Elizabeth Landers | College Chic Report
From Russia, with love
Published: Monday, October 15, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 15, 2012 08:10
The outskirts of St. Petersburg fulfill every notion you’ve ever had of a former communist country: cruise ship−like buildings of monolithic proportion and approach, with identically cut windows, traffic circles flowing around forged metal temples that pay homage to Swedish−Russian battles from the 19th century and even an airport split in half by domestic and foreign−bound flights. The periphery’s appearance reflects the ever−evolving steps being taken towards modernization.
Yet the heart of St. Petersburg holds far more potential and advancement and in many conventional senses has reached that point of modernity. It is here that I found a perfect paradox of politics and personal style, a marriage I am constantly, and vainly, looking to forge for myself.
During my week spent in the city, I passed through touristy sites and local markets on the bus and the metro, looking for a Russian native with personal style that spoke, that smiled, that breathed. This was a very unrewarding quest.
The main shopping streets like Nevsky Prospekt boasted stores such as United Colors of Benetton, Zara and H&M. High−end stores like Dior lined slightly less crowded streets, perpendicular to the hum of main traffic.
As the weather fluctuated on a whim during our trip, I witnessed warm, cold and rainy looks. Older Russian women aged themselves dramatically in sullen, muted gray coats and mid−calf skirts that resembled rustling paper bags. Younger women dressed in a similar palate, but in cheap skinny jeans or short miniskirts with Plexiglas high heels. Clearly, in a country with 10 million more women than men, one must compete for attention.
It’s not that everyone was unstylish — it’s just that no one looked special. This, of course, fits perfectly into the communist mold of equality, where everything’s commonality provides a certain solace.
The paradox lies in the long−term history of Russia, which appears through the Romonov relics and imperial stamps found all over the city. Historical St. Petersburg brims with the Russian Baroque style, which is lighter in color and heavier in gold leaf than its European counterparts. Catherine the Great’s palace houses a room completely inlaid with semi−precious amber. Empress Elizabeth, estimated to have owned 10,000 dresses, consumed clothing in such excess that when St. Petersburg was seized in war, her dresses were used to wrap and protect countless pieces of artwork. An inclination towards luxury, architectural feats, fine art, culture and clothes surrounds the residents of modern day St. Petersburg — they certainly don’t lack inspiration.
When we asked our local guide about shopping and clothing in the city, she explained that fashion was very expensive in Russia; global brands are marked up by two to three times with collections dating back two to three seasons. Everything was overpriced and out of date. When I pressed her on the luxury stores, she said that she suspected Louis Vuitton doesn’t break even in the city, but they kept their St. Petersburg store to maintain their international presence and appearance.
Moscow would make for an interesting comparative study. As the seat of Russia’s government, the city positively bursts with the nouveau riche Roman Abramovich and Dasha Zhukova types, oligarchs who are redefining what it means to be wealthy and stylish. Major international retailers such as Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors — both of which tend to sell a glamorous version of the all−American look — have situated themselves in looming flagship stores within the nation’s capital. Pint−sized Russian beauty Miroslava Duma graces the pages of multinational publications and her penchant for designer threads ensures that she’s at all the top global fashion shows.
This striking difference between what I saw and what supposedly exists truly makes me hope that the Internet and earnestness of Russian youth will revitalize fashion and style in St. Petersburg.
Elizabeth Landers is a senior majoring in political science. She can be reached at Elizabeth.Landers@tufts.edu.