The Great

Valentin Yudashkin, Russia’s Couture King

Valentin Yudashkin, Russia’s most recognizable fashion designer, talks style during the Cold War, dressing Raisa Gorbachev, and the political unrest that exists in his home country today.

03.17.14 9:45 AM ET

For over 25 years, one Russian designer has been presenting collections alongside the top Parisian couturiers, creating gorgeous, overly-embellished pieces that have been heavily inspired by the culture of his home country. Yet, despite his recognition by the Syndic de la Haute Couture, very few in the west have heard of Valentin Yudashkin. Now the subject of a new book, Yudashkin's opulent designs are being introduced to a wider audience, and he hopes they will help present a more luxurious, romantic view of Russia, even as the world watches as the government increases its aggression towards Ukraine.

Valentin Yudashkin emerged as a designer in the late eighties from the seemingly styleless Soviet Union, where fashion was, as former Condé Nast Russia president, Karina Dobrotvorskaya, writes in the forward to Valentin Yudashkin, “viewed with suspicion.” At the time, Slava Zaitsev was the only couturier permitted to design under the Soviet regime, and, as a result of Communist rule, his pieces were only available for sale in Russia and Czechoslovakia.

Trying to “[reconcile] world fashion with the Soviet system,” Zaitsev accepted a young Yudashkin, who was right out of school, as an apprentice at his studio, named The Fashion Theater. Zaitsev—who was compared to designers like Christian Lacroix and Yves Saint Laurent—would present his flamboyant, haute couture collections in a theatrical performance, rather than a simple runway show. Models wearing his creations would participate in the unfolding of a theme, either drama or parody. It was this idea of theater and performance that fascinated Yudashkin and served as the inspiration for his design aesthetic. “I used to design for theater and for the movies; for pop culture artists and singers,” the 50-year-old fashion designer told The Daily Beast. “Fashion came after that.”

Yudashkin became a pivotal player in helping fashion—couture, in particular—flourish in a post-Cold War country. The details of his intricately-crafted designs—from detailed beading to an array of feathers and lush embellishments—presented the Western world with a view of Russia that went beyond just politics.

In 1991, Yudashkin was invited by French fashion designer Pierre Cardin to present his collection at Paris Fashion Week, a first for a Russian designer. The collection, named Fabergé, was inspired by the Imperial Russian jewelry company, recognized for its decadent, enameled and gem pieces, most notably the intricately-crafted, overly-embellished eggs created as gifts for Russian Tsars. “[Fabergé company agents] looked at my work and became obsessed with the idea of presenting it in Paris,” he says. “The show was organized in the Soviet embassy there with Mikhail Gorbachev’s blessing.” Yudashkin was later accepted into the Syndicat de la Haute Couture of Paris and, alongside Gianni Versace and Valentino Garavani, became one of the first three non-French members to be admitted to the organization.

Gorbachev was not the only official who admired Yudashkin’s work. His wife, Raisa (and later, First Lady Svetlana Medvedeva), favored the designer and his pieces. “Mrs. Gorbachev was a unique woman, of course, because she had a feel for fashion, despite the fact that her origin was from the Soviet Union,” he says of the former First Lady. “But she had the right idea of how the woman should change, that women should live an active, constructive life. Ladies such as she stand out often, but are not always loved. The recognition comes later in life.”

Tom Elbez

After finding success on the international stage and earning the admiration of the Gorbachev’s, Yudashkin’s excessively flamboyant creations began gaining wider attention in his home country. In 1993, the Russian Olympic Committee commissioned him to design the country’s uniforms for the 1994 winter games in Norway and, later, the 1996 summer games in Atlanta. One of Yudashkin's greatest national honors came in 2007, when he was asked to redesign the Russian army uniforms. The result, presented a year later in Moscow’s Red Square, was a failure. After 250 army members fell sick with pneumonia or the flu, and parents of soldiers claimed that Yudashkin had "put fashion before practicality," the uniforms were removed and replaced with pieces more suitable for Russia's cold temperatures. Yudashkin says the 85 pieces he designed were mass-produced and were not crafted from the high-quality, top-grade fabric he had originally sketched.

Despite Russia’s fraught reputation on the international stage, Yudaskin has found his inspiration and built his design legacy from his country’s heritage, primarily the luxurious, imperial parts. “Every collection that I’ve done, including the first one, exhibits my roots and where I come from—that includes Russian culture and Fabergé fine jewelry,” Yudashkin says. “Then, I had lots of different ideas, where collections were dedicated to cinema and Hollywood, to Africa, to Japan (2002)… But I regularly, after a few seasons, come back to more poetic themes, like Anna Karenina, for example.”

For the Fall/Winter 1998 season, he dedicated his collection to Anna Karenina, one of Russia’s most recognizable literary heroines. Karenina’s juxtaposition of tragedy and beauty translated into an emotional, highly-technical collection featuring soft, flowing silks with beaded embellishments and lace detailing. One gown, a tan, high-neck number with black embroidery and a silk shawl, is on permanent display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. “Classical Russian fashion can be compared to classical Russian literature as they share a unique sense of heroic drama and poetic melancholy,” Harold Koda, curator-in-charge at The Met’s Costume Institute, writes in Valentin Yudashkin. “This is what I like about Russia: the depth of the country’s feelings and its incredible romanticism.”

It’s a shame that this passion and beauty are often overshadowed by political and economic crises. “I think that culture always carries only positive messages,” Yudashkin says when asked his thoughts on the ongoing aggression between Russia and the Ukraine. “What’s important for me, first of all, is to be able to invite Americans to come to Moscow, [so they can experience] the real culture founded by real people, who are very far removed from politics. My wish is that design and culture help people communicate better. We have all become very politicized, which is not a really good thing. I hope that culture will help correct these misunderstandings on both sides.”

Danila Golovkin

“Both America and Russia are very interesting countries because they are both very tolerant,” he continues. “We have no nationalistic tendencies and never have," he says. Yudashkin believes that the world has an unfortunate—and incorrect—view of Russia because Putin and his politics are ever-present in the Western media.

While he recognizes there is a difference of political opinion, Yudashkin hopes that others will one day recognize the “real” Russia, a country filled with culture and style. "Even if some people don’t agree with the way the economy is being run, or other things—for example, I lost two grandfathers during WWII. We all very well understand and remember the stories of people running away, and how America and Israel were accepting them. We have to make sure that there are no nationalists and no fascists allowed. And everything else will get resolved. Big politics and politicians, that’s history, they’re historical representations—we have to live today.”

Today, Yudashkin continues to show his opulent designs in Paris and remains inspired by the country he is proud to call home. Regardless of how current events pan out, Yudashkin hopes that his billowing gowns and delicately-embroidered pieces will bring peace to an otherwise crazed world.