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Moscow on the Seine

Two years ago, people in her native Russia laughed at Ulyana Sergeenko's folkloric skirts and floor-sweeping dresses. Today, they're lining up to wear them in Moscow and Paris.

Published July 17, 2012
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Once upon a time, or three years ago to be precise, Tommy Ton's favorite subjects tended to be Parisian or Milanese fashion editors and London-based retailers. Today, he more often than not trains his lens on the new Russian federation—Miroslava Duma, Elena Perminova, Anya Ziourova, Vika Gazinskaya, and especially their unofficial mascot, Ulyana Sergeenko. Sergeenko's unabashed embrace of luxury and multiple designer outfit changes a day are hard to resist—and not just by our resident street-style photographer. The 32-year-old wife of a Russian insurance mogul, Sergeenko has parlayed her newfound celebrity into a burgeoning fashion label, which made its Couture week debut in Paris earlier this month. It's either brave or foolhardy to go up against fashion houses with decades of couture know-how, but Sergeenko drew a crowd that included Carine Roitfeld, Patrick Demarchelier, and Grace Coddington, and the message was clear: This latest Russian invasion is only just beginning. Style.com spoke to the neophyte designer on the phone from Moscow to discuss who's placing orders, the youthful origins of her fashion fixation, and why she has Dolce & Gabbana dreams.

Let's start with your Couture show. How do you think it went—the turnout, the critical response, the orders?
I was exhausted and very happy at the same time. The whole team did a great job. You know, the brand, we've existed only a bit more than a year. It was really, really difficult for us to make all of this stuff and to prepare everything, but we have a great number of orders. People from all over the world—we're having lots of requests for a lot of things. We're really very, very happy because it means that people, they like it. You know, what can be better?

What pieces received the most orders?
We have a top five. First, it's the skirt from Jessica Stam's look. Second is the coat with sable. Then, a lot of people want to have these bags, which you can wear on your back. The red shoes. And a pink dress, the one Elena Perminova was wearing. She was a guest and she was already in a piece from the catwalk.

She should maybe walk in your show next season. You were both models, right?
I'm not a model anymore. It was a long, long time ago. It was in St. Petersburg, of course, it wasn't Paris. And my parents both, they were against this profession. I was too young, and I needed their permission to leave the country and they didn't give it to me. I'm so happy about that now, but at that time I was very upset.

Why are you happy about it now?
I'm absolutely satisfied with my life now. I'm happy that I'm not a model, that I'm a designer. I think that I found my way. I love my profession, I love my job, my business. I spend all my time in our office.

Why show during Couture and not ready-to-wear?
We have to make couture because in Russia, we don't have any fashion industry. It's really difficult to organize the process of making ready-to-wear clothes, so we have to make couture clothes. We are doing everything in one building. All our embroidered buttons, all our shoes. We are trying to find people from all over the country who can make something really very special. That's why we are couture.

Who would you like to dress that you haven't yet?
Now, we are getting a lot of requests from celebrities. But for me, they're all equal. Of course, it's a great pleasure and great honor that Natalia [Vodianova] chose our brand. She didn't know anything about us. She just met me in my own fur coat and boots more than a year ago, and she just asked where I bought them. I told her that I made them by myself, and she was very astonished. And since that time, she's a client of ours; we're really making a lot of pieces for her. I'm very, very happy that she's fond of them and she's wearing them everywhere. It's a great honor, but it's not a contract; it's not something commercial, it's love. We love her and she loves us.

Will you be showing again in January?
Of course, we hope so. We already started to work on the next show, and this time we'll have more time. The previous show, our first one in Paris, we prepared the whole show in less than three weeks.

Photos: Courtesy of Ulyana Sergeenko

Will your Russian heritage be a constant in your collections?
I know what we will show you in January and next July; I think we have something like six concepts ready. I just want to be a Russian designer. We have a very rich culture. I would love to show to all the world what great history we have. It's a never-ending story. I can take and take and take; we have really a lot of things to take from our history.

What are your goals for the brand?
To be frank, I still don't know, but I hope for the best. We just returned from Italy, from the Dolce & Gabbana Couture show, and I'm admiring them a lot. For more than 20 years, they are always using something from Italy, from their country's history, and they are doing it perfectly well. They are my idols. I wish I were something like them.

Will you be buying anything from their Couture collection?
I'm absolutely in love with this brand. I love what they're doing. When I think about Dolce & Gabbana, I absolutely know which books they like, which foods they like, which movies they watched. I understand them. Yes, I bought a few things. It was so touching. They really showed a part of them.

Talk about your other favorite designers.
I really admired and still admire John Galliano because, of course, he's a genius. And I love what Karl Lagerfeld does for Chanel, especially for Couture. I love his things. This time, it was funny because Raf Simons in his Couture collection for Dior, he created this beautiful floral skirt, with a transparent sweater. It was not "our" look, but it was very my thing. I admire a lot of designers. When you are doing something by yourself, you understand how difficult it is to be a designer, how difficult it is to have inspiration all the time, how difficult to organize all the processes. I love all the designers. I love shoes from McQueen, hats from Philip Treacy or Stephen Jones. I have a collection of really unique things, and I'm happy to have it.

How did you become interested in fashion?
All my life I was absolutely crazy about nice, beautiful things. Maybe it's because of my grandmother. I had a Soviet childhood, and it was difficult to buy some things. My grandmother made dresses for me. She used all her sources to make me beautiful. I was born in Kazakhstan. When I was at school, all the school discussed how I was dressed. I loved to wear, for example, a dress with trousers, something a bit crazy. We had a uniform in my school. You know, teachers were angry with me because I was always disobeying them and wearing what I want.

Do you have any other style icons?
I take my inspiration from old movie stars, from old movies, from Soviet cartoons, sometimes even cartoon heroes. I adore Ava Gardner, I love Sophia Loren, I love Brigitte Bardot, of course. Grace Kelly. And a lot of Soviet names, which I think you don't know. Soviet culture is not so popular.

When you're in Paris, you're trailed by a pack of photographers. Are there photographers in Moscow who track you down and shoot you?
No, it's one of the reasons why we decided to move to Paris. Unfortunately, people here do not love the brand and me so much in my native country, and I'm very sorry about it.

So do people not pay a lot of attention to fashion in Moscow?
No, here, they pay a lot of attention to fashion and to all such things. Some of them, maybe, they don't want to develop themselves, to make something, to be successful, to have a job. They prefer to be aggressive instead. The country's not too successful as a whole. We are trying to change the situation.

Are people jealous of your success?
They're not jealous of my own success. Most people are aggressive to everybody who's successful or who has money or who is trying to work to change the situation in the country. They just prefer to do nothing. It's not about me.

You have such a signature look. Have you seen your style influence others in Moscow?
It's a very good question. When I appeared on the scene a few years ago, a lot of people laughed at me. I have a really recognizable and maybe a funny style. My long skirts—really, people laughed. But now a lot of people, they ask their stylists, "Make me absolutely like Ulyana." We have lots of people in clothes similar to my skirts. We have now a lot of Russian designers who are producing similar skirts and dresses. Not a long time ago, it was very funny and people were laughing. Now they are wearing it.

Photos: Courtesy of Ulyana Sergeenko

Where do you do most of your shopping?
It's an ordinary situation—when I'm visiting a show, a catwalk, and I'm crazy about something from the show and asking to have the thing. I'm not talking about couture, of course, I'm talking about ready-to-wear. Most of the interesting and unique things, they're not producing after the show. It's good luck for me when these people are so kind and they're selling me the item from the show. All of the brands, they have the same answer. "This is not a commercial thing, we can't produce it. Nobody except you, Ulyana, wants to buy this; we are sorry."

The girls in my office want to know, do you change your outfits as often at home in Moscow as you do at the shows?
No, of course not. Before, when I was pre-work, I changed my outfits really a lot, I was really like a crazy woman. Now, when I have to work a lot, I simply do not have time anymore to do it. I still do have an interest. I love to change dresses, I love to create something special, to combine things. But now, I'm sorry, I don't have time; I'm wearing sneakers and jeans and no makeup.

They also asked, how big is your closet?
It looks like a house. There is only one person able to find something in it: It's me, nobody else. I remember everything; it's like a program in my head, with boots, with trousers, with skirts, with hats, with lingerie.

Which designer would you say you own the most of?
I can't tell you, [there are] a lot of files in my head. I have a lot of Dolce & Gabbana, a lot of Prada, and a lot of Chanel, but not the Russian Chanel. I'm collecting items from the shows, very rare. I have a lot of vintage clothes, and a lot of vintage clothes I'm buying in America, from auctions, from private collectors, from the Resurrection store. Because in America, there are a lot of unique pieces in excellent condition, I don't know why. It's good luck when you find a thing in good condition from the forties or thirties or fifties. I have more things in good condition from the sixties. Of course I'm wearing them, but it should be a special occasion to wear these pieces. I'm saving them for fashion shows. [The interview is interrupted by children entering the room.] I'm sorry, it's my kids.

I thought you only had one?
I have two, an 11-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl. She enjoyed the show very much. For her it was like an ordinary thing; she has a lot of dresses, my dresses. She's fond of fashion, and she's making a lot of sketches, which sometimes I use because some of them are very original. And she's making dresses for her dolls. She's organizing some performances, which we call "catwalk," when she's having something from my wardrobe, and she's changing outfits.

Are you taking them on summer holidays?
No plans yet. Maybe you heard in Russia, we have this big tragedy. The floods [in the Krasnodar region], Natalia, she organized a camp there; she's supporting people there. She's doing a lot, and I think me and Frol [my business partner] will fly there in a few days and support Natalia and maybe we will be able to help them. We do not have any other plans. You know, it's a great pleasure for me now to work. I can't leave Moscow, but it's a good thing. I found something very valuable and I'm happy because of it.

Photos: Courtesy of Ulyana Sergeenko
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