Slava Zaitsev, enduring Soviet-era fashion designer, dies at 85
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Slava Zaitsev, enduring Soviet-era fashion designer, dies at 85
He gave color, sparkle and opulence to a generation raised in drab Soviet gray and designed for pop stars, Olympic athletes, politicians and ballerinas.

by Penelope Green

NEW YORK, NY.- Slava Zaitsev, an effervescent and enduring Soviet-era fashion designer, once called the “Red Dior” by the Western press, whose over-the-top theatrical creations and persona made him a go-to couturier at home, died April 30 in Shchyolkovo, Russia. He was 85.

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

Zaitsev died just two days before Valentin Yudashkin, a pupil of his who was also known for his sumptuous creations, and who found greater success in the West than he did, died of cancer at 59.

Zaitsev gave color, sparkle and opulence to a generation raised in drab Soviet gray, the uniform of the proletariat, by combining Western bling with nods to traditional Russian folk costumes and nostalgic references to Boris Pasternak and Leo Tolstoy. He was the first designer, in pre-perestroika days, to be allowed to put his name on his work, which he first did in 1982.

He would go on to design for pop stars, politicians, ballerinas and Olympic athletes. He designed uniforms for Aeroflot, the Russian airline, and for Moscow’s traffic police, whom he dressed in crisp navy blue with light-reflecting stripes.

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

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

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

Still, nothing seemed like overkill after decades of hardship, said Karina Dobrotvorskaya, a former president of Condé Nast Russia, which suspended operations there in March 2022. And, she said, because for much of his life Zaitsev was isolated from the West, his flamboyant clothes were not exactly practical.

When he showed his work at the Waldorf Astoria in 1988, during his first visit to New York, he learned that his billowing wool skirts and coats were out of sync with American taste and behaviors: too warm for the climate and too voluminous for a modern working woman who was dashing in and out of subways and taxis.

“The Soviet Union’s first fashion show flopped,” Vogue declared. “Nice thought for détente; the clothes didn’t do much for women.”

Yet the stylish and urbane Raisa Gorbachev, wife of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and perhaps the most effective ambassador for his reforms, wore Zaitsev’s more restrained outfits to great effect as she toured Russia and abroad in the middle to late 1980s. And she was not the only politician to turn to Zaitsev.

In 1996, when ultranationalist firebrand Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky waged a failed campaign for the presidency, he dressed exclusively in splashy custom-made Zaitsev suits that seemed to fit his bombast, favoring in particular a crimson tunic with gold buttons (the designer was reported to have voted for the incumbent, Boris Yeltsin). And in 2003, when Lyudmila Putin, then the wife of President Vladimir Putin, met Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, she sported a wide-brimmed Zaitsev hat.

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

In 1994, Stanley, writing in the Times about Russia’s search for a coherent national identity in the post-Gorbachev era, described the nostalgic vision Zaitsev presented in a showing of his winter collection that year. Models were dressed like Tolstoy heroines, in ringlets, bonnets and billowing coats, and they pirouetted down the runway to music by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky.

“Most of us never knew such a culture existed,” Zaitsev told Stanley. “We were only shown movies about the construction of channels and the conquest of Siberia.”

His show, he added, was like “a dream, something that reassures Russia that a time will come when we can return to something we had in the past, but in a new version.”

Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Zaitsev was born March 2, 1938, in Ivanovo, a gritty city of textile mills northeast of Moscow. His mother, Maria Ivanovna Kokurina, was a laundress and house cleaner, and his father, Mikhail Yakovlevich Zaitsev, was an entertainer and a poet before he was drafted into the Soviet army during World War II.

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

His first work was designing uniforms for laborers, but he was soon branching out. A collection of minidresses printed with patterns drawn from traditional folk costumes earned him a rebuke from authorities but excited a delegation of visiting fashion designers, including Pierre Cardin. It was a risky move, those minis, a salvo against the official policy at the time, which declared that “an imitation of Western fashions, harmless at first sight, may lead to a real spiritual bankruptcy and moral degradation.”

When in the mid-1960s a Paris newspaper called Zaitsev “the Red Dior,” authorities were once again not amused. They banned him from traveling to the West for two decades, declaring that “we do not have one Dior in this fashion house; we have 60.”

Still, he prevailed, and in 1982 he was given permission to affix his name to his work, a first for a Russian designer. Yet for years, shortages of textiles and dyes — as well as shoulder pads, linings and buttons — often curtailed his more fanciful visions, as did a garment industry designed for mass production. And for years, he fit his work on a dressmaker’s dummy dating from World War II.

For his first show under his own name, he recalled in a BBC radio interview in 2018, he designed a women’s collection made from men’s underpants. It was all he could find, he said, and he had them dyed in bright colors by the workshops of the Bolshoi.

“So the models went out wearing nothing but underwear, but no one even noticed that,” he said. “The collection was beautiful, full of color. My models were dancing. It was great.”

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

After Zaitsev’s death, Putin issued a statement of condolence to the designer’s friends and family that was posted on the Kremlin’s website, according to Tass, the Russian news agency. The statement credited Zaitsev with turning the domestic fashion industry “into fine art.”

“Through his unique and original works,” Putin said, “Vyacheslav Zaitsev created a festive atmosphere, bringing joy and the gift of beauty to the people.”

In an interview, Sorokko said that the festivity of Zaitsev’s designs would especially be missed amid the continuing war between Russia and Ukraine. “With his passing,” she said, “it seems the only form of fashion that will remain in Russia for quite some time is military uniforms.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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