In Skirt and Leggings, the Bad-Boy of Soviet Fashion Prances on

MOSCOW, March 13, 2004 : He enters bearing a platter of sweet buns, a man in strange attire, grinning, burbling, thrilled to be himself — Slava Zaitsev, king of fashion in drab Soviet times and still, somehow, going strong.

”Have some pastries!” he cries. ”Buns, rolls, muffins, I love them all. I eat them to remember my mother. My happiest days. Nothing but happiness. That’s why in my collections I always remember my mother.”

She was a cleaning woman and a single mother who never owned a fancy dress. It is her stolid image that he has been dressing all these years in flounces and feathers, poufs and peplums, gold and glitter.

Indeed, he wears a skirt himself.

Like a silent film star finding his voice in the talkies, he has slipped seamlessly from Soviet bad boy to patriarch of Russian fashion, never losing the bounce of a 6-year-old.

Despite years of buns, he has kept his figure in check at the age of 66, though he says he hides his bulges under layers of clothes. He is especially proud of his legs, which he displays in black wool leggings that he picked up in Paris.


Photo by Sergei Kivrin

”I looked in the mirror and I thought, ‘My God! These are pretty good legs! And they make me look younger!’ This amazing lightness appeared in my silhouette.”

Starting from the top: a how-do-you-do gray brush cut; a tiny wing collar and an even tinier bow tie; a red vest, black frock coat, tartan skirt and the leggings — the slightly bowed elegance of his legs emphasized by thick wool leg warmers at his ankles.

A walking Goodwill store. Madonna meets Braveheart. Charlie Chaplin in a kilt.

Anyway, it works for him.

VYACHESLAV ZAITSEV — to call him by his full name — is a couturier for all seasons. He has dressed ice skaters and Olympic athletes and ballerinas and the Moscow city police, who switched last year to lightweight blue outfits accented with light-reflecting stripes.

Raisa Gorbachev wore Zaitsev when she made a perestroika splash in the 1980’s. A large Zaitsev hat worn last year by the current first lady, Lyudmila Putin, when she met Queen Elizabeth still draws comment.

In Soviet times, fashion was not for the ill-shod public. For Mr. Zaitsev today, the show’s the thing, a theatrical event as models dance and twirl and skip, embrace and kiss and even break into song.

He himself prances down the runway, grinning like a chipmunk and waving — one of the few Soviet icons who is still an icon today. When the cream of Russian society rises from its seats to applaud, it is the man as well as his work they are honoring.

A poor boy from the gritty mill town of Ivanovo, in central Russia, young Slava was forced to leave school after seven years to help his mother make ends meet.

His father had disappeared into Stalin’s camps and as the son of a ”traitor to the Motherland,” he was turned away at an industrial academy, a theater school and a training school for pilots.

He found a place in the local chemical technical school, and his success there led to further study at a design school in Moscow. He began his career in full Soviet tilt, designing work clothes for laborers.

There was little room for creativity in these strait-laced years, when the arts were shackled to realism. The real fantasists were the committed Communists dreaming of a workers’ paradise, and their vision appealed to the artist in Mr. Zaitsev.

”I joined the party with great pleasure,” he said. ”I was one of the most wonderful Soviet people. I believed in the Soviet Union and the bright future of Communism. I truly believed. There was not a gram of falsity.”

But by the time he was designing in the Moscow House of Fashion in the 1970’s and 1980’s, nobody was really expected to swallow the fantasy whole. Mr. Zaitsev seemed to be missing the cynicism gene that made the Soviet system go round.

At obligatory party meetings, he said, ”I began to defend the right to be free, as it says in the Communist charter. They constantly tried to distract me, not to let me get in. I’d be stuck in the elevator or I’d be sent off to some other event.”

Finally disillusioned, he quit the party in the late 1980’s and devoted himself to what he calls ”my own party, the party of beauty.”

MR. ZAITSEV came of age in the days of the frumpy Soviet man, when leaders like Khrushchev and Brezhnev dazzled the world with their baggy, ill-fitting suits.

It was a rebellious thrill in those days to dress in bootleg denim from abroad. Official couture leaned toward embroidered tradition-bound dresses that were more folklore than high fashion.

”Everyone was badly dressed, simply because it was forbidden to dress properly,” Mr. Zaitsev said. ”It was considered the influence of the West. It was a sign of frivolousness. They consciously instilled in people a dislike of good taste. In fashion, that became the country’s calling card.”

In the words of one official publication at the time, ”An imitation of Western fashions, harmless at first sight, may lead to a real spiritual bankruptcy and moral degradation.”

From this perspective, Mr. Zaitsev was far from harmless. The better his work became, the more the authorities worried about him. For the best part of his career, he was barred from leaving the country. It stunted his growth as a designer.

”If he had had a chance to show his collections abroad he would have been most possibly a world-famed brand,” said Alexandre Vassiliev, a Russian-born fashion historian and designer who is based in Paris. ”But he didn’t make it. That’s it.”

The Zaitsev label remains a local one, recognized everywhere in Russia, but not elsewhere.

When the Iron Curtain collapsed in the 1990’s and the world opened up, Mr. Zaitsev was left behind as potential clients, newly rich and free to travel, rushed abroad for their fashions.

He struggled for a while, opening a modeling school, creating a theater, going on tour around the country, even painting to support himself.

TODAY, the millionaires still spend their money abroad, but a new middle class has rediscovered Mr. Zaitsev, and he is a star again. His fashion house and modeling school are Moscow landmarks. His shows are sellouts.

When he staged a gala for his 66th birthday earlier this month it was a retrospective titled, ”Nostalgia for Times Past.” The feathers and flounces and baubles and bangles were all there, the swirling skirts, elegant forms and rich fabrics.

There, once again, he stood at the pinnacle — It’s me! — clutching bouquets and blowing kisses in the limelight, a poor boy from the provinces made very, very good.

Copyright The New York Times