After 20 years of importing street fashions from the far corners of the Earth, New York merchant Harvey Russack feared he was running out of new resources. But that was before glasnost paved the way to comrade chic.
Now Russack, chairman of Unique Clothing Warehouse, is supplying his four East Coast stores--and department store accounts across the country--with such unlikely fashion statements as genuine Soviet prison uniforms, accessorized with floral scarfs from the Ukraine.
Signs of \o7 glasnost \f7 glamour have been popping up in Europe and the United States ever since Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev announced his policy of openness in 1986. But what started as a trickle has become a steady flow.
For many Americans, the influx of Kremlin creativity is just what was needed to enliven a boring fashion scene. In New York and Los Angeles, customers of hip specialty and department stores are snapping up authentic imports from the Soviet Union. These include military and folkloric clothing, perfumes, sunglasses, watches and what one retailer frankly calls "ugly ties." More prevalent are the jazzier American and European interpretations of Soviet originals.
The latest wave of Soviet chic was set off by the Gruen watch company last April. With what turned out to be excellent timing (the Berlin Wall would tumble seven months later), Gruen introduced its "Soviet military-style watch" at the Russian Tea Room in New York, followed by an ethnic-flavored launch at the Broadway in Century City. The $100 timepieces, which are packaged in caviar tins, have a Soviet quartz movement, an Italian leather strap and are assembled in the Far East.
In a similar joint venture, Seattle Pacific Industries (best known for Union Bay men's sportswear) recently introduced its SOVIET collection for men and women. The official word from the company is that the garments, including novelty jeans packed in bread-box size tin cans, are inspired by "suggestions" from a team of Moscow designers who work with an Italian marketing company. The jeans are manufactured in Hong Kong and, like the Gruen watch, they are not available in the Soviet Union.
At Fred Segal on Melrose Avenue, men's wear manager George Grimball says customers are buying the SOVIET $68 jeans more for the fit than for any political overtones or for any of the gimmicks--which, in addition to the tin can, include a miniature screwdriver used to reverse three metal labels covered with Cyrillic writing.
But for Doug Platt and partner Sydney Herman, founders of the Russian Dressing catalogue, politics are part of the service.
"We give 10% of the proceeds to groups working to improve U.S.-Soviet relations," Platt explains.
Russian Dressing (reachable at P.O. Box 1313, New York, N.Y. 10013) offers a number of authentic items, including regulation Aeroflot jackets, named for the official Soviet airline, despite certain difficulties: "We've ordered products nearly a year ago that haven't shown up yet," Platt says.
Nicholas Graham, the founder of Joe Boxer Corp. in San Francisco, is optimistic and working on what many consider the next step in \o7 glasnost \f7 garments. The man who introduced his Surf Russia T-shirts and shorts several years ago is negotiating to get "typically American" underwear (boxer shorts covered with ants or brightly colored billiard balls) into Soviet stores. In the meantime, he continues to put Gorbachev's face on T-shirts and to splash others with such motivational slogans as "Better Living Through Changing Politics and Underwear."