When the Tsarinas ruled the fashion front row

Around this time, just over a decade ago, something happened in fashion that was as rare and unexpected as the sight of Kate Moss in a tutu.

The front row of couture shows, that rarefied tableau that often seems preserved in amber, underwent a kind of metamorphosis seemingly overnight. A group of young women materialized en masse, with a magnetic combination of beauty, charm, wealth and wardrobe that sent the fashion world into a frenzy. The fact that they emerged from Russia, once seen as something of a fashion wasteland and then a flashy upstart, has made them irresistible.

“The Tsarinas are back,” headlined the New York Times, shortly after a Style.com article called them the new “Russian Federation.”

“They broke the stereotype of Russia,” said Robert Burke, founder of an eponymous luxury consultancy.

Also known as the Russian Fashion Mafia, the Russian Fashion Pack and the Russian Fashion Royal Family, they were a rotating group that included designer Vika Gazinskaya as well as model and association founder Natalia Vodianova , but with a core consisting of Miroslava Duma, a fashion editor and entrepreneur; Elena Perminova, a model with a Cinderella story; and Ulyana Sergeenko, designer.

All were linked by their quirky personal taste, a tendency to change clothes several times a day, and their friendliness and wealth as a photographer. And they were following in the footsteps of Dasha Zhukova, a social figure and global art and magazine entrepreneur.

Their profiles have increased with the advent of street style and Instagram and the post-Glasnost emergence of Russia as a thriving market. Later, they built their own strongholds and brands based on their fashion fame. They were eye-catching bridges between Russia and the world.

As Karin Winroth, associate professor of business at Södertörn University in Sweden, wrote in the scientific journal Baltic Worlds: “They were not only seen as role models and a source of inspiration for fashion: they were also seen as ambassadors of a new Russia. Their popularity has put Russia on the map as a country offering fashionable inspiration.

At least until February, when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and those bridges started to look very flimsy – along with how fashion itself can be a shortcut to acceptance, rippling through- beyond individuals to affect perception in the world at large.

Makeovers, after all, are not limited to people.

“People use fashion and taste to rehabilitate themselves or to empower a larger project like a profession or a country,” said Sophia Rosenfeld, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Democracy and Truth: A short story”. “To whitewash oneself or a national culture or set of business practices.”

Think of it as the theory of transitive properties of taste and skill—qualities that suggest shared value systems that transcend borders and connect worldviews—in practice.

It was true, Ms. Rosenfeld said, as long ago as Empress Josephine, who “helped bolster the legitimacy of Napoleon and the regime by transforming herself into a patron of French fashion and design and becoming a icon for countries all over Europe.”

Ditto the robber barons of the Golden Age and women like Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt, whose philanthropy, fashion and taste catapulted them to the center of society. Ditto the current Qatari royal family, which created the Fashion Trust Arabia award in 2018 under the aegis of Sheikha Moza bint Nasser and Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad Al-Thani, attracting Pierpaolo Piccioli, Olivier Rousteing and Naomi Campbell (among others ) in the Gulf to try to change the image of the region.

Although the arrival of Russians on the fashion scene was not necessarily a strategic decision – it was probably partly a question of creating their own identity – there is no doubt that the effects of their presence created a halo effect around their country of origin.

They carried out a very specific, fashion-based form of outreach, just as other members of the elite built museums, bought football clubs, basketball clubs and international media properties, realizing early on that fitting into the new image economy could mean “having doors open to them,” said Tommy Ton, who met Ms Perminova through Ms Duma, whom he had met through the intermediary of Vika Gazinskaya, and who, as a street photographer for Style.com, was responsible for building her myth. .

“There are social and cultural aspects to fashion that are inseparable from the livelihoods of brands,” Burke said, referring to the fact that fashion brands underwrite galas and art exhibitions, premieres of films and philanthropic events as well as dress the participants in a kind of virtuous circle of Instagram access and opportunities.

As their audience grew, designers began to see them as potential conduits to the new Russia, a market Goldman Sachs called in 2009 a key driver of “global consumption” and for which, Ms. Winroth, “it was crucial for the Western fashion industry to have the right Russian mediators.

The Russian fashion pack, she wrote, was “perfect”. Ms. Perminova and Ms. Duma co-starred in a Ferragamo advertising campaign. Ms. Duma has modeled for Louis Vuitton and Roger Vivier.

“They knew how to connect with people,” Burke said. “They represented style, sophistication, traveled very well and had a lot of buying power. They were the new face of what people thought Russia stood for.

Their stories were complicated by just one thing: the fact that when they burst onto the scene, Ms. Duma and Co. were all married to oligarchs or male neighbors of oligarchs.

Ms. Duma, born in Siberia and whose father was a senator of the Russian Federation from 2004 to 2011 (while also being the head of the Ukrainian diaspora in Russia from 2005 to 2012; the family is of Ukrainian origin), to Aleksey Mikheev, whose father, Alexander Mikheev, is the managing director of Rosoboronexport, the Russian state-controlled arms exporter (currently on the sanctions list of the United States, Britain, the European Union and Canada). Ms. Perminova to Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB agent, banker and media mogul (currently on Canada’s sanctions list) whom she met after his arrest for drug trafficking when he was 16, and Mr. Lebedev , then 44 and a member of the Duma, stepped in after being contacted by her father. And Ms Sergeenko, who grew up in Kazakhstan when it was part of the USSR and later moved to Moscow, to insurance billionaire Danil Khachaturov, the former chairman of Rosgosstrakh.

Not that most people in Paris thought of those implications, as the husbands were almost never around.

“I met Elena Perminova’s husband once,” Mr Ton said. “In general, they did not travel with their husbands. Even when I went to Moscow Fashion Week and went to their house, I rarely met the husband.

Soon they turned their presence in fashion into mini-fiefdoms. In 2011, Ms. Duma, who holds a master’s degree in international business from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations but started her career as an editor at Harper’s Bazaar Russia, opened a digital media platform called Buro 24/7 which has grown to have offices. in 12 countries. She later ditched it and, positioning herself as a tech and sustainability guru, started a consulting and investment company called Future Tech Lab that focused on materials science and biotechnology and co-founded the materials science and responsible fashion brand Pangaia. (In 2018, she was named a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum.)

Ulyana Sergeenko has gone from the front row to the backstage, opening her own couture brand focused on Russian craft techniques and qualifying for the official couture calendar among “guest members”. Ms Perminova opened Len & Gretchka, a bakery that offers organic and gluten-free vegan breads, in Moscow and London (where Mr Lebedev hosted the annual Raisa Gorbachev Foundation gala at his home on the grounds of Hampton Palace Court, and his eldest son is a member of the House of Lords).

There have been issues along the way, including the fashion world’s cancellation of Ms Duma and Ms Sergeenko after an Instagram scandal involving a racial slur in 2018, and a false report that made the rounds later that year full of unsubstantiated allegations against Ms. Duma (followed by further reports on Ms. Vodianova and Ms. Zuhkova) from a group calling itself kyiv Fashion Resistance. And Mrs. Duma’s surprise appearance in the Mueller Report in 2019, where she was identified as “a contact of Ivanka Trump from the fashion industry” who had “passed on invitations” to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum for Mrs. Trump and Donald J. Trump in 2015.

Yet their Instagram followers continued to grow – to 444,000 for Ms Sergeenko, 1.8 million for Ms Duma and 2.5 million for Ms Perminova. Although the titles didn’t reflect their actual careers, they continued to be referred to as “influencers” and “It girls,” a reflection of how the world that still looked at them once saw them.

Today, although Ms. Sergeenko and Ms. Duma are divorced, and both Ms. Duma and Ms. Perminova posted black squares in response to the invasion of Ukraine, their history has made them almost dark. Many designers who have adopted them are reluctant to talk about them.

Ms Duma, who resigned as a director of the Pangaia company in 2020 (she continues to make investments through Future Tech Lab), deleted her Instagram feed earlier this year. Ms Sergeenko is not on the couture calendar and her label hasn’t released anything since February. Rumors abound that they have all been “recalled” to Russia. They do not respond to requests for comment and direct messages.

These are, say friends who don’t want to be identified because they’re worried about the Kremlin’s reaction, fearing their old profiles will attract unwanted attention. They risk being branded traitors if they speak out, or seen as accomplices by an industry that has been quick to declare its allegiance to Ukraine if they remain silent.

Stuck on the bridges they once built, a new iron curtain comes down and gives everything a new look.

Valeriya Safronova contributed reporting.

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