Tuesday, October 13, 2015


Around 2012 when the fashion world started going nuts for the Russians, I wasn’t particularly interested. Sure, they were gorgeous - a coterie of creatively garbed street-style stars, who tended to be married to, or sprung from the loins of, erstwhile KGB operatives who had since found themselves on the right side of Russia’s new oligarchies. For whatever reason, I never felt any particular connection to the clothes worn by Elena Perminova, Miroslava Duma and Dasha Zhukova. The latter two I developed an outright aversion to after various transgressions (Duma's here, Zhukova's here). In terms of style, I only ever really had time for the fashion designer Ulyana Sergeenko, whose theatricality, poise (or is it posture?) and New Look skirts I couldn’t help but fall for.

And often it was her own designs that Sergeenko sported while posing coquettishly for a throng of photographers, ostensibly waiting for the next Paris Fashion Week show to begin. The clothes were highly romantic and dramatic, and it was only Sergeenko’s bearing that prevented her from looking absurd. I continue to be awed by this bustle moment of hers:

Still, my admiration for her was not unalloyed. In July 2012, Sergeenko independently presented a collection in Paris for the first time, not during the ready-to-wear shows, as most any new designer would do, but during Couture week. Quelle horreur. Unsurprisingly, the word “presumptuous” appeared in many write-ups of Sergeenko’s French debut. 

Personally, I found the collection appealing without being particularly interesting - certainly not so captivating as Ulyana herself, who, aside from the gorgeous duds, looks a bit like Leslie Caron with a dash of Nicole Kidman waxiness. 

Now, it is unusual for mainstream fashion critics to publish anything really, well, critical when covering a contemporary designer’s output. This makes Nicole Phelps’ style.com reviews of Sergeenko’s couture outings all the more interesting. Here are some of her choice cuts (my annotations in square brackets):

“Sergeenko is a storyteller, but if she wants to break through to a wider audience, she'll eventually need to curb the fairy tale.”

“To some [LOL], the Russian is better suited to Hollywood back lots than to Paris haute couture. Certainly, outfits like a corseted velvet onesie and taffeta balloon cape, or a ball skirt worn with nothing but a pointy bra, seemed self-indulgent. The mistakes of a neophyte.”

“But to others [Seriously, I wonder who Phelps is referring to???] her clothes look likes [sic] costumes.”

“It's the kind of trip that John Galliano would've once taken us on at Dior. He was a virtuoso, and Sergeenko is a couture arriviste, but damned if she isn't determined.”

“Does the collection at times lack finesse? Sure. And is it presumptuous for Sergeenko, who is untrained, to present on the same schedule as masters like Lagerfeld and Lacroix? Well, yes.” [This burn is interesting if you recall Azzedine Ala├»a’s assertion that, “Karl Lagerfeld never touched a pair of scissors in his life.” A moot point where Sergeenko is concerned, I guess, because, scissors or no, Karl Lagerfeld she ain’t.]

You kinda get the feeling that Phelps wants off this beat. And I too bristled at the notion of this wealthy noob being able to parachute into the couture shows, largely thanks to her husband’s formidable bank balance. I continued to like her collections however, and increasingly so as the seasons went on. To me her exquisite fabrications (more so than her trademark dramatic silhouettes) are Sergeenko’s greatest achievement.

Then in January 2015 came Sergeenko's Spring 2015 couture collection, which was presented in the aftermath of the collapse of the rouble and amid a generally turbulent period from which Russia is yet to emerge.  These external upheavals were reflected in the unusually modest presentation of Sergeenko’s collection. Do I detect a little snideness in Nicole Phelps' language when she notes, “The optics of the situation weren't so hot: Untrained Russian ingenue makes a big, expensive splash complete with an endorsement from model Natalia Vodianova, only to be forced to downsize a couple of years later.”?

Phelps and other reviewers from significant publications were invited to one-on-one appointments to view the collection in person. Women's Wear Daily published some photos which give an idea of the setup:

The rest of us - which is to say the filthy pleb, non couture-week invitees - could view the collection in the form of lookbook-esque, studio photos. And perhaps this is why none of the official reviews I have found made note of what is to me a truly noteworthy moment in the history of Couture fashion presentations; this shit was airbrushed to the point of looking like a damn Pixar movie. The most egregious example:

For comparison, here are some (presumably unretouched) photos of the same jumpsuit.

In July 2015 the official Ulyana Sergeenko Facebook page did post a somewhat cleaner (though still highly photoshopped) version of the image, but the shitty original remains earlier on the feed and also on the many online fashion magazines that cover the Couture shows.

As someone who doesn't particularly take issue with photoshopping in magazine spreads, I've had to unravel for myself what so upset me about Sergeenko's not-so-sneaky tweaking here. After all, the use of photoshop really is ubiquitous in fashion photography. Furthermore, the people who matter in fashion would have seen the clothes in real life. Still, in the context of a Couture collection, I find the use of photoshop here as something akin to a professional athlete using performance-enhancing drugs. Never mind the fact that they did such a laughably poor job of it.

The strange economics of ultra-high fashion aside, I like to think of Haute Couture collections as representing a celebration of mastery and virtuosic skill in the craft and artistry of fashion: I find Sergeenko’s inclusion (made official by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in April 2015) in the line up unseemly. The greatest couturiers have used the vast array of materials and skilled hands at their disposal to create garments of extraordinary wonder and beauty. It is unedifying to say the least, to see this tradition reduced to a poorly applied stamp-tool.