The woman who lured Chinese shoppers to Moscow’s Tsum, once dowdy department store turned lodestar of Russian luxury
As department store celebrates 110 years in business, its fashion director, Alla Verber, reflects on its transformation from dowdy survivor of Soviet era to go-to place for wealthy Russian and, increasingly, Chinese luxury shoppers
The glamorous, dark-haired Alla Verber is working her way around the room and eventually the dance floor at the 110th anniversary party of Russia’s oldest department store, Tsum. The fashion glitterati have flown in from New York, Milan, Paris and Shanghai to Moscow to celebrate with caviar, vodka, Russian folk music, dancing and of course a spot of shopping.
There’s plenty of cause for celebration. Despite Russia’s shaky economic situation since 2015, at Tsum, which sells beauty, fashion and luxury goods over 70,000 square metres and five floors, turnover has been growing 20 per cent to 30 per cent each season.
Why? It’s largely down to a clever move two years ago, when they began to adjust their pricing to roughly match European prices. This has attracted Russia’s wealthy as well as a stream of tourist shoppers, largely rich or middle-class Chinese who are looking to spend in more exotic locales.
Situated next to the Bolshoi Theatre and minutes from the Red Square, the huge Gothic building that houses Tsum is also courting customers with its selection of labels.
Whether it’s brands of the moment such as Balenciaga or Saint Laurent, consistent high-fashion performers like Chloé, Valentino and Dolce & Gabbana, or young Russian brands like Vika Gazinskaya, the range on offer is world class. But it was not always so.
Building Tsum from a dull, Soviet-era operation to a billion-dollar company has been largely attributed to the Tsum fashion director and vice-president of the Mercury Group (which owns Tsum), Alla Verber. The de facto queen of Tsum was born in Leningrad in the USSR and lived in Rome and Canada before returning to her native Russia.
“I’m very fashion forward. I’ve been doing this all my life,” explains 59-year-old Verber. One of the most powerful women in Russia’s fashion industry, she has spent 25 years at Mercury Group, and 15 at Tsum.
“When I first came here in 2002, Tsum was already famous,” she recalls, “It was Russia’s first department store, opened in the 18th century, but it was not fashionable at all. It was nothing like this, just these very boring Soviet, or sometimes Chinese, products.”
Verber’s job was to create a fashionable, international, modern department store, bringing the best brands and designers to titillate and entice Russia’s elite. At first, she says, it was difficult to convince these big European brands to come to ’90s Moscow. But eventually, she charmed them: “All the big brands entered because of me. Like Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana (who was the first and remains popular), Gucci, Fendi, Ermenegildo Zegna, Brioni, Kiton, Loro Piana, Celine, Alexander McQueen and Saint Laurent,” she says.
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“I was the one who decided which brand would be important.”
At the beginning it was very challenging for Verber but she had a grand vision when she first joined Mercury: “In 1991, I said to Women’s Wear Daily that I wanted to build a Madison Avenue in Moscow and this is what happened. So I have proof of concept!”
Indeed, apart from Tsum, Mercury owns most of the luxury boutiques on the pedestrianised shopping strip in the middle of Moscow. Verber’s direction has been crucial to how the first brands entering the market have built up their businesses there.
“I’ll be 60 this year, so I’ve worked in fashion for 42 years,” she says. “But I still follow all the brands, big or small. Whoever is new, I’m there. I feel it a year before the brand starts to really gain traction – my job is to have this feeling much in advance.”
Like China, Russia has changed drastically in the past 15 years. The clientele has shifted and grown more wealthy.
Today, luxury consumers travel the world and Verber believes that her store has to reflect this: “If Balenciaga has this coat that everyone wants, the American, Chinese, French will all want it”. The business has become much more global, so she stocks hot new designers, (like Gabriela Hearst) from around the world on the fourth floor to keep on top of current developments. Local customers are also showing support for local, independent brands, so there are Russian designers too.
“Russians have changed a lot. They were not exposed to anything in the world before, the country was closed and people weren’t allowed out. Now they’re more international, they are going everywhere, and the women love fashion.”
Today the store does a roaring trade in not just fashion, but shoes (“because of the weather in Russia,” Verber quips), accessories, furs, knitwear, make-up, skincare and perfumes.
“We Russians really take pride in dressing beautifully. Our women like to be dressed from the morning, looking great with full hair and make-up. Sometimes it’s too much and the international world will make a little bit of fun,” Verber says with a wink, “But now … even the Russians are more relaxed.”