The Red Dior or the Saint Laurent of the Steppes

If you happen to look at this pinterest page about Russian fashion, one particularly designer stands out: Slava Zaitsev.

At least, that’s what happened to me. If you look at the designs at the page it’s clear you’re looking at (post)modern fashion, but the Russian part isn’t directly visible. But Slava Zaitsev has an obvious signature. His colourful designs are a rarity in nowadays fashion. His designs speak of a rich Russian past, like the traditional Russian costumes I’ve blogged about before. What’s also fascinating is that Zaitzev is from an older generation of designers (he’s about the same age as Azzedine Alaïa, who was famous in the eighties). Which means, he was already  active as a fashion designer in the soviet union. A time when: “Everyone was badly dressed, simply because it was forbidden to dress properly,” ”It was considered the influence of the West. It was a sign of frivolousness. They consciously instilled in people a dislike of good taste. In fashion, that became the country’s calling card.”[1]

But despite of the fact that he was barely able to produce and sell is clothes in Russia, and was not able to travel abroad, the rare moments that his fashion was seen in the west, it was praised. For example when some French couturiers visited Moscow and saw Zaitsevs work, one of them, Pierre Cardin, called him “equal among equals” and the French press called him: The Red Dior. All of this was already happening in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union wasn’t exactly encouraging international success of Russians. So even though his fashions were shown abroad in the period between 1965 and 1958, Zaitsev wasn’t allowed to go there.

In the 1970s Zaitsev is active as a fashion designer in Russia, but disappears from the international radar. He is again recognised when Raisa Gorbachev wore Zaitsev when she made a perestroika splash in the 1980’s.

The question of what would happen if Zaitzev would have been able to show and sell in the west is unknown. Still its worth speculating. ”If he had had a chance to show his collections abroad he would have been most possibly a world-famed brand,” said Alexandre Vassiliev, a Russian-born fashion historian and designer who is based in Paris. ”But he didn’t make it. That’s it.”[2]

It is 1996 before Zaitsev is allowed to travel abroad. But when he gives a fashion show in 1987 in New York, the press thinks his collection is outdated. But not entirely disencouraged  Zaitsev is determined to fight for recognition in the west. And indeed, when the “soviet empire” falls, he does goes to the west to show and sell clothes.  But in 2008 he states:
“I think that as a Russian artist, I should show in Russia,” he said. “At the beginning of the 1990s, I had the chance to show in Paris, and I realized that it’s not my place.”[3]

And of course it’s good to stay true to one’s roots, but I think it’s sad and not necessary that Zaitsev’s work stays in Russia. Nowadays, it’s not a crime to take possibly outdated national  elements of fashion and put them into contemporary designs. It’s exactly that what’s Vivienne Westwood (1941, so also Zaitsevs generation) is famous for. Westwood is world renowned, and internationally sold. One of the reasons for that is probably because she is operating more as a business woman. For example, when you search for Zaitsevs website the only thing you get is an ill designed Russian website. That is quite a difference from Westwood’s state of the art website where you can easily find the Shop button. Off course Westwood’s approach asks for more than just couture fashion, something that’s Zaitsevs trade, much like Alaïa, who doesn’t even has a website, and only sells at very exclusive shops.

But whether Zaitsev shows in Paris, or in Russia, he deserves (in my humble opinion) world recognition. If only because nowadays there’s a lot of meaningless fashion out there, and all of Zaitsevs designs seem to tell a story.

If you look at his fashion show at the Mercedes-Benz fashion week Russia of this year, it’s seems you’re travelling trough time. And some of the designs seem like they could be worn by the 19th century royals, others by the modern woman of the 1920s, and then something that the elite of the 21th century would wear. Key word by all these wonderful clothes is richness. An that seems to apply to all the aspects of fashion: colours, textures, shapes and materials. Making every piece in the show a work of art. Taking fashion design to a higher level. Hopefully, some time soon there’ll be a retrospective exhibition of these wonderful works of Russian Fashion Art. Cause that’s what I think describes Zitsevs work best: It’s Fashion, so obviously Russian, and more than just something to wear, it’s art!

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