culture to the "punk rebellion" look of the late '90s and early '00s and "flashy-trashy" days of mid '00s, and has now landed in the more subdued fashion territory that speaks with intention and touts impeccable taste.
The collections display an interesting juxtaposition though: While some designers respond to events both political and cultural—if media is easy to censor based on its forthright message, it’s historically much harder to suppress messages that do not read as inherently political—other more nostalgic-leaning houses take inspiration from the past, even movements that are not aesthetically interesting at first glance for present day; not to say that they only borrow from kitschy fashion of the olden days (think: bazaar-like sarafans, a traditional Russian pinafore; babushkas’ floral printed headscarves; and ushankas, fur hats with ear flaps) per se, even though some have touched on that to great effect and in a relatively modern and even stylish manner.
For one, Russia’s rich folklore always has a place in the country's fashion, whether on the popular and incredibly talented designer Alena Akhmadullina’s works of art (no other way to describe her clothing, truly) or on the Paris runways of Ulyana Sergeenko, member of the unofficial Russia’s fashion pack (that also includes It Girls Elena Perminova and Miroslava Duma). Similarly, fashion's cool kid Gosha Rubchinskiy (and Balenciaga's Demna Gvasalia's BFF) looks to the ’90s post-Soviet Muscovite rebel subcultures for his eponymous label, while Vika Gazinskaya, who’s both a street style star in her own right and a designer who dresses street style stars, gives subtle nods to the quirky, retro-sque fashions of the aforementioned stilyagis.
And while all four keep on surprising and delighting both their Russian fan base and the international crowd—they frequently show in Europe with most of their clothing available there and stateside—it’s also the newcomers (at least to the non-Russian audience) that are interesting to look at to better understand the current landscape of the country. This season, Aleksandr Rogov and Bella Potemkina have all looked to nonconformist countercultures, borrowing from both the punk movement in Russia and club scenes of ‘90s underground Berlin and London, to send out androgynous-esque clothing and an unapologetic amount of neon pink. Young up-and-comer Yury Pitenin of Saint Tokyo, probably the most exciting designer in Russia right now, has again stood out with his edgy take on layering and craftsmanship mixing of unlikely materials and patterns—just look at this number pairing a sweatshirt with a ladylike lace skirt and what appears like a plaid shirt tied around the waist. Knitwear master Ksenia Seraya, who first appeared a year ago at Russia’s fashion week, has, too, once again pushed the envelope on cold-weather wear, as did Jenia Kim, who was born to Korean parents in Uzbekistan, with her tight collection of shoulder padded tops and jackets and coat-like blouses for her brand J. Kim. The different sides that make up a woman were also put on display at the runways of Ksenia Knyazeva and Ukraine's Yasya Minochkina with looks ranging from incredibly feminine and soft to edgy, made for the warrior women we have had to become in recent years. (In a performance power move, Knyazeva sent out a model to spin in front of a flaming fire graphic.)
While the majority of trends are not unlike the ones witnessed on the runways of NYC and Europe, what differentiates Russian fashion is the sense of risk-taking that's light years away from the tastelessly risquê fashions that still ruled less than two decades ago. With the idea of personal style at an all-time high—something that, for better or worse, may have reached its peak in New York or London a long time ago creatively—there is no better time to look to Russia to be inspired all over again. For it is there that immaculate tailoring, sophistication, and well-executed athleisure fit for Moscow's cosmopolitan ways, but also for international lifestyles, are rising, and not without a signature cheeky wink to Russian military, babushkas, and fairy tales that made up Soviet childhoods and contributed to the "grandma chic" style rage that popped up a few years ago. In its relative fashion week infancy, this is where you see something exciting and surprising, and really, you only need to look to show-goers for proof that’s there’s a can’t-place-my-finger-on-it, je ne sais quoi happening on the scene. In a time where Russian-U.S. tensions are not far off from the days of the Cold War, it’s also welcome to be able to see past the politics and recognize artists that are responding to events with a burst of color and an alternative fantasy.
At the end of the day, there is a correlation between reacting to the events of the modern day and looking to the past for answers. History repeats itself, after all, though even if my mother dressing me in pink was a celebration of how Russian society had progressed, I’ll still probably dress my kid-to-be in all black.