It's a country where polyester has more status than silk and designers don't have designer labels. These are some of facts about Soviet fashion that three Los Angeles students learned when they worked inside the Soviet Union's apparel industry.
Peter Garibaldi, Lisa Getchel and Jennifer Joanou of the Otis Institute of the Parsons School of Design were selected to be part of Design for Peace, where Soviets and Americans co-created a sportswear collection intended for women of both countries.
Ten U.S. students, professors and designers joined forces with 10 Soviet fashion makers for the project. It was coordinated by Owen/Breslin, a Dallas-based marketing firm. And it was financed in part by Jockey International, Haggar apparel manufacturers and Wolverine footwear manufacturers.
Street fashion there isn't what the Otis Parsons students expected. "Most people wear uniforms to work," Garibaldi says.
"The clothes aren't ugly, just bland," Joanou adds. "I didn't ever see high fashion. Nothing like a Calvin Klein or Giorgio Armani outfit. Things are low-quality and high-priced."
They may dress simply, but the styles that Soviet women admire most are glitzy and decorative, Garibaldi says. At a Moscow fashion show, frilly dresses by New York's Victor Costa were big favorites. (It was staged during a U.S. Fashion Design Week in Moscow, also coordinated by Owen/Breslin.)
The Americans were most surprised by the Soviet fashion preference for polyester. Natural fibers are available, but Soviets want synthetics because they can hand-wash them at home, Michael Owen, a principal of Owen/Breslin, says. "They don't have dry cleaners," he explains. "They find synthetics easiest to keep clean." A cotton sweater might sell for $20 in Moscow. But, Getchel recalls, "A synthetic dress I saw in a window costs $200."
Everyone involved in the Design for Peace project was eager to exchange ideas, but that wasn't easy. Neither the Soviets nor the Americans spoke the others' language, and they had only two translators to help.
The clothes they co-produced said something about their different fashion ideas. Garibaldi and his partner designed a short, full, black denim skirt lined in a contrasting plaid that Garibaldi might make for young American women. "My partner added a button and a hole so you could lift the skirt and show the lining," he says. He might not have done it that way, but he says he understands why it happened. "In Russia they've had simplicity all along. Now they're encouraging creativity."
It takes up to 18 months to mass produce a fashion collection in the Soviet Union, Owen says, in part because there hasn't been a demand for quick, competitive delivery of the newest styles. "The Russians are into apparel, not fashion," he says. "They need to update their technology. They want to learn from us, get into import-export co-ventures. And they want to attract foreign currency."
He describes the Soviet Union as "a market waiting to be broken," and says Design for Peace is the sort of business venture the Soviet government has in mind for its new era of glasnost , or openness, and perestroika, or restructuring.
This first collaborative fashion collection is made entirely of fabrics supplied by U.S. manufacturers, and Owen and his partner are negotiating with two companies, including one in California, to mass produce it. He says he expects to get a commitment just after the turn of the year. He says a second design collaboration is being arranged now, and it could get under way as early as March. This time in Los Angeles.