Russian fashion legend Zaitsev to show latest collection

MOSCOW – At 78, fashion designer Slava Zaitsev may look frail and complain that he has left his cane at home but he still makes two new collections every year, one of which premieres Thursday at Russian Fashion Week.

The son of a laundress, Zaitsev grew up in a communal apartment in the Soviet Union, where fashion was officially outlawed.

“It was a bourgeois influence. A Soviet person was not supposed to look at it because (fashion) puts personality first,” Zaitsev, dressed in a black military-style jacket, told The Associated Press at his House of Fashion headquarters in central Moscow.

Zaitsev was barred from most schools as the son of an “enemy of the people” – his father was a Soviet prisoner of war in Germany who was sent to a Gulag camp once he got back home. The designer was accepted to a local chemical technical school – where he got straight A’s – before being sent to Moscow to study at the Textile Institute.

In the 1960s, Zaitsev was producing bold designs and colors in a country uniformly dressed in drab clothing, attracting the admiration of rare foreign visitors. A French magazine profiled the young designer, calling him a “Russian Dior.”

That enraged Zaitsev’s boss at Moscow’s one and only hub of fashion design. Reflecting the Soviet Union’s disdain for individual personalities, his boss wrote “we have 60 Diors!” in a local paper, according to Zaitsev.

Zaitsev was one of the first Soviet designers to show his collection on catwalks in the West as the Iron Curtain fell in the 1980s. But he was disappointed in what he saw as the money-driven nature of the American fashion industry.

On his first visit abroad, Zaitsev presented his collection at New York’s Waldorf Astoria in 1987. The friendly staff that was assigned to him to help with the show had all disappeared by the time it was over, he recalls. Zaitsev, a typical Russian who was eager for a late-night heartfelt conversation after the show, was stunned.

“They got their money and left. This was a complete disappointment for me that money was more important in the West – I still can’t get used to the idea,” he said.

Despite his age, Zaitsev is dreaming of venturing into the mass market. His House of Fashion – which makes made-to-measure clothes – is looking for investors to launch a mass market collection, something “not too cheap but really good quality,” he said. Zaitsev has even already found production facilities in his hometown of Ivanovo, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) north-east of Moscow.

“The biggest dream of my life,” he said, “is to dress as many people as I can, to give joy to them and to myself too.”