Dressed to kill … the environment

(Photo credit: Flickr/ Steven De Polo)

There’s no word or term for “sustainable fashion” in the Russian language, however there exists a small but growing community who practice sustainable fashion choices in different ways

Written by Fann Sim
Interview translation by Dina Salieva

Russia’s oldest and one of the world’s first shopping arcade features the newest fashion phenomenon—fast fashion.

Among boutiques that line St Petersburg’s 4.5-kilometre long Nevsky Prospekt are international brands like H&M, Zara and Mango. In the pulse of the hustle is an enormous shopping centre that’s more than 200 years old and a 168-year-old departmental store.

Shopping is at the very heart of this city, and looking good is a Russian standard. Walk down the street and it’s common to see men and women dressed to the nines or at the very least, a purposefully thrown together fashion statement. Russian women, for example, continue to strut in stilettos in deep snow while outsiders try to flat foot their way across icy sidewalks.

Sartorial desire is an indicator of economic prosperity, especially when people are financially empowered to choose between extravagance and frugality. Like the perfect shoe for a suit, the combination of post-socialism consumer revolution and Russia’s economic boom in the early-2000s, also brought in a certain appetite for fashion.

High-street brands and fast-fashion retailers enter to meet the hunger from every strata who wants to buy. In a straw poll of 20 Russians living in St Petersburg and Moscow, about 65 per cent of them have bought a clothing item in the last one month. Retailers like H&M and Zara are regularly cited to be places where they shop. These retailers have been accused to be the main perpetrators of fast fashion and the phenomenon is quickly becoming an environmental crisis.

Fashion consumption in Russia

According to Eurostat, Russians spend about 9 per cent of their household expenditure on clothing and footwear second only to China’s 10.9 per cent in the report. Europe, on the other hand, spends an average of 5 per cent of its household expenditure in the same category.

Moscow-born Xenya Cherny-Scanlon, who has been running a blog about sustainable fashion for five years, described this consumerist culture to have started in the 90s.

“I think it is very much oriented, at this time, on consumerism and mindless consumption. You have to look at it through historical perspective,” she says.

“In Russia, it’s come quite suddenly. It’s a new luxury market still finding its proper place in modern Russia. We still need to understand where it sits. There’s a big influx of brands that people still might not know about other than seeing it emblazoned everywhere and consider big logos to be high-quality items,” Cherny-Scanlon adds.

Olga Gurova, who has studied and written a book on this topic, has observed the growth of accessibility to fashion in Russia going from open-air markets to shopping malls to the Internet. Shopping malls opened in droves in the early 2000s with transnational brands offering fashion with extremely attractive price tags. But with the latest economic downturn, shoppers are putting brakes on fast fashion, returning to a slower pace of consumption.

Fashion was much more accessible five years ago, and right now it’s more difficult because the exchange rate has been falling over the last couple of years quite noticeably, and you can start seeing it in clothing. This also affects the development of various sartorial platforms and forms of consumption like sharing and renting services or second-hand markets online. This is where, I think, the potential for sustainable fashion is right now,” says Gurova.

Instead of buying fashion in the traditional sense of going to a mall and getting an item, some Russians are exploring other ways of clothing themselves.

If you can’t shop ethically, go second hand

Recycling and reusing clothes are, in the blogger’s opinion, not popular among Russians. In certain cases, it might even be borderline insulting.

“In Europe, it’s considered really appropriate to donate or to give your old children’s clothes away. Some people even sell them second-hand. It’s commonplace. When my friends gave birth, I would give away a lot of things that I would not be using anymore. In Russia, it’s almost considered an insult if you give something that is not brand-new. It’s like ‘Oh, you’re giving me your cast-offs, and it’s not seen as caring. It’s seen as not really making an effort,” Cherny-Scanlon adds.

Thrift-shopping is also starting to gain traction. Spasibo (thank you in Russian) is the first of its kind in Russia. Started six years ago in St Petersburg, the charity store has four outlets and many donation boxes scattered around the city.
Today, Spasibo has up to 20 containers worth of clothes in its inventory that are donated by the public. The charity organization collects and sorts all clothes themselves, with 90 per cent of them distributed to the underprivileged and the remaining 10 to be sold at their charity shops.

Items in the shop change according to the season. A scarf from Pavlovo Posad Shawl Manufactory goes for 300 roubles instead of the full price of 800 or more.

Ethical materials used to sustain fashion consumption

On one of the offshoots of St Petersburg’s main shopping street at Maker Design Loft is ANIMA Shoes.

There, high-quality vegan shoes are made-to-order with ethical materials such as eco-leather and textiles and synthetic glue. There are absolutely no animal ingredients in their footwear, ANIMA Shoes promises. Summer shoes like heeled sandals or ballet-style shoes are about 4,000 roubles (60 euros) while winter boots can cost up to 8,000 roubles (120 euros).

Anna Kravets, who founded the label in 2015, has been fielding questions about the quality of eco-leather everyday about their products. The top question, Kravets says, is whether the shoes can breathe like normal leather shoes.

“This is a question to shoemakers who work with real leather as well. In order to protect natural leather from weather damage, they’re coated with toxic substances so it doesn’t mean that they can breathe too,” she says. Such toxic substances also make their way into the bodies of workers working in production factories, and into the environment.

Potential customers also often ask if the shoes can withstand Russia’s bone-freezing winter, and they can hold up to -35C (-31F).

Kravets says that she imports eco-leather from China because there is no quality eco-leather to be found in the Russian market. She then provides the eco-leather to three Russian designers and then to shoemakers in the St Petersburg region to be manufactured as and when orders come in.

“We believe that the future is in natural materials. It’s more sustainable and eco-friendly. … From the ecological point of view, the main driver is that nobody dies for what we produce so we don’t grow death. That’s the most important thing,” Kravets says.

“The prices are actually comparable to normal shoes. It also depends on what kind of shoes you compare it to. The thing is over here, they produce based on individual orders … The price of the eco-leather we use is the same as real leather.”

Apart from Kravets, there’s a small but growing group of Russians advocating for sustainable fashion.

Go local

In the small town of Anapa off the northern coast of the Black Sea, Olga Proskurina compressing wool together to create felt clothing items. Her customers, which come from all over Russia, are particularly attracted to the handmade and ecological quality of her scarves, vests, gloves among others.

She uses voilok, or felting, which she describes to be “very Russian”. The same method of weaving is also used to make Valenki, a traditional Russian winter boots whose name means “made by felting”.

Wool, unlike fur, can be obtained ethically without killing the animal and the Russian people have a preference for fur because of its warming quality. However, wool turned into felt works to keep warm too instead of having an animal die just to provide a product, she says.

“Eco fashion for me is, first of all, using natural materials. There are not so many synthetic materials, and they are not as good or healthy for the body as cotton or wool. In our southern regions, it is especially important that the clothes you wear can ‘breathe’,” Proskurina says.

Like Proskurina, Victoria Ustinova, a designer based in St Petersburg sources locally. Ustinova started Ewlisiya to sell her own designs. Her dresses are made from high-quality fabric found from all over Russia during in her travels. The motifs can be so drastically different in the south, she says.

“If we had fabrics production in Russia with good quality, I would choose only Russian cotton or Russia-made fabric. For me, it’s natural to use something that was made around you. It’s not a collaboration but a philosophy … I like this feeling that people in this country made it for these people and use it. It’s feeling like a part of a community,” she says.

It makes more sense to source locally because it’s cheaper due to her small scale of production.

While sustainable fashion is still rather unknown to the wider Russian public, sustainable fashion academic Gurova says that it’s not an entirely foreign practice to them.

“Contemporary sustainable fashion reminds me of socialist slow fashion or permanent fashion. That idea of being sustainable reminds me of what’s happening in the late-Soviet times where people also took care of things and not just throw them away. So yes, the institutional environment is different back then and right now but I think the practices and what the aim of the practices are trying to do is to return value to things,” she says.

“The discourse may be different from the western one. The shape of sustainable fashion here is a bit different, but it’s an interesting one,” Gurova adds.

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