“There is no alternative to diplomacy,” UN Secretary General António Guterres said this ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Fashion it can be an integral part of efforts to change hearts and minds wary of change, and to build proverbial bridges across deep generational divides. The famous Russian designer Vyacheslav Zaitsev died on April 30 at the age of 85. While the war changes the global image of a nation and culture that “Slava” loved dearly, his departure highlights both potential fashion diplomacy as well as its heartbreaking limitations. Many fans and colleagues mourn not only his death, but also the perceived loss of something like Russia and its global appeal that he helped create after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The world says goodbye to the man who put Moscow on the fashion map of the world.
His story was the story of the people. Zaitsev was born in 1938 in Ivanovo. At that time, it was one of the leading centers of textile production in Europe, next to Manchester and Łódź. Since most of the linen and cotton processing equipment was imported from England, it was called the Russian Manchester. His mother was one of the women attracted to Bride City by job opportunities. His father was a factory worker repressed by Stalin’s purges as an “enemy of the people” for being captured during World War II. The child of the enemy of the people did not have a bright future in the USSR.
Caught in the ruthless frame of the Big Picture and systematically rejected opportunities, he learned to create his own. His first collection featured colorful work suits with floral prints. Declared unsuitable by centralized clothing authorities, it attracted the attention of editors in Match in Paris which gave the young talent the nickname Red Dior. Then there were invitations abroad, but the Soviet government refused him an exit visa. He would not have been able to travel for almost two decades. Zaitsev’s path was in keeping with the transformative spirit of this prophetic simile and made him a monumental figure in post-Soviet fashion.
He was always a robber, persistently seeking permission to produce goods under his own name, despite the collectivist nature of the “communist marketplace”. In 1982, he became the first designer with an officially sanctioned fashion brand of the same name in the Soviet Union. As the Cold War drew to a close, he became the first Russian designer to be invited to the Haute Couture Fashion Week in Paris. Later in life, he became an honorary citizen of the City of Lights. Style media and consumers around the world were fascinated by his bright modernist vision (and those floral prints). When his shows hit the runways in New York, Tokyo, Berlin and other fashion capitals, he was almost always the “first Russian” there. In 1992, a historic partnership with L’Oréal was formed marousia an international bestseller. Zaitsev has blazed so many professional trails that he has become a de facto ambassador of the country’s goodwill in his country perestroika era. He designed uniforms for Aeroflot airlines, dressed the Russian Olympic team and the first ladies of Russia. In 2018, the BBC did an article about “a man who fought communism with fashion”. Slava seemed to have won.
As tributes began pouring in amid news of the war in Ukraine, one stood out for its poignant affirmation of the designer’s legacy and condemnation of the irritating Russian zeitgeist. For decades, Zaitsev dressed signatory Alla Pugacheva. The enormity of her cultural status is best described by Russian wit. “Who were Putin, Medvedev, Yeltsin, Gorbachev, Khrushchev and Brezhnev? Minor political figures from the reign of Alla Pugacheva.
Now, at the age of 74, persona non grata in his homeland for his public anti-war views, lives in exile in Israel. On her Instagram, a social network labeled “extremist” by the Kremlin, she posted a photo of the young Slava Zaitsev with the caption: “Goodbye, my FRIEND. Thank you for everything.” For many, this marks the end of an era in Russian cultural history. Russian-born American fashion journalist and haute couture collector Tatiana Sorokko said in a statement to WWD: “Zaitsev was the voice of generations of Russians who wanted to look to the West to see a better future. He left us today when there is no future in Russia.”
The history of the artist is the history of the nation. Zaitsev used his wild creativity in the service of a vision of a nation aligned with the greater common good of a peaceful world. He courageously defied both personal and collective adversity in a time of great social upheaval. He leaves behind a creative plan to change the world. “When a war begins, diplomacy does not end but often escalates,” wrote Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, in an article on the failures and promises of international diplomacy. Whenever fashion diplomacy is intended to once again contribute to lasting peace and post-war reconstruction efforts, may the memory of Slava Zaitsev inspire the next generation of Russian counterculture visionaries.