At the 3.14 Project, one of Moscow's newest and most exclusive "concept stores," the typical customer is in his mid-30s and rich. He has a mullet, bad taste, and a man crush on Vladimir Putin. Owner Alexander Moisyenkov's job is to transform these consumers—who favor glittery Armani suits, Versace jeans, Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses, and an extra splash of Acqua di Parma—into modern fashionistos. "He can buy the new Mercedes (DAI)," Moisyenkov explains, "but we want him to drive the vintage Porsche."
To ease this transition, Moisyenkov has created an intimate store that offers nouveau riche shoppers "a new luxury," as he calls it. "That is the concept of this concept store: the atmosphere," he says. "Here you are losing yourself in the time." His store's name refers to the Greek number pi, "because it goes on forever and ever."
In the past year, Moscow has witnessed a mini-explosion of high-end fashion boutiques that specialize in all manner of "concepts." These stores—whose conceits range from "modern woman" to "biznesman" and "Lower East Side" to "hooker-chic"—offer alternatives to big-name luxury labels. In the past decade, brands such as Fendi and Gucci have headlocked the wealthy Russian fashion scene to such a degree that boutique owners refer to the phenomenon as "the Italian Plague." By contrast, concept stores carry lesser-known, super-pricey designers—such as Sweden's Acne Studios and Australia's Akira Isogawa—that adhere to some amorphous concept. They tend to be owned by power divorcées and ex-models married to "minigarchs." Some are even run by people like Moisyenkov, entrepreneurs who know something about fashion and Russian consumption habits.
Among the best known are Mood Swings (concept: femme fatale), Kuznetsky Most 20 (sugar daddy), Rehab Shop (Courtney Love), and Twins S.h.o.p.p. (indie rock). Cara&Co (Lights! Camera! Action!), which opened in 2007, has become famous among local designers and fashion bloggers, and owner Rosa Alpert is planning a second location in Sydney. LeForm, the only concept store that's too cool to have a concept, has been around since 1997—before the concept of concept stores existed. Owner Rodion Mamontov says that so many people crave the gritty-chic look today that "Dolce & Gabbana doesn't look like Dolce & Gabbana anymore."
No matter their specific concept, these boutiques specialize in fashion-forward and muted—but still expensive—pieces. They also rely on a particular brand of aspiring oligarch logic. Instead of flying to London or New York to buy a pair of Rupert Sanderson suede heels for $600 or a Tim Van Steenbergen sheepskin jacket for $1,800, shoppers can stay in Russia and impress fellow poseurs by spending as much as 50 percent more for a look that would work in any major metropolis.
And that's the point. For the past few years, the Kremlin has tried to project an image of normalcy. Russia belongs to the G8, has been chosen to host the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2018 World Cup, and brokers nuclear arms deals with Washington. Many concept store owners feel they're acting in line with the Kremlin's wishes by helping the superrich look shabby—just as they do in Los Angeles. According to James R. Fenkner, a senior analyst at Moscow-based Red Star Asset Management, "Designers and retailers are taking their cue from the Kremlin's strong-Russia theme. All businesses in Russia must pay attention to the Kremlin's wishes."
LeForm's Mamontov says he had to lean on his family to raise the nearly $600,000 to open his first boutique in the late 1990s. After its success, he had no trouble raising capital for his second store, in 2007. "This is how people are dressing now," says Mamontov. Perhaps as a result, neither he nor his investors have run into trouble with the government. Nina L. Khrushcheva, former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's great-granddaughter and a professor of international affairs at New York's New School, explains that Russia expects the private sector to follow its lead. "Everything in Russia is political, as is the case in most autocratic countries," she says. "The way literature was in the U.S.S.R., so it is now with fashion or concept stores."
While concept stores may project the right aura, it's unclear how many consumers can actually afford them. Most store owners say they have only 200 to 300 reliable customers—those who have received VIP cards with discounts of up to 30 percent. Mamontov estimates his stores average 90 customers and $10,000 in sales per day. Says Georgiy Kostava, a 3.14 Project spokesman: "You cannot expect traffic in a place like this. It's a different way of consumption." As any night at Moscow's Vogue Café makes abundantly clear, rhinestones, sequins, and flashy things with lots of zippers remain very much in fashion.
Here lies the challenge of the concept store's long-term viability: its very concept. While the stereotype of the 1990s oligarch—Adidas tracksuit, gaggle of Uzi-wielding bodyguards, and abundant prostitutes—has evolved (oligarchs no longer wear tracksuits), the need to display wealth has not. "These men have short-d—k syndrome," says Cara&Co's Alpert. "He has a trophy wife, and he wants her to have a trophy bag." If that trophy wife comes home with a pair of Henry Cuir sheepskin heels—they run $760 at Cara&Co—her husband might ask why they're not from Gucci, Alpert explains.
Some owners are maneuvering around the issue of subtlety through unsubtle price gouging. "If we sell something with gold," says LeForm's Mamontov, "we don't call it gold. We call it yellow metal. If we sell something with diamonds, we call them transparent stones. With the price, people can understand." Alas, laments Alpert, "What we need are more foreigners and gays. That would be so great. These people have fashion sense." Although a new breed of homegrown fashionistas may soon emerge. "Russian girls are open to everything since traditions have been destroyed so many times in the 20th century," says Moscow fashion blogger Vlasta Sofia Guryeva. "They learn very fast."
A few concept stores have tapped into something all Russian consumers crave: exclusivity. Moisyenkov understands this better than most. Amid 3.14 Project's high ceilings, exposed brick, and glowing chandelier, he leads a visitor to a special place—underground. "We call it our 'between friends' room," he says. Moisyenkov descends a hardwood staircase to a "secret door," camouflaged by wood paneling, that requires a "secret key." Inside is a couch opposite a rack of clothes. "Sometimes we take customers downstairs, and I say, 'In there is a secret room, but you cannot see it. If you come back, next time, we will let you in.'" He laughs. "This works. Really, it does."