Alexandre Vassiliev, Russia's prominent costume designer and collector. Source: Elena Pochetova
The Minister of Fashion spreads the word
By Nora FitzGerald
The Russian television show, “Fashion Verdict” destroys the stereotype that all Russian women dress in shapely dresses, chinchilla jackets and Sex-In-The-City heels.
Thirty million viewers turn to state-owned Channel One every week to watch Russian fashion pundits interrogate busy working women about their clothing and appearance. The contestants selected for the show represent Russian women who don’t usually get a lot of play and who are considered almost invisible.
The popular co-host on the show, Alexandre Vassiliev, recently visited New York and Washington, D.C., for the first time in a decade. The trip was a respite from his new life as a TV celebrity in Moscow, where he has discovered that there is famous—and then there is really famous.
Vassiliev is a heralded costume designer, collector and author well known in Moscow and his second hometown, Paris, where he went into exile in the early 1980s. But these days he can’t walk down Moscow’s main streets without being lovingly accosted by fans.
“It’s an incredible fame in the two and a half years since I stepped into this show. I have written about the history of fashion and designed more than 100 ballets, yet now it is difficult to walk on Tverskaya,” he said during an interview while visiting D.C., where he has no trouble walking down K Street. “I am very pleased of course with the success.”
Vassiliev said he came on the show as a “minister of happiness.” Russia is more than 60 percent female, he said, adding that some women, statistically speaking, just cannot find a man and that alcoholism and prison reduces the number of available men. (He said that American women have an easier time finding a mate, since in the United States, there are more men than women.)
“I want to make women happy,” he said.
Vassiliev was in town talking to the Kennedy Center management about supporting an exhibit from his costume collection. Vassiliev hopes to bring 50-60 Ballet Russe pieces for an exhibit slated to open in the center’s terrace exhibition room.
In his book, “Beauty in Exile: The Artists, Models and Nobility who Fled the Russian Revolution and Influenced the World of Fashion,” Vassiliev opens with the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe. In the book, he explains how the visionary’s dramatic sense of style, as well as his obsessions with Orientalism and antiquity, captivated audiences around the world.
Vassiliev bought his first costume when he was sixteen years old. He said he was lucky that his father, a Bolshoi designer himself, supported his desire to collect costumes from a young age; Vassiliev now has a collection of 10,000 dresses and costumes.
Embracing Soviet Style
Vassiliev’s current Moscow exhibit, “Fashion Behind the Iron Curtain,” explores a less heralded period of Soviet style. His vast collection is the backbone of the show, which also includes museum collections. “This is the first exhibition of its kind. We are showing the personal dresses, bags and hats of the biggest stars in the Soviet Union,” he said. The costumes once belonged to famous artists like prima ballerinas Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya, actresses Lyubov Orlova and Valentina Serova, and Lyudmila Gurchenko.
“Some of the dresses are homemade and some of them are American made, others were smuggled through the black market or came back with sailors or artists on tour,” Vassiliev added.
STUDIED: stage design
Alexandre Vassilev was born in 1958 in Moscow into a famous theatrical family. His father was a renowned scenic and costume designer and his mother was a dramatic actress. He created his first suits and scenery for a puppet theater when he was five years old. Vassiliev later graduated from the prestigious Moscow Art Theater School (MKhAT). He worked as the costume designer at the Moscow theater on Malaya Bronnaya. In 1982 he immigrated to Paris where he began to work for French theaters. Vassiliev creates scenery for operas, theatrical performances, films and ballets, He is a lecturer and owner perhaps the greatest private costume collections. His book, “Beauty in Exile,” has been translated into English.
“This era had a very controversial relationship with fashion, which was declared a hangover from the bourgeois past,” said Irina Korotkikh, curator of the Soviet fashion exhibit at the Tsaritsyno Palace in Moscow. “Today it is hard to imagine the lengths to which the icons of the time had to go to keep up the image of genuine stars.”
Vassiliev knows something of this era, and he has designed his much-photographed Paris apartment and Vilnius summer home in the manner of the exiled aristocrat, a fin-de-siecle tribute that honors the beauty and rituals of days gone by with bamboo furniture, sumptuous fabrics in rich royal colors, overlong curtains, antique books and ceramic pitchers. His mother, a lyrical beauty, was a Bolshoi actress. His father was at one time president of the design guild.
“My father was sponsoring my fancy desires,” he said, smiling. “They actually liked what I did and I managed to collect a great deal.”
In 1982, at the age of 23, Vassiliev married a young French woman and moved to Paris. He stayed in Paris and joined a circle of Russian émigrés and still considers Paris his home. He lives there when he is not doing his television show.
He has worked extensively as a designer for the French theater scene, the Avignon Festival and the Ballet du Nord. He has also designed costumes for the Las Vegas Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, the Polish Ballet and the National Ballet of Mexico—to name just a few.
Still, most of his time these days is consumed by television. On a recent episode of “Fashion Verdict,” a young mother wearing ill-fitting jeans and a grey hoodie peered at Vassiliev doubtfully, squinting through her horn-rimmed glasses.
She spoke about her long days working for a film company on location on city streets, then running home and caring for her young children and husband in their small Moscow apartment. Just as the audience was beginning to feel her pain, her mood lightened and she walked away with a closet full of clothes that had the blessing of Evelina Khromtchenko, Vassiliev’s co-host and the indomitable edimatrix of fashion magazines. The show ends on a dreams-can-come-true-it-can-happen-to-you kind of note.
“I want to help them be more sure of themselves, to be self confident,” Vassiliev said of the women on the show. “Then even if they don’t get a man, they can’t blame their clothes.”
Alexandre Vassiliev's exhibition. Source: Elena Pochetova
Fashion Behind the Iron Curtain
By Tatiana Lykova
Custume Collection. Source: The Tsaritsyno National Museum / Press Photo
The Tsaritsyno National Museum will host a major exhibition “Fashion behind the Iron Curtain. From the Wardrobes of Soviet-era Stars” (23 February – 12 June). It is a joint project of the Tsaritsyno Museum-Reserve, the National Fashion Museum, a cultural fund, the noted fashion collector and historian Alexandre Vassiliev, the Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum (Ulanova Museum-Apartment), the Museum Association "Moscow's Museum", Stage Costume Departments at the Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre and private collectors.
The exhibition’s curator Irina Korotkikh talks about the broad retrospective of costume in the 1920s-1990s, when the Soviet Union was a closed society. The Soviet woman was expected to meet a common standard, not to stand out in any way and be like everybody else. No fashion magazines or any information about world fashion trends were available in the country. The trend-setters were individual stars of stage and film, opera and ballet, variety shows and opera. Today it is hard to imagine the lengths to which the icons of the time had to go to keep up the image of genuine stars in that difficult era.
What is the thrust of the exhibition? What can visitors expect to see?
The apparel of Soviet stars contrasts very interestingly with the day-to-day and Sunday-best clothes of ordinary people. It gives an idea of how the members of the Soviet elite managed to follow current European fashion trends. There are relatively few evening gowns and haute couture items, which reflects the real situation at the time.
In the post-war 1940s, amidst universal poverty, many items were brought to the USSR as war booty or under lend-lease arrangements with America. They were brought in from defeated Germany and sold in second-hand shops. So the Soviet élite, in addition to clothes made from domestically manufactured fabrics, had an alternative.
RIR: Who were the true trend-setters against this backdrop?
Irina Korotkikh: To answer that, one has to look at that part of the exhibition featuring the wardrobes of the great Soviet ballerinas Galina Ulanova (1909-1998), Olga Lepeshinskaya (1917-2008) and Maya Plisetskaya (born 1925), who embodied the ideal of, on the one hand, femininity and, on the other hand, a creative individual for whom dress was a vehicle of self-expression.
The exhibition features about 140 items from the Galina Ulanova museum, a branch of the Bakhrushin State Theatre Museum, a collection that has never before been shown to the public. From the 1940s, when Ulanova came to Moscow, she was for a long time a paragon of elegance. All her clothes were bought abroad. She was not acquainted with any specific fashion designers but some foreign fashion houses and firms felt it would promote their brand if they had a Soviet ballet star among their customers. The most interesting items in Ulanova’s wardrobe date to the 1980s and 1990s. Typically, these are suits (blouse, jacket and straight skirt) handmade by famous haute couture firms, of the same silhouette, a cross between Coco Chanel and Christian Dior differing mainly in how they were decorated. Our stars, for the most part, could not afford such clothes. Ulanova’s friends and patrons of the arts helped her. Accessories for every costume included gloves, a hat, a handbag, shoes or high boots. They are all exclusive items from prestigious firms such as Ophelie, Louis Feraud, Puritan, Viktor Laud, Gucci, Bruno Magli and Salvatore Ferragamo.
Ulanova liked natural furs, her collection containing many short fur coats, all bought in Europe and all very costly. The story goes that Ulanova once took a fancy to an unusually cut fur coat in an Italian shop. She tried it on and decided to buy it but she had barely enough money to pay even a tenth of the price, despite the hefty discount offered by the store. A rich Italian friend paid the difference.
RIR: Would it be true to say that Ulanova influenced the tastes of fashion-conscious women?
I. K: I would say that she was building up her own image of a refined woman of the arts, elegant and well dressed. Ulanova was somewhat withdrawn, reticent and even tough. No one who ever wrote about her said that anyone tried to copy her, because it was simply impossible to do so. Not everyone who puts on the same clothes as her would look like her. Ulanova did not have diamonds like singer Lyudmila Zykina is thought to have owned. She was not after luxury. The interior and furniture of her flat in the high-rise building on Kotelnicheskaya Embankment in Moscow is fairly modest. The only thing of value is her wardrobe.
RIR: How did personality influence the look of these elite Soviet women?
I. K: I would put Olga Lepeshinskaya side by side with Galina Ulanova. They were of almost the same age, equally talented and could afford to express themselves in the way they dressed. But whereas Ulanova was an independent woman, Lepeshinskaya belonged to the category of wives of Soviet political and military leaders and the creative intelligentsia, i.e., famous directors, artists and writers. They visited the Kremlin and were invited by Stalin and later by Khrushchev. Everybody looked at what they were dressed in. The exhibition will feature Lepeshinskaya’s clothes from the Bakhrushin Museum and Alexander Vasilyev’s collection. Though she enjoyed the same social status as Ulanova, Lepeshinskaya represented a different style in dress. While Ulanova was an ideal of elegance, Lepeshinskaya, who was an army general’s wife, symbolized the Soviet style and dressed like a typical Soviet “lady”. The opulence of her costumes can be seen even in the photographs to be displayed.
Maya Plisetskaya belongs to a different generation and represents a different style. Ulanova and Lepeshinskaya harked back to pre-1917 traditions, whereas Plisetskaya was closer to the avant garde. Her wardrobe was not eccentric but neither was it constrained by the classical style. Her hallmark is modernity and minimalism. Her wardrobe always included trousers and sweaters. Of course, she also had some classical stage costumes. Yet it was Maya Plisetskaya who became the muse of the French fashion designer Pierre Cardin, this, in itself, being a milestone in the history of Soviet fashion. He created costumes in which this impetuous, dashing woman could dance at any moment or move as if she were dancing. Several Pierre Cardin frocks made for Maya Plisetskaya will be on show at the exhibition.
We tried to showcase the unique collection of Soviet-era clothes of the fashion historian, stage designer, art scholar and founder of an international interior decoration prize, Alexandre Vassiliev. He is the guiding spirit behind the project.
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