Monday, September 10, 2012

Hélène Le Blanc of The Luxe Chronicles
On the relationship between Russian oligarchy and fashion

Hélène Le Blanc

I am supremely excited to share my  interview with 
Hélène Le Blanc of The Luxe Chronicles

Hélène is a consultant and writer in the field of luxury with a particular expertise in social media. She began her career as a litigation attorney in Canada and eventually joined Apple as a senior attorney based in Apple's European headquarters. Canadian by birth, she grew up in the United States and is fluent in both French and English. She has written extensively for Luxury Society (online) and contributed to Bon magazine and the Walpole Group Yearbook. 

I got to know her work through her fantastic blog entitled The Luxe Chronicles which explores issues pertaining to the changing nature of the luxury industry. Hélène writes from the perspective of a consumer of luxury goods and services, with humor and intelligence– a voice frequently missing from the conversation on luxury. After living in Montreal, Toronto, Paris and New York City, Hélène is now based in London and Paris. She is passionate about travel, culture, gastronomy, fashion and history and, even if you don't already know her work, you can probably see why I approached her to talk about the relationship between Russian oligarchy and fashion. Hélène provides really thoughtful answers to questions that I have not really seen answered in traditional media. I really appreciate her perspective and honesty and truly hope you will enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

The impetus for this interview is a NY Times article by Eric Wilson, The Czarinas Are Back, detailing the rising prominence of a group of young Russian women on the world fashion scene– Miroslava Duma, Vika Gazynskaia, Ulyana Sergeenko, etc. The world seems to be surprised that fashion and style are now officially associated with Eastern Europe and I am finding that very interesting. Given the inherent cosmopolitanism of the fashion industry, why do you think people are so shell-shocked by this particular group of women?

The women you list are young, glamorous and have a knack for high fashion which is a departure from Western conceptions of Russian style. I think we have to remember that for several generations of Westerners, especially those who grew up either during the Cold War or immediately after the fall of the former Soviet Union, fashion and high style are not necessarily concepts they associate readily with Russians. Western attitudes towards Russian style were not necessarily enhanced by the first wave of wealthy post-Communist Russian immigrants either. Their tastes were very ostentatious by European and American standards and they left a very strong impression as a result. You have to approach it from a historical and cultural perspective. Russian style has come a long way in a relatively short time and that in and of itself is fascinating.

In the article, Miroslava Duma (founder of Buro 24/7 and daugther of Russian politician and businessman Vasily Duma) is quoted attributing the recent boom in Russian fashion to "oil money". "There was 70 years of nothing at all in our country, and then when people got huge money from oil, there was huge interest in fashion,” she says. “Even if people had money before, they were afraid to expose it.” What do you make of that statement?

If you start from the premise that fashion is a reflection of the wider culture at a given point in time, then it's not particularly shocking that a society emerging from years of repression and deprivation would throw itself into conspicuous consumption at the first available opportunity. I see a parallel with post WWII French society. It's no coincidence for instance that Christian Dior's New Look became the defining aesthetic of that era. After years of subsisting on scraps, the site of women wearing full skirts made of meters and meters of fabric may have seemed scandalous to some but it was probably a natural reaction to the years of rationing. In this respect, I agree with Ms. Duma's observation.

In this article and several others that have appeared recently, western fashion writers seem to be suggesting that high-end and luxury brands are eager to set up shop in Moscow and St. Petersburg because of the size of the Russian market and growing wealth of the Russian customer. In your opinion, is that an accurate assessment of what's going on?

Russia along with other emerging economies like Brazil and China obviously hold a great deal of promise for Western luxury brands in search of new markets for their products. Emerging markets are tricky though and Russia is no exception. It's not just a matter of opening a store and stocking it with products. Russia is still emerging from decades of Communism. There is little notion of concepts like customer service and there is no existing pool of local fashion and luxury professionals trained in the art of luxury retail (buyers, retail managers, salespeople, etc.). Everything has to be built virtually from scratch which takes time and resources. It requires a longterm view. A number of Western luxury brands who rushed into Russia before the crisis of 2008 without the proper infrastructure and local support got burned and had to pull out. (See HERE for more detail).

The fashion blogs love Ulyana Sergeenko and Elena Perminova but the former is married to the 42nd richest man in Russia (insurance billionaire Danil Khachaturov) and the latter is dating a former KGB spy turned politician/businessman (Alexander Lebedev who also owns The Independent and The Evening Standard). Is it accurate to take the experience of these women as in any way indicative of what is happening in fashion in Russia?

I doubt very much these ladies are representative of the typical Russian fashion consumer but I don't think this precludes them from inspiring others. The French worship the style of women like Lou Lou de la Falaise and Ines de la Fressange even though neither could be credibly described as the typical French woman. I think every society needs style models or icons, women whose personal style is the source of inspiration for others. If these ladies are able to bridge the gap culturally and stylistically between European brands and the style-conscious Russian consumer, then kudos to them. Having said this, I think Russia has a rich cultural and aesthetic history of its own that predates Communism. If she succeeds professionally, someone like Ulyana Sergeenk could very well be the impetus for the emergence of a homegrown Russian fashion industry. That would be a far more interesting narrative than yet another wealthy Russian socialite helping sell more Western luxury goods to other wealthy Russians.

Earlier this summer Ulyana Sergeenko showed her eponymous collection during the haute couture shows in Paris. She was quite gutsy, showed immediately after Chanel and drew a lot of attention even though her show was a part of the official shows. What's your take on that?

I'm really of two minds about it. I think it was indeed quite brave on her part and I admire her self-confidence and conviction. Having said this, when you consider the way the fashion industry works with its clans and arcane rules (both written and unwritten), you really have to wonder what the impact was overall. Fashion, especially haute couture, is a very selective private club. Anyone wanting to join has to bide their time, prove their worth and pay their dues. If her ultimate goal is to be admitted officially into that club, then she has to show that she can play by the rules. Otherwise, the danger is that she'll always be seen as a wealthy socialite who merely dabbles in fashion or worst, a usurper.

Scott Schumann of The Sartorialist has made several disparaging comments about the "Russian young ladies", most recently in an interview for Vogue he made the following statement:
"When I started, there weren't that many people expecting to go to shows to be shot. They weren't going to build their career. Those people are unfortunately very obvious and really lend no mystique to me. How do I say this in a nice way? There's a lot of stylish Russian young ladies going and hanging out around at shows now that you aren't going to see on my blog. It doesn't draw my interest when they want it too much. [Once] Garance was going to shoot one of these Russian young ladies and liked her outfit on a particular day and asked, what's in your bag? And she goes, "Oh, nothing." And of course it was some designer bag—a really expensive bag and it's totally empty. To me, even though you can't tell it's empty in the picture I would know."
(I find him making questionable points about women in fashion quite frequently, by the way)... but as I read commentary about all this... I almost sense a certain distrust, or... disbelief... that whatever this Russian Fashion thing is... it's not authentic or sophisticated or learned in any real sort of way. Why is that? And what do you think needs to happen for people to be convinced otherwise? 

The fact is that if you're young, very wealthy and invest a great deal of time and effort in fashion, you're bound to attract criticism or envy. Somehow, I don't think the disparaging comments of Scott Schumann (or those of anyone else for that matter) will stop this particular group of ladies from dressing up and enjoying the fashion circus. Tant mieux! To get a proper perspective on this, you need to read John Fairchild's book "The Fashionable Savages" or his follow up book "Chic Savages". As publisher of Women's Wear Daily, Fairchild wielded far more power over the industry than Scott Schumann and his feuds with designers and the socialites who wore their clothes are stuff of legend. He had some truly nasty remarks about just about everyone including style mavens like Jackie O. and Nan Kempner, women whose style is revered the world over. I think this kind of sniping simply comes with the territory. They should embrace it as evidence that they've "made it".

Thank you, Hélène! It was a pleasure!

1 comment:

  1. very interesting interview Petya, thank you for the great post! I will definitely check Fairchild's books, there seems to be a certain tendency towards misogyny in fashion media... what do you think?