Slava Zaitsev, fashion designer to Moscow’s elite, is under siege. Dressed in a green plaid jacket, pink shirt and pink socks, he runs down a hall at Dom Modi, the Soviet Union’s pre-eminent fashion house, doing his best to dodge employees who seek his attention. He is unsuccessful and, in response to questions, barks a series of orders to waiting staff members. It is another hectic day for the 50-year-old Zaitsev, whose reputation as a leading designer in the Soviet Union—a country that has never been renowned for its fashion—has attracted even Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, as a client. In fact, Zaitsev and other Soviet designers credit Gorbachev’s current reform programs—along with his wife’s commitment to fashion and the arts—with rejuvenating the country’s moribund fashion industry and sparking new international interest in Soviet design. Declared Zaitsev: “I’m for the right of beauty, which was forbidden for all these years. Now, under Gorbachev, I am allowed to go outside and show my collections to the West.”
But artistic freedom and the freedom to travel abroad—Zaitsev has shown his collections in France, the United States and Canada—are not the only benefits that Soviet designers have won under Gorbachev’s liberalizing influence. As well, they now are allowed to share in part of the profits from sales outside the Soviet Union.
As a result, Zaitsev, who is negotiating with a Paris-based company to produce a line of accessories and a perfume bearing his name, could earn thousands of dollars in foreign currency—possession of which is forbidden to most Soviet citizens. Zaitsev, who currently earns a monthly salary of about $500 as director of Dom Modi,
says that is a prospect he can barely -
imagine. He added, “For 25 years, I have been only a creator, not a businessman.” Now, as the only Soviet designer who is allowed to put his own name on clothing labels, Zaitsev stands to become rich. He declared, “I am an absolute pioneer in this field.”
Zaitsev is an admirer of such designers as Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino, and his clothes are more complicated than the simple jackets, skirts and pants that Western women
are currently demanding for the workplace. At his first ready-to-wear show in New York City last year, Zaitsev showed loose-fitting red, black and white clothes with flares, layers and panels. His winter collection for 1988 included suits in black and white and knee-length shifts in muted-colored wools. Zaitsev and others, including Moscow-based designer Svetlana Karcharava, say that one of the most important results of the designers earning foreign curren-
cy is that they can then buy high-quality natural fabrics and accessories.
But fashion critics say that the current poor quality of Soviet manufactured textiles and finished clothes is still a major problem. A recent article in the publication Nedelya, a weekly insert to the national newspaper Izvestiya, noted that Soviet consumers “were not overly enthusiastic” about five Pierre Cardin designs produced recently under a joint agreement with the Soviet Zhenskaya Moda manufacturing company. The reason, the factory’s chief designer said, was that the contract had not provided fabrics or accessories for the designs. One result was a dull-purple polyester dress decorated with a black, imitation-leather buckle at the waist. To avoid similar problems, Karcharava, who is employed by Dorn Modeli—a fashion house that designs for the average working woman—said that her firm is negotiating with an Italian manufacturer to produce some Dom Modeli designs and establish a special shop to sell them. “However,” she added, “the clothes will be very expensive.”
Most Soviet women cannot afford the products of Moscow’s leading designers. A wool suit by Zaitsev sells for between $300 and $500, while dresses are priced at up to $3,000 each—far beyond the reach of the average Soviet worker, who earns about $400 a month. Said Tanya Prestikova, a designer at Dom Modi: “Our clients are often foreigners from the embassies.”
Zaitsev’s success has become a source of inspiration for young Soviet designers. Goula Yahina, a fourth-year student at Moscow’s Kosygin Textile Institute, said that she and other classmates will start co-operative fashion houses of their own. She added, “Glasnost has given us more hopes for the future.” Many students say that their goal is to emulate the success of Zaitsev, who began his professional life as a designer of work clothes. It was not until 1982 that he was permitted to open Dom Modi and create his own collections. Now, Zaitsev shakes his head as he contemplates the possibilities that lie ahead. He commented, “I feel a real happiness in showing people around the world my work and speaking to them through my work and art.” For a businessman of the glasnost era, that is indeed a fitting design.
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