NEW YORK — One day before he was to present his first collection in this country, Raisa Gorbachev's favorite fashion designer said here Monday that fashion "is really the calling card of its time."
Viyacheslav Zaitsev, the couturier who has been called "the Soviet Calvin Klein," also volunteered the view that fashion can serve as a kind of cultural prism and just as glasnost-- Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's avowed policy of openness--steams its way into literature and academic exchange, the designer becomes his own kind of diplomat.
"The way I feel, a designer is almost like a litmus paper where one absorbs all the information that comes in, not just in his own culture, but the atmosphere of the world," Zaitsev said through an interpreter. "This is why it is so very important for a designer to be involved in life, not to be removed from it, so that every experience, every nuance of what we absorb in the end will reflect in our art."
Zaitsev's own art is perhaps best expressed in his hair, described tactfully by one associate as "gravity-defying." At 49, Zaitsev, known as Slava, may in fact have foreshadowed the punk craze with a coiffeur that sticks straight up toward the sky, finger-in-the-socket style. By contrast, his attire is country-club cautious: a jaunty Kelly green sweater worn under a safe, navy-blue blazer with a matching green pocket square and soft, gray flannel slacks.
"Fashion is really the bringing together of all culture," he declared, "the spearhead to give the thought process or development of ideas" to the mass public.
"In other words," Zaitsev said, "if you study the history of fashion or design, you can identify how developed or evolved a particular society was."
Yet Zaitsev lamented that for many years, ignorance and stereotypes have prevailed between East and West, largely to the discredit and disadvantage of all involved.
Merrily lifting legs to their favorite Jane Fonda videotape, how many Americans, for example, know that Soviet television viewers select from two popular aerobics shows each day, he asked.
Soviet women jog, " Da !" Zaitsev said, and entire factories often engage in daily workouts. Diet is also a popular topic of conversation, this daily devourer of yogurt revealed. As for Soviet fashion consciousness, his reputation has thrived within his homeland for 25 years now, often thanks to the working-class women he says save their rubles in order to afford one or two of the "classic, non-faddish" styles he considers his trademark.
Still, Zaitsev met with little success when, as a designer for the Moscow House of Workwear, he introduced a line of snappy, floral-print coveralls. Not until 1982 did Zaitsev found Dom Modi, the Moscow House of Fashion. Even now, as an employee of the state-owned Ministry of Municipal Services, Zaitsev said he earns just 300 rubles a month, about $450.
"Actually," he said, "the working people who are my customers probably get more money than I do."
It took Raisa Gorbachev, the consummate contradiction to the dowdy Soviet matron, to point world attention toward Zaitsev. Bursting forth on a curious Western world in stylish silks, bold polka dots, even stiletto-heeled winter boots, the wife of the Soviet leader directed notice to a Soviet fashion industry that had seemed all but non-existent outside its own borders until then.
Zaitsev's simple designs--cowl necks, flowing fabrics, lengths that show his abhorrence for the mini--were prominent among the garments that turned Mrs. Gorbachev into a one-woman ambassador for Soviet fashion.
Cultured Lady, Contemporary Woman
"Raisa Gorbachev is a very cultured lady and a very contemporary woman," Zaitsev said of the well-known customer who is often front and center at his Dom Modi showings. "Certainly her desire as a representative of her country, standing at the side of her husband, was to show that the Russian woman was something other than what has been the image.
"She literally took the world mentality about Russian women and showed that it simply wasn't true," he said. "She is not indifferent to clothes or fashion. She has her own very definite styles and tastes." It was thanks to the her husband's joint policies of glasnost and perestroika, or restructuring, that Zaitsev found himself pairing up with a Sacramento-based company called Intertorg (for International Trade Organization) that would bring the House of Zaitsev label to the United States. The process happened so hastily that negotiations for this week's showing of Zaitsev's collection in this country began only in July.
Zaitsev's arrival here was so casual, so seemingly unmonitored that a call late last week to the Soviet delegation to the United Nations to help locate Zaitsev produced an almost indifferent response.
"I have heard that he is here, yes," a spokesman said. "But where he is exactly, I have not the slightest idea.