Fashion Designer Slava Zaitsev Works to Convince a Reluctant Public That Style Is for the Masses

updated 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It is Saturday afternoon and in the elegant auditorium at Dom Modi (House of Fashion) in Moscow, the crowd of 300 is buzzing. Suddenly the lights dim, music blares, and a spotlight at the end of the runway hits four stunning models wearing three-quarter length white wool coats. "Ladies, I want you to get used to the color white," a voice booms over loudspeaker. A second spot picks up the emcee and host of the show, designer Vyacheslav ("Slava") Zaitsev, 49, a vision of sartorial splendor in his black suit, winged collar and punky spiked hair. "White means discipline," he announces sternly. "Discipline is a key word in our state now. I advise you to wear white again. It will liberate you."

As the Soviet Union's pre-eminent couturier, the ebullient, flamboyant Zaitsev is not above enlisting political ideology in his campaign to educate women about fashion. From his pulpit at Dom Modi, he preaches, bullies and cajoles his audience; he instructs in lines, fabrics and colors. "Russian people have always led rich internal lives with lots of thirst for knowledge," he says. "But they have never cared about their external being and never looked good. It's not just a question of aesthetics. There's been no war for 40 years now. The standard of living is higher. I'm trying to open them up, to help them free their imaginations."

Zaitsev admits that is a struggle in a society that still outwardly condemns extravagance and prizes conformity. Yet signs of change abound. Most promising is the example of fashion-conscious Raisa Gorbachev. "She is serious about what she wears," says Zaitsev, who declines to say whether he designs her clothes. ("No, no," declares one of his assistants. "Raisa buys her clothes at the All Union House of Fashion over on Kuznetsky Most.") Zaitsev's semiweekly shows at Dom Modi are always sold out (women line up for hours to buy $4.50 tickets) and are crowded with foreign ambassadors, tourists, secretaries and even stocky working women who could be on their lunch break from a Moscow street repair crew.

Zaitsev, whose position in his own country is comparable to Saint Laurent in France or Calvin Klein in the U.S. (if they had no competition), works within limits unimaginable to his Western counterparts. He earns a monthly salary of 250 rubles ($375). He must use material alloted to him by the Ministry of Light Industry. (Denim, for instance, is nearly always in short supply, and he often has surpluses of heavy wool.) The Ministry's board must approve his designs and set his prices. (Zaitsev's friends Pierre Cardin and Saint Laurent regularly send him and his employees presents of shoes, cosmetics and Western fashion magazines unavailable in the U.S.S.R.)

Yet the very existence of Dom Modi represents a major victory for Zaitsev and forward-looking fashion forces. After years of lobbying he persuaded the authorities in 1982 to build Dom Modi, a state-owned, semi-independent enterprise that occupies a ten-story building and employs about 650 people. On the ground floor is a showroom where customers are circling warily around brightly clothed mannequins. Upstairs, Olga Zabotura, a 31-year-old Aeroflot stewardess, is placing an order for a red Zaitsev coat. It will take two months for delivery and will cost 230 rubles ($345), a month's salary. "You can't get this quality in the state clothing stores," she says. "It's a good price." (His casual wear ranges from 150 to 250 rubles, and evening clothes start at 250.)

Zaitsev reached the pinnacle of Soviet fashion from humble beginnings. Born in the town of Ivanova in central Russia, he was the son of a cleaning woman and a textile worker. An excellent student at technical school, he was admitted to Moscow Textile Institute. After graduation he was assigned to the Moscow House of Workwear. From the start he was controversial. He was roundly criticized by authorities for his first collection, bright floral printed overalls for workers (which, not surprisingly, never reached the assembly line). But the attention got him a job offer at the All Union House of Fashion, where he developed his name and his collections during the next 15 years.

Zaitsev's energy makes plausible his claim, "I care nothing for money. All I need is my work and my friends." Home is a three-room apartment a stone's throw from Red Square. On a weekend visit during which he serves tea and homemade cakes ("I'd be a chef if I weren't a designer"), he introduces Sergei, a handsome, blond, former Dom Modi model. "Seryozha is a poet," says Zaitsev, affectionately calling him by the diminutive. "He's been reading Baudelaire in the other room. He's very intelligent, but he has a job in a factory right now." Responds Sergei, pulling on a red armband for his obligatory weekend traffic patrol duty: "I hate it." On the walls are Zaitsev's small paintings and photographs of his son, Yegor, 25 (the product of an early marriage), who now works with his father at Dom Modi. "He's got talent, but he's young," says Zaitsev.

The two Zaitsevs may well become the U.S.S.R.'s first fashion dynasty. Yegor specializes in young men's clothes with a distinctly heavy metal look. ("I can do avant-garde better, but I will let him learn," says Slava paternally.) Their relationship is close but tempestuous. "First I started to resemble my father," explains Yegor over coffee in the Dom Modi cafeteria. "Then I decided I didn't like the main trend of Slava Zaitsev, classics and Russian folk style. Fashion is so international now I don't believe it's good to work only in this style. I have disagreements with my father, more every year."

Slava Zaitsev laughs. He is less concerned with age-old oedipal conflicts than with the current challenge of dressing his country's 280 million people. "There is solidarity between us," he says of Yegor. "We both realize that we have a big mission."

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