A Russian Revolution...In The Fashion Biz

Ambitious designers are honing their skills, but can they make a splash in global couture?

The Russians are invading. Russian fashion designers, that is. A dozen are planning to make their U.S. debut in May at Miami Fashion Week of the Americas, marking the first time Russian designers have attended a major American fashion event en masse. Several plan to show at New York Fashion Week in September, and move on to Los Angeles a year later.

American fashionistas may be in for a surprise. Russia is no longer the land of shapeless shifts and ill-fitting polyester shirts. The collapse of communism has given free rein to Russians' traditional creativity and love of self-adornment. "Only two countries, Russia and Italy, have a similar mentality. We really love to decorate ourselves," says Natalia Vinogradova, president of the Russian Association of Fashion Houses.

One hopeful for the U.S. market is Vemina, a design house founded in 1990 that signed Alina Kabaeva, a gold-medal Olympic rhythmic gymnast, to model its upmarket clothes in Miami. It is also negotiating with tennis stars Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova. In Russia its customers include politicians' wives and film stars. It's targeting showbiz stars in the U.S., too, but also hopes to sell $500 suits to female professionals. Lisa Romanyuk, Vemina's lead designer, admits that efforts to expand beyond Russia have had little impact. Sales in Western Europe make up "just a small percent" of Vemina's sales. But she has hopes for the U.S., where "the market is bigger."

A small number of Russian designers have already made their mark. Helen Yarmak, one of the few Russian designers to strike a chord in the U.S., says she chose an English-sounding name because Russian names didn't carry the same weight. Clients for her fur coats, which go for $500 to $240,000, include Hollywood stars such as Jim Carrey and Goldie Hawn.

Such success is hardly typical. Alexander Shumsky, organizer of Russian Fashion Week, says Russian designers would be better off focusing on the growing domestic market. He gives the example of Max Chernitsov, 27, a rising star who was the first homegrown designer to land a deal with TsUM, a major Russian department store. Too many Russian designers focus on haute couture instead of less glamorous but more profitable ready-to-wear lines. Shumsky adds, though, that the Russians are quick learners. "Three years ago most Russian designers thought fashion was art. Today, at least half of them understand that it's a business," he says. The global rag trade is about to get more interesting.

By Jason Bush in Moscow

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