Features Report from Aurora Fashion Week Russia russian glamour in competition
The fact that Moscow and St. Petersburg house in total five fashion events every season makes one think that the fashion business is considered attractive and economically sound in Russia. However, despite the growth of the Russian fashion market since the 1990s, the fashion industry is losing ground to other promising fashion hubs.
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 28-31, 4 2011
Published on balticworlds.com on januari 16, 2012
Here is a question that has yet to be addressed in the debate over the role of fashion in the cultural and socio-economic development of cities and regions: Would it be economically justified and conceptually attractive to run two biannual fashion events in the same city on the periphery of the international fashion scene?
Over the last two years, St. Petersburg has been hosting Defile na Neve and Aurora Fashion Week, two independent fashion events.1 Whether it has raised the prospect of a “Darwinian showdown in fashion”, to quote Eric Wilson, and forced fashion professionals interested in the Russian fashion scene to choose which events they will attend, is a question that doesn’t even come up, given that the organizers have attempted to launch the shows so that they do not overlap with one another.
The fact that Moscow and St. Petersburg house in total five fashion events every season makes one think that the fashion business is considered attractive and economically sound in Russia. However, despite the growth of the Russian fashion market since the 1990s, the fashion industry is losing ground to other promising fashion hubs. The problem is that the textile industry slowly fell to pieces during the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and even if some factories had managed to rise from the ashes and launch new competitive collections by 2008, they stopped production when the global economic crises hit.2 The disadvantageous economic situation also resulted in a winding down of fashionable goods imports from European countries, although, according to experts, 2010 brought signs of recovery.3
Overcoming all odds, Russia is becoming recognized as a flourishing fashion market, but the key driver of growth — in contrast to the UAE, South Africa, and Singapore, whose fashion industries are characterized by the increasing private initiatives and government support directed towards promotion of tourism through expansion of the markets (by attracting international fashion houses and brands, for example), or in India and Brazil, with their booming domestic production of clothes — is likely the immense demand for luxury goods and the increasing number of fashion events supported by enterprises, private initiatives, and industry associations.
Meanwhile, experts caution that without government support and consistent investments in the fashion industry, Russia will soon trade nothing but gas and oil.4 There is an evident need for a strategically elaborated program of investment and management in this branch of light industry, which should be one of the priorities of government. No one says that there is no talent in the country, for talent Russia indeed has, in spades — some brands displayed during the “Big 4” have been welcomed on international markets. The best examples may be the brands of Denis Simachev, Alena Akhmadulina, and Igor Chapurin, which made their way to the Paris and Milan fashion weeks. Unfortunately, Russian designers do not invest time and money in marketing and far-reaching business strategies.5 Until this changes, Russia will consume international luxury brands, and sporadically produce some successful designers, but will not have a profit-generating and competitive industry.
While Moscow is recognized as a fashion capital of Central and Eastern Europe6, St. Petersburg is not even listed. The question is whether St. Petersburg can become a scene of competing fashion events in the Baltic region and Russia. Could Aurora Fashion Week become an incentive for investment in the development of the cultural life of St. Petersburg? This is what I asked myself while participating in Aurora Fashion Week just over a month ago.
AFW sprang up from a fashion event called Modny Desant7 under the formal patronage of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, with the support of the St. Petersburg government. It was initiated as an international fashion week in St. Petersburg, and positioned as “one of the key events in the fashion industry at both the regional and federal levels of Russia” and “a new forum for fashion business and fashion culture, aimed at Russia, Europe, and post-Soviet areas”.8 The first Aurora Fashion Week, occurring during the Year of France in Russia, had been kicked off in St. Petersburg in May 2010, and proved a successful undertaking, which in turn attracted more investment in its future activities. In comparison with Defile na Neve, which sprang up by chance thanks to the individual initiative of Irina Ashkinadze, AFW seems not only to have impressive ambitions, but to have elaborated from the very beginning a long-term conceptual strategy along with feasible growth objectives. Instead of inviting a large number of designers, as is done in Moscow, the emphasis is placed on a selection of 10 or 15 who might be commercially attractive or might possess a conceptual fit with the “European profile” of the week. This “Europeanness” of the designers, and of the event itself, is, as I see it, a counterweight to Moscow’s fest of glamour, richness, and kitsch, and comes closer to Scandinavian design and the modesty of elegance and intellectuality.
Holding AFW at the very end of May 2010, when the sales season should already have ended and the collections been distributed to the stores9, turned out to be advantageous: Artem Balaev, the general producer of the event, decided to play St. Petersburg’s cultural card and accentuate the connection with the biggest festival in the city — the Day of St. Petersburg.10 Thus feeding on the reputation of the aesthetic capital of Russia and establishing an association between its activities and public celebrations, AFW has a claim to recognition not only as a business, but also as a cultural event, playing on the intersection of fashion and literature, cinema, and museum activities. Among its venues were the State Russian Museum, the St. Petersburg Dom Knigi11, the cinema circuit Karo Film, the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall, and the Erarta museum of contemporary art — primary cultural establishments in the center of St. Petersburg that make me think of the venues of Copenhagen and London fashion weeks12, which symbolize the integration of fashion design and the urban environment.
The AFW promotional strategy is closely linked to the branding of St. Petersburg as a modern European hub sensitive to new cultural and social trends. The organizers of AFW employ both an established image of imperial St. Petersburg as a center of classical culture, and fresh aspects of contemporary fashion design, exhibition activities, and communication technologies. Thus, apart from the fashion shows, another main attraction for the visitors is St. Petersburg itself, a large city located on the waterfront with its interesting array of design venues, architecture, cultural events, cafés, bars, cinemas, and nightlife. I sense that the AFW organizers might have been inspired by the Copenhagen Fashion Festival, which is also open to the general public, and during which “large parts of Copenhagen are transformed into a fashion mecca of trend shows, exhibitions, miniconcerts, exclusive designer clearance sales, and parties”.13 For example, for two seasons in a row, as part of an open program, AFW has presented absolutely free of charge to the city public the Fashion Cinema Week, which displayed films about fashion for the first time in Russia.
A long-term cooperative effort between AFW and the Erarta museum of modern art was launched with an apparel show — a kind of “market of designers” arranged on an alternative platform during the fashion week. Besides some Russian designers and boutiques, which displayed their products for sale, there was a space for culture and art where, with the support of Erarta, young artists could share their ideas about a synthesis of art, fashion, and design. The exhibition 1960s Fashion: From Mini to Maxi; Haute couture models from Yves Saint Laurent, Balmain, Christian Dior, André Courrèges, Pierre Cardin, Chanel (2010) presented at the main venue clothes and accessories from the private collection of fashion historian Alexandre Vassiliev. Since then, a long-term collaboration between the crew of AFW, the Erarta museum, and Alexandre Vassiliev has taken off and continued in the form of a joint project called the “Museum of Fashion”. It is thought to be a conceptual space organized within the walls of the Erarta museum, where a number of temporary exhibitions will run every 3 to 4 months. The plan is to move beyond national borders and to introduce European collectors and their treasures to the Russian public.
Experience gained from the second exhibition of Alexandre Vassiliev’s treasures, started during the summer of 2011 and dedicated to 1980s fashion, revealed the importance of scrupulous curator work in captioning put on display, as well as the exposition as a whole. As the exhibition curators acknowledged in an interview I conducted with them, what Alexandre Vassiliev then introduced to the Russian public was in fact European fashion of the 1980s, with its numerous influences of American TV series, such as Dynasty and Santa Barbara, and the image of a strong and self-confident woman represented by dresses with padded shoulders, screaming accessories, and bright colors. Visitors to the event, who hoped to see garments similar to the ones they used to wear in the 1980s, were surprised by the discovery of an entirely different fashion style, and left contemplating the reasons why there was such a difference at all, and why the style came to Russia only in the 1990s.
As for the next year, sophisticated admirers of conspicuous consumption will get a chance to enjoy another pleasant project arranged by the cooperating partners: Alexander Vassiliev’s collection of fashionable dresses of the first ladies and divas of the Soviet Union — another journey through time to an unknown life in the collapsed empire.
Apart from the Erarta, AFW also worked with other platforms, such as the conceptual design space Tayga, an experimental platform that unites young professionals in the creative industries for coordinated work and cooperation. AFW displayed the work of young designers who were not yet ready for the full catwalk show in the main venue. In my opinion, this is a much-needed initiative: it not only can provide an opportunity for young talents, but also can promote a new urban space and encourage its inhabitants to be more active in self-marketing and promoting further development. Tayga has a lot of economic and cultural potential due to its perfect location and liberal profile, but it is not yet recognized and taken advantage of by its tenants.
The producer of AFW says that among the event’s fourteen different target groups, exhibitions and museum activities are mainly directed to the wider city public, those who do not usually visit scheduled shows. The initiative of broadcasting runways online, employed for years by respected players within the fashion industry, was also launched by AFW. Unfortunately, this year AFW did not become a highly mediated and mediatized phenomenon, which would have united the fabric of the city and the glamour of the festival, as happens, for instance, in Copenhagen. Participation in the fashion show was restricted to professionals, such as the press and buyers, industry businessmen, and privileged celebrities, who guarantee stellar publicity and promotion of brands. In that sense, Aurora Fashion Week is just like any other comparable event. However, the ratio of professionals to jet-setters is 3 to 7.14 The organizers claim that having such a high percentage of the “beautiful people” of St. Petersburg and Moscow was a conscious choice. The timing of the event places the focus not on buyers, since the collections have been sold to the stores by then, but on the end customer, for whom the shows function as a teaser. The strategy of working with boutiques ensures high sales for them and high publicity for AFW. Such a pattern of cooperation might provide a substantial “crowd” for the occasion, but in order to ensure the long-term success of the project, more focus on professionals would be advantageous.
Cultural activities are not the only direction of strategic development. It is not a secret to anyone familiar with the Russian fashion industry that there is a certain lack of professionals who have a critical and analytical approach to fashion, are able to launch and manage successful marketing campaigns, and work with media specialists and buyers. For years, an absence of ethics and customs in the fashion market, poor dialog between the various players in the industry, a weak educational base, and limited sharing of experience with international colleagues did not improve the situation. Building upon the experience of Modny Desant, Artem Balaev initiated the educational project “Front Row”, geared towards those interested in and willing to pay for courses about various aspects of the fashion industry, including PR, fashion journalism, and art journalism which review the contemporary market for art and fashion. There is also a series of conferences and roundtables running parallel to the fashion week, where invited specialists from around the globe share their experience.
The conference Fashionomica, which took place every day before the shows, assembled highly professional speakers who touched upon key issues of the Russian fashion industry, nuances of the market, the ins and outs of working with buyers and the press, business expansion, and strategies of marketing and selling online. Strangely, the audience shied away from engaging in dialog and questions during the time allotted for them. Whether this was a result of the lack of experience and expertise of the young audience, or of insufficient time, is difficult to say. But, without question, the entrance fee was too high for those who really needed to be a part of this event.
In conclusion, I would say that activities arranged by the crew of AFW, which pop up during the whole year in the fabric of urban environments, not only create a constant buzz around fashion week and the city, but also add something extra to the general trend that blurs the boundaries of art, fashion, consumption, and the educational process. It strengthens the idea that advertising and fashion are not only products of consumption, but also necessary elements of popular culture, which, if put in a museum context, acquire a new educational and conceptual meaning. In my opinion, seen in the right context, AFW might have all the hallmarks of the London and Copenhagen fashion weeks, with its focus on young designers and national apparel production, let alone the emphasis on urban space as a main center of inspiration and innovation.
Of course, without government support of the industry — which is a striking difference between St. Petersburg on the one hand, and Copenhagen and London, where fashion became a priority and a centrifugal force in urban development, on the other — long-term development is not possible. Even though AFW received nominal support, cooperation is still at a rudimentary level. It is probably more efficient and more economically justified to invest on a grander scale in just one well-organized, cohesive fashion season of international scope than to divide resources into two competing events on a smaller scale, which even double some projects, such as the display of vintage dresses from the same private collection or exhibitions of fashion magazines in collaboration with the Russian National Library. With this more efficient use of resources, we may one day be able to call
St. Petersburg a fashion capital. ≈
- Defile na Neve (titled “Neva Riverside Défilé de Mode” in English) is a fashion event launched more than 10 years ago by Irina Ashkinadze to support her boutique of Russian designers. Aurora Fashion week was launched in 2010.
- By 2008, the three biggest — Pervomayskaya Zarya (with the brands Zarina and Befree), Factory of St. Petersburg (label: FOSP), and Moscow’s Uzori (Gota) — which had been founded during the Soviet era and managed to adjust to the new market and create strong brands and far-reaching retailing systems around the country, had been forced to stop production or to move it to China. See Lilia Moskalenko, “Voluntarily” [Na Golom Entuziazme], Expert, 2008-05-19.
- Tatyana Medovnikova, “Rusimport/Euroexport” [Russian Import/European Export], PROfashion 14, September 2008.
- Tatyana Medovnikova, “Za Kruglym Stolom Sideli Direktor, Bajer, Portnoj …— Ty Kto Budesh’ Takoj?” [Round the table sat director, buyer, and tailor … — and who are you going to be?], PROfashion, 20, November 2009.
- Tatyana Medovnikova “Za Kruglym Stolom Sideli Direktor, Bajer, Portnoj. . . — Ty Kto Budesh’ Takoj?” [Round the table sat director, buyer, and tailor. . . — and who are you going to be?], PROfashion, 20, November 2009.