Russian fashion pack queen Ulyana Sergeenko pairs craftsmanship with style
Foray into the world of haute couture reflects a desire to promote and preserve her country's traditional artisans
Not a runway show, but an intimate presentation at a suite in the Hotel Bristol in Paris last season introduced the latest couture collection by Russian designer and street-style star Ulyana Sergeenko.
A former model, fashion editor, photographer and designer, she is one of fashion's new aristocrats and a part of what has been dubbed "the Russian fashion pack", which includes Miroslava Duma, Vika Gazinskaya and Elena Perminova.
They rose to fame in the past five years, capitalising on the crest of street-style mania with their good looks and distinctive style. They all forged enviable fashion careers. Of course, there were naysayers when Sergeenko launched her couture line in 2011 at Paris' Couture Week, but they were largely silenced by what has emerged as a small, but strong, independent label that earned kudos for its striking individual style and uncompromising attitude towards craftsmanship and quality.
Her team, nearly all impossibly good looking, includes her handsome business partner, Frol Burimskiy, dressed that day in a luscious quilted jacket-robe. A rich spread of traditional Georgian foods greeted visitors, and regal old furniture bought from her home in Moscow transformed the suite - giving it a warm, eclectic, folky ambience.
"My husband [billionaire insurance oligarch Danil Khachaturov] is Armenian and was born in Georgia, and this collection is dedicated to those two countries," says Sergeenko in front of rails of handcrafted outfits that come alive on the models. "I wanted something to connect to his native land."
Burimskiy picks up one of the creations. "This piece took two months to make," he says, showing off a dramatic structured jacket and trousers with a feathered cape. "Every detail is embroidered by hand, and we even cut each feather in the shape of a heart."
This kind of intricate handiwork is possible only at the highest levels of couture. The collection has always been rooted in femininity - a bold hourglass silhouette is key at Ulyana Sergeenko - but this time masculine elements have been tailored into the ultra-folky line, featuring traditional details and techniques from Armenian and Georgian costumes. Another dress is constructed from diamond-shaped cut-outs. "This technique is quite old, but it looks modern because of the colours," Burimskiy says. "We had to cut each segment by hand and stitch each one together. It looks like a print, but it's not. It's done in this crazy mathematical way."
Sergeenko adds: "It's something like a mosaic, but then you go deeper and deeper, and you get these playful elements like the bells. And you have this strong structure."
Most of the Sergeenko's characterful collections are constructed in the label's atelier in Moscow, which started off with five people, but now, just four years later, employs more than 100.
They use craftsmanship from all over Russia with the aim of supporting the great masters whose skills might otherwise be lost.
But although the focus is on Russia, they know couture is a global industry. When the label buys fabrics in Britain, or Italy or France, "each fabric is made and dyed for us", says Burimskiy, pointing out a jacquard designed by the studio - a dark emerald velvet dyed in Britain for the brand.
Sergeenko's bags this season are particularly whimsical. Some are inspired by round drums with an intricate floral embroidery of a pomegranate tree and decorated with tassels. There are crocheted totes with sheepskin, a reference to traditional bags from the countryside. And the super-playful chicken clutches with feathers come from the movies of the late Armenian artist-filmmaker Sergei Parajanov. "He would always have a lot of artworks, all done with irony," Sergeenko says.
The bags were complicated to make. The feathers were done in France, the stones in Italy, another part in Lebanon and the interior made in Russia. When finished, no more than three bags will be made from the same design.
Other outfits look like embroidered patterns on a plain background, but on closer inspection, the texture is made of tiny hand-embroidered stitches. It's this painstaking detail that would have been lost in a regular fashion show.
The printed floral motifs look naive, but close up you see hidden depth. The entire line is again "very, very feminine", Burimskiy says. High-waisted flared trouser suits and jumpsuits (particularly in black and red) and cinch-waisted jackets and feathered capes were stunning. With its bold colours and dramatic handiwork, this is no label for the wishy washy. Hourglass silhouettes with flared skirts, voluminous billowing skirts with bell-like architectural constructions and exaggerated hips make sure of that. Traditional costumes are reworked into modern couture for a global audience of very wealthy women.
"We have to think of the clients first of all," says Sergeenko, adding that many of them have been "with us from the beginning."
About half of their clients are from Russia, with 10 per cent each from Asia, Europe and the US. Although the label is young, it has already had a lot of exposure for its couture - there is no ready-to-wear yet. Part of the fascination has been the product, and another part is the almost fairy-tale quality of Sergeenko's image and persona. Dita Von Teese and Russian philanthropist Natalia Vodianova are supporters.
"We have had huge support from China for the past few seasons, even though I've never been there," Sergeenko says.
Burimskiy adds: "With couture, we don't really have stores as such, so we measure success in a different way. But having people like Fan Bingbing and Zhang Ziyi supporting us, it's just great. It's just the beginning."
The East-West mix rooted in Russia and the ex-Soviet states - Sergeenko was born in Kazakhstan - makes the brand unique. She and Burimskiy say they loved seeing a Miao minority embroidery exhibit from China.
"That's what we want to do because, as a brand, we are East and West and we love both," he says. "Western glamour with oriental textures or an oriental approach … It's always a mixture of those, but in a very different way."