People love to laugh at Russian styles, conjuring up visions of shawls, woolen socks and lumpy potato sack dresses. People love to laugh at the Wendy's commercial that portrays an Eastern bloc fashion show (the only difference between the drab day wear and the drab evening wear is the flashlight the pudgy model carries).
But it's time to forget such propaganda!The cold war is over, comrades. The era of fashion detente has arrived. Many of the clothes being turned out by Russian designers today are as chic and modern as those you'd find in Paris, Milan, New York or anywhere else in the world. You could even describe some of the styles in capitalistic terms: "slinky," "sexy" and "sizzling hot."
At the recent Dallas Press Weekend sponsored by the Dallas Apparel Mart (it was held in conjunction with the fall market), retailers and fashion editors had a chance to see the clothes that are melting old stereotypes.
The show, staged in the mart's fashion theater, was unprecedented an historic first. Vyachasiav Zaitsev (Raisa Gorbachev's favorite designer) displayed his collection in New York a while ago. But there hadn't been a collective presentation of Russian styles from the USSR House of Fashion Design in this country before, and few Americans had any idea what type of apparel was created there. In fashion, the iron curtain remained tightly drawn.
"We wanted to enlighten people . . offer some real surprises on the runway that was the main reason for putting together this show," explained Kaye Franklin, vice president and general manager of the Dallas Apparel Mart. "We felt it would be a wonderful way to build friendship and understanding between East and West."
According to Franklin, the project began when fashion show producers Tommy Breslin and Michael Owen participated in an international peace event in Moscow. During the course of their stay, they met some people involved in the Soviet apparel industry. Out of this initial meeting grew the first exchange, "U. S. Fashion Design Week in Moscow," which was held last September. It provided the Russians with a look at 10 leading American designers and offered an insight into how garment manufacturing is done in the West.
Franklin was among those who traveled to the Soviet Union for the American design week. While there, she conferred with Yuri Soloviev, president of the Society of Soviet Designers and discussed showcasing Russian clothes in this country. Soloviev liked the idea and agreed to bring Soviet styles to Dallas.
"I can't tell you what a thrill it was for me when he agreed," Franklin said. "It was the opportunity of a lifetime. Here at the Dallas mart, we are always seeking unique events to enliven our markets."
In addition to forging an international fashion fellowship, Soloviev also expressed interest in meeting American retailers and exploring production possibilities.
"The Russians would like to form a business link with U. S. fashion houses and manufacturers," Franklin explained. "Someday they'd like to either produce a line of clothing here or have Americans set up production facilties in Russia."
Already steps toward this kind of collaboration have been taken. A team of 20 American and Soviet designers joined forces a while back and created a collection called "Design for Peace." (Garments from the line were spotlighted at the show in Dallas.) And in January, Soloviev and Irene Andreieva, head of the USSR House of Fashion Design, came to Texas to visit shopping malls and study the various marketing resources available for Soviet fashions.
"The Russians are very ambitious and determined to learn all they can about the apparel industry," Franklin said. "They're eager to upgrade their own production and take a great deal of pride in their design work. I think they'd like to appeal to customers world-wide and become as well known in fashion as Paris and New York."
Whether this will ever happen, of course, remains to be seen. But if the clothes that came to Dallas from Russia with love are any example of what Soviet designers can do well, then, those big names like Yves Saint Laurent and Bill Blass had better watch out. They just might have some stiff competition in the future.
We're not saying that everything on the runway in Dallas was high fashion or applicable to the Western lifestyle. Some designs seemed heavy and bulky by U. S. standards. Some seemed stiff and self-conscious. Some seemed over-designed with elaborate peplums, nipped-in waists, gigantic whirling skirts. Some seemed several seasons behind the fashion times.
But, by the same token, many of the clothes were smart and wearable; many reflected all the latest trends (short skirts, body-conscious styling, pretty colors). And many of the menswear pieces featured on the runway capitalized on interesting broad-shouldered silhouettes that would appeal to the fashion-forward male.
As for the fur coats that were spotlighted magnificent creations in such furs as astrakhan, rabbit, they brought down the house. There aren't any designers today, in our opinion, who can match the expertise and creativity exhibited by the Russians when they work with fur.
Traveling with the trunks of dramatic furs and clothes to Dallas (there were 125 pieces in all) were Irene Andreieva, head of the USSR House of Fashion Design and Andrew Bobykin, a Soviet foreign minister.
Three leading designers from the House of Fashion Design also were in the Russian party: Alexander Igman, Irina Krutikova and Alexy Koreshkov.
Igman is noted for his menswear styles. His clients include artists, actors and celebrities, and he created the uniform designs for the Soviet Olympic teams participating in the 1988 Winter and Summer Games.
Krutikova is a designer of natural and fake fur.
She creates fur fashions in dresses, coats and jackets, and is recognized for inventing unusual and innovative methods of working with pelts.
Koreshkov a designer of women's apparel, is base in Kiev. He has gained recognition in the Soviet Union for his work with knits.
It's interesting to note that although many Russian designers have achieved considerable recognition in the fashion field, their names are not generally featured on clothing labels. Unlike America, where a line of apparel often is namedafter one individual, the Soviet Union focuses on fashion houses and the collective work of several designers.
There are approximately 30 fashion houses in Russia today, according to Andreieva, and the USSR House of Fashion Designs that she heads is the largest, representing the work of about 30 designers. All of the fashion houses work under the auspices of the Ministry of Light Industry.
The actual collections of the fashion house consist of the best work from leading designers, usually three to seven people. Other designers are developers and interpreters who are assigned to work on mass production or on adapting new ideas for manufacturing.
Andreieva, a stylish woman who has bangs, wears two earrings in one ear and delights in big scarves and eye-catching jewelry, emphasizes that there is much more freedom in fashion in Russia today. New ideas for manufacturing as well as new creative ideas are much more wel++come now than they were, says, five years back.
Through an interpreter she explained that now designers have more say in what colors and fabrics
are used and if they want to try a design concept that is unusual, they're encouraged. Ah, but there was a time she grasps her own neck in a stranglehold to illustrate the point when bureaucrats controlled the clothing industry. Happily, times have changed.
The Russians who came to Dallas feel their clothing has changed, too. Once, they admit, things weren't so well made; couture wasn't so haute. But lately a great deal of emphasis has been put on updating and upgrading.
"We are moving into a new era," said Andreieva through her interpreter. "It is a good time to be in fashion in Russia."
Much of the current emphasis on fashion, the Russian delegation pointed out, is due to the stylish Mrs. Gorbachev, who loves pretty clothes and enjoys keeping up with the latest trends. You certainly wouldn't find her wearing those clothes popularized in the old Russian stereotypes: potato sack dresses and woolen socks. But it isn't just the Russian First Lady who's giving Soviet fashion a whole new image.
Almost every Russian is keenly interested in fashion and the latest clothing trends today. Especially the young people.
Russian young people are crazy over t-shirts and jeans, according to Andreieva. Just like Americans! And they undoubtedly would love the "Kiev-Dallas" oversized shirts that were among the styles featured in the fashion show.
What about the other clothes that were spotlighted on the runway? Could most average Russians afford to buy those designs?
Unfortunately not, said Andreieva, shaking her head sadly. They are primarily worn by the wives of government officials or wealthy people. You wouldn't see such styles on average women walking down the streets in Moscow. In fact, because almost all ready-made clothing is expensive in the Soviet Union, many ladies prefer to make their own clothes or have dressmakers. Few can just walk into stores the way Americans do and pick things off the racks. Therefore, according to the head of the USSR House of Fashion Design, one of the top priorities for the future is to produce quality clothing that's more affordable for the masses. And people at her fashion house are currently investigating ways to make this possible.
Another top priority, of course, is to continue to build rapport and a good working relationship with Americans in the apparel industry. The Russian delegation that came to Dallas quickly forged new friendships, cheerfully handing out Lenin medals to all. The Texans reciprocated, giving cowboy hats to their comrades. And differences in philosophies and backgrounds didn't seem to matter much as everyone enthusiastically worked together to stage the historic fashion show.
"Fashion's a common meeting ground," said top American model Jan Strimple, who appeared in the Russian fashion show in Dallas and was among those traveling to Moscow for the U. S. Design Week last September.
"There are differences between our countries, yes. Models here, for example, are so used to having an abundance of everything. They'd throw away a pair of stockings with a run without a second thought! But it isn't that way with the Russians. Backstage in Moscow, I watched a Russian model laboriously stitch up a hole in her pantyhose. You could just tell she had always had to be careful with everything. She didn't come from a land of affluence, a land of plenty.
"But although there are differences in our countries and people, there are many similarities. . .things that bind us together. Here in Dallas, right before the show went on, I saw one of the Russian designers fixing a collar on an American model. He was explaining to her through gestures how he wanted the garment displayed. And she was understanding everything even though she didn't speak the language. They both spoke fashion, you see."