The Mode in Moscow : For Soviets, Pursuit of Fashion Is Now Acceptable but Goods Still Hard to Get

It's 14 degrees and snowing. But at one of Moscow's new cooperative clothing markets, business is booming. Muffled against the cold, vendors shout promotions for their paltry offerings while others mingle more discreetly with the crowd, hawking French perfume or other black-market items.

Despite the cold weather, high prices and skimpy inventory, shoppers at this sprawling collection of stands consider themselves lucky. Given patience, persistence and plenty of cash, many will come away with consumer items--including clothing--generally not available at more traditional state-run department stores.

Encouraged by a stylish First Lady and Mikhail S. Gorbachev's policies of economic reform and openness, Soviet citizens have been bitten by the fashion bug. Eager for the Western-style clothing and better-quality general merchandise, they can be seen combing Moscow's cooperative markets, department stores and streets for the coveted items of their dreams.

But fulfilling those dreams is a difficult challenge. While Raisa Gorbachev has raised expectations with her elegant silks and stiletto-heeled boots, the average Russian does not have the same access to foreign-made items. Despite the government's promise to provide more and better consumer goods, most Soviet clothing is still poorly made, high-priced and in short supply.

A Change in Thinking

But there are indications of change, however slow and small. Once considered bourgeois and decadent, the pursuit of fashion is now acceptable. In fact, one of the government's innovative strategies for stimulating the economy involves the use of fashion design.

The message has not been lost on Moscow's residents. At the cooperative market across from the Exhibition for Economic Achievement, Soviets now may sell their wares for profit. Undaunted by high prices at the privately financed cooperatives, shoppers eagerly plunk down the equivalent of hundreds of dollars for parkas or acid-washed jeans somewhat more stylish than the norm.

For some Soviets--especially the young--being au courant has become an all-consuming passion. Faced with the difficulties of obtaining Western goods, many barter relentlessly with foreigners for their blue jeans and leather jackets, or turn to the black market where a pair of high-heeled pumps can fetch $350, more than the average monthly salary. "Only crazy people," one Soviet youth observed, "would buy clothes at the state stores" where supplies are short and styles still smack of the '60s.

Indeed, among teens, Western clothing can be a crucial status symbol. Those with access to foreign goods are known as "goldens" while those who wear Soviet-made clothing are known as "lokhs," derived from the Russian word olukh , meaning dumb. According to a recent Soviet newspaper survey, 90% of the youthful respondents said owning a fashionable garment was a major requirement to fulfilling their "Soviet dreams."

Hoping to profit from those dreams are Western entrepreneurs like Michael Owen, president of the New York-based Owen-Breslin & Associates. He first noticed the lack of basic clothing two years ago when "I saw crummy polyester shirts selling for $95 that would have sold for $12 in America."

Convinced that American know-how is the answer to Soviet fashion needs, he has been working ever since on a joint agreement to import U.S. textiles, machinery and management expertise. Despite some progress, he predicted it will be at least two years before results become obvious to Soviet shoppers.

Another entrepreneur with designs on the Soviet Union is Luciano Benetton, head of the Italian clothing empire which sells a colorful line of youth-oriented sweaters and other sportswear in more than 60 countries. As reported by The Times, Benetton, with the advice and counsel of Occidental Petroleum chairman Dr. Armand Hammer, is eyeing the possibility of a joint venture with the Soviets to make and sell selected items from the wildly successful line in the Soviet Union. In fact, pending the results of a feasibility study and other negotiations, Benetton general manager of operations Giovanni Cantagalli said clothing might be available at free-standing stores there as early as this year.

But with glasnost and a softening of restrictions, Soviets can at least look at Western clothing right now. For two nights in November, for example, they crowded the 2,500-seat October Cinema House to see a fashion show organized by Owen-Breslin & Associates. Among the designs: neon-brights from Donna Karan and Anne Klein and sequin-studded evening wear from Patrick Kelly and Bob Mackie.

But as the lights went up after the show, reality again reared its unfashionable head; Soviets could look, but not touch or buy. Though among Moscow's most privileged and well-dressed citizens, many wore the same outfit. And, for the most part, their clothing appeared unfashionable, unflattering and uncomfortable.

Shoes Are Scarce

Little wonder, considering what is available in Moscow's state-run department stores. At GUM, the city's largest, shoppers are still separated from the lackluster goods by counters and cantankerous clerks. Safari-print acrylic sweaters and shapeless polyester dresses sell for about $100 and, though there is snow on the ground, similarly overpriced sandals are displayed in the shoe section. While shoes are scarce, boots are even more precious and it can take weeks to find a pair that fit.

Even at Luxe, the capital's most exclusive store, there are long lines to purchase acrylic sweater sets or nondescript red wool coats. Suspended from the ceiling, monitors project the latest fashions, but none are available in the immense but understocked store.

Why has Gorbachev been unable to deliver the clothing Soviets so desperately want?

One problem is the nation's textile and garment industries, neglected for decades and handicapped by aging machinery. Also lagging behind are Soviet designers who are struggling to fill the nation's fashion gap.

But with their new freedom to travel and negotiate directly with foreign manufactures, designers are hopeful they will soon be providing fashions that are at least Soviet designed if not Soviet produced.

One of those working feverishly is Viyacheslav (Slava) Zaitsev, who for years has turned out made-to-measure garments for Mrs. Gorbachev and others who can afford the steep prices at his fashion house, Dom Modi. On any given day, he can be found in his modest office working on deals to produce a ready-to-wear collections with the Italians, a line of accessories and perfume with the French or, with West German investors, his own "Slava" scent for men.

Handicapped by the lack of Soviet textiles, Zaitsev said a contract with a Western company would give him access to the fabrics he needs but cannot get. And he is hopeful about the future: "For 25 years, I have been for the right of beauty, which was forbidden. Now the government supports me. I feel a real happiness to show people around the world my work and to speak to them through my work and art."

But like other designers here, Zaitsev also is hampered by inexperience. "It is extremely difficult because the world of fashion is so complicated," he said. "For 25 years I have only been a creator, not a businessman."

Nevertheless, the designer is moving forward. Since Gorbachev came to power in 1985, Zaitsev has shown his designs at Vancouver's Expo 86, at the New York ready-to-wear fashion shows in 1987, and twice this year in Paris.

Not to be outdone are 13 designers at Dom Modeli, Moscow's other major fashion house and his chief competitor. Designer Svetlana Karcharava, too, is looking forward to working with foreign manufacturers. Currently, she said the fashion house is negotiating to co-design a collection with an Italian company. Though expensive, such a collection would be sold at a boutique in Moscow, she pointed out, giving shoppers yet another fashion outlet.

Her husband, Alexander Igmand, who designed uniforms for the 1988 Soviet Olympic team, has just returned from West Germany where he also talked with manufacturers, Karcharava added.

Soviet designers say foreign production will bring not only better fabrics but more creative control. Currently, they complain, Soviet manufacturers alter designs deemed too cutting edge. Zaitsev, for example, said he left Dom Modeli because he lacked creative control: "What I sketched was unrecognizable in what was produced." However, Western observers have described his designs as two years behind the times and "a little out of sync."

So, until negotiations are finalized, contracts signed, and production begins in the West or modernized Soviet plants, most Soviets will have to dream--or barter--for affordable and fashionable clothes.

And while first-time visitors still marvel at the ill-made and out-of-date fashions, others see hope. Observed one man returning to Moscow after a 13-year absence: "I never had the occasion to look at Soviet women before. Now I often find they turn my head."

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