Slava Zaitsev, perennial Soviet fashion designer, dies at the age of 85

Slava Zaitsev, an effervescent and enduring Soviet-era fashion designer once dubbed “Red Dior” by the Western press, whose creativity and over-the-top theatrical personality made him a household fashion trendsetter, died on April 30 in Shyolkovo, Russia. He was 85 years old.

His longtime friend Tatyana Soroko, a Russian-born model and journalist, said his death in hospital was caused by internal bleeding from an ulcer.

Just two days before the death of Valentin Yudashkin, a pupil of his who was also known for his grandiose creations, and who had more success in the West than him, Mr. Zaitsev died of cancer at the age of 59.

Mr. Zaitsev gave color, brilliance, and luxury to a generation brought up in the dull Soviet gray, uniform of the proletariat, by combining Western gloss with nods to traditional Russian folk costumes and nostalgic references to Pasternak and Tolstoy. He was the first designer, in the pre-perestroika days, to be allowed to put his name on his work, which he did for the first time in 1982.

He would go on to design for pop stars, politicians, ballet dancers, and Olympic athletes. He designed uniforms for Aeroflot and the Moscow traffic police, for whom he wore a navy blue uniform with reflective stripes.

He loved pomp and spectacle—for a time in the 1980s, his fashion business was known as Fashion Theater—and he officiated weekly sold-out shows like a circus maestro, dancing the runway in shimmering silks and waving his hands in the air.

“Don’t be afraid to look plump,” he told the audience at one of the performances. The New York Times reported in 1986. “Russia has long been associated with curvy women who embody kindness, hospitality, and good food.”

For most Russians during the Gorbachev years, fashion would still be a spectator sport. In 1986, when the average monthly wage was about 190 rubles, Zaitsev’s blouse cost 300 rubles, or $400 (about $1,100 in today’s dollars). But entry to the Fashion Theater shows, which were open to the public, was only a few rubles.

Still, nothing seemed too overkill after decades of hardship, said Karina Dobrotvorskaya, the former head of Conde Nast Russia, which suspended operations there in March 2022. His flashy clothes weren’t exactly practical.

When he showed his work at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1988, during his first visit to New York, he learned that his oversized woolen skirts and coats were out of sync with American taste and mannerisms: too warm for the climate and too bulky for modern times. A working woman who was darting in and out of subways and taxis.

Vogue declared “the failure of the first fashion show of the Soviet Union.” “Nice idea to rest; Clothes didn’t do much for women.”

However, the elegant and modern Raisa Gorbachev, wife of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and perhaps the most effective ambassador for his reforms, wore Mr. Zaitsev’s dramatically more restrained clothes while touring Russia and abroad in the mid-to-late 1980s. . And she wasn’t the only politician who turned to Mr. Zaitsev.

In 1996, when the ultra-nationalists staged a strife Vladimir Zhirinovsky He waged an unsuccessful campaign for the presidency, wore exclusively Zaitsev’s luxurious, custom-made suits that seemed fitting to him, and particularly favored a crimson jacket with gold buttons (the designer was said to have voted for the incumbent, Boris Yeltsin). And in 2003, when she met Lyudmila Putin, the wife of President Vladimir Putin Queen Elizabeth II At Buckingham Palace, she wore Zaitsev’s wide-brimmed hat.

“It’s not that he was the greatest designer,” said Alessandra Stanley, co-editor of the online weekly Air Mail and former foreign correspondent for The New York Times who was based in Moscow from 1994 to 1998. He can do it at all, the fact that the Russians can have their own name designer. It was like the Bolshoi, something they could look at with pride and affection even if it was a bit old.”

In 1994, Mrs. Stanley, Writing in The Times about Russia Searching for a cohesive national identity in the post-Gorbachev era, he described the nostalgic vision presented by Mr. Zaitsev in a presentation of his winter collection that year. The models were dressed like Tolstoy’s heroines, in berets, bonnets, and puffy frock coats, and went down the runway to Tchaikovsky’s music.

“Most of us have never known such a culture existed,” Mr. Zaitsev told Mrs. Stanley. “We were only shown films about the construction of canals and the conquest of Siberia.”

His program, he added, was “a dream, something to reassure Russia that the time will come when we can go back to something we had in the past, but in a new version.”

Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Zaitsev was born on March 2, 1938 in Ivanovo, a stout city of textile factories northeast of Moscow. His mother, Maria Ivanovna Kokorina, was a laundress and house cleaner, and his father, Mikhail Yakovlevich Zaitsev, was an artist and poet before being drafted into the Soviet Army during World War II.

Upon his return, Mikhail Zaitsev was sent to one of several camps set up by Stalin for “traitors to the motherland, spies and terrorists,” as he described the prisoners of war, and as the son of a “traitor to the motherland,” Slava was not allowed to attend better schools and universities. He attended a local technical school and graduated from the Moscow State University of Textiles in 1962.

His first business was designing uniforms for workers, but he soon began branching out. A collection of short dresses printed with patterns drawn from traditional folk costumes earned him a reprimand from the authorities, but impressed a delegation of visiting fashion designers, including Pierre Cardin. It was a risky move, those little dresses, and a single blow against the official Policy It was then that he declared that “imitation of Western fashion, harmless at first glance, can lead to real spiritual bankruptcy and moral decline.”

When in the mid-1960s a Parisian newspaper dubbed Monsieur Zaitsev “the Dior of the Red,” the authorities were again not amused. They banned him from traveling to the West for two decades, declaring that “we don’t have a single Dior in this fashion house; we have 60.”

However, he prevailed, and in 1982 he was given permission to put his name on his work, a first for a Russian designer. However, shortages of textiles and dyes—as well as shoulder pads, linings, and buttons—curtailed his imaginative vision, as did the manufacture of tailored clothing for mass production. And for years, he’d fit his work on a World War II sewing doll.

He is remembered at his first show under his own name In a BBC radio interview in 2018He designed a women’s collection made of men’s underwear. It was all he could find, he said, painted brightly in the Bolshoi’s workshops.

“So the models came out wearing nothing but underwear, but no one noticed,” he said. “The set was beautiful and colorful. My models were dancing. It was great.”

Mr. Zaitsev is survived by his son, Yegor, and two granddaughters. His marriage to Marina Gottsman ended in divorce.

Following Mr. Zaitsev’s death, President Putin issued a statement of condolences to the designer’s friends and family that was posted on the Kremlin’s website, According to the Russian news agency TASS. The statement credited Mr. Zaitsev with transforming the local fashion industry into a “fine art”.

“With his unique and original works, Vyacheslav Zaitsev created a festive atmosphere, brought people joy and the gift of beauty,” said Mr. Putin.

In an interview, Ms. Soroko said that the celebration of Mr. Zaitsev’s designs will be particularly missed amid the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. “With his death,” she said, “it seems that the only form of fashion that will remain in Russia for some time is the military uniform.”

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