Fashion Minister spreads the word
By Nora FitzGerald

February 28, 2012 Nora FitzGerald, Tatiana Lykova

Alexandre Vassiliev, Russia’s well-known costume designer,
has collected 10,000 dresses and costumes and hopes to bring
his Ballet Russe collection to the Kennedy Center in 2012.

Alexandre Vassiliev, Russia's prominent costume designer and collector.
Source: Elena Pochetova

The Russian television show, “Fashion Verdict” destroys the stereotype that all Russian women dress in shapely dresses, chinchilla jackets and Sex-In-The-City heels.

Thirty million viewers turn to state-owned Channel One every week to watch Russian fashion pundits interrogate busy working women about their clothing and appearance.  The contestants selected for the show represent Russian women who don’t usually get a lot of play and who are considered almost invisible.

The popular co-host on the show, Alexandre Vassiliev, recently visited New York and Washington, D.C., for the first time in a decade. The trip was a respite from his new life as a TV celebrity in Moscow, where he has discovered that there is famous—and then there is really famous.

Vassiliev is a heralded costume designer, collector and author well known in Moscow and his second hometown, Paris, where he went into exile in the early 1980s. But these days he can’t walk down Moscow’s main streets without being lovingly accosted by fans.

“It’s an incredible fame in the two and a half years since I stepped into this show. I have written about the history of fashion and designed more than 100 ballets, yet now it is difficult to walk on Tverskaya,” he said during an interview while visiting D.C., where he has no trouble walking down K Street. “I am very pleased of course with the success.”

Vassiliev said he came on the show as a “minister of happiness.” Russia is more than 60 percent female, he said, adding that some women, statistically speaking, just cannot find a man and that alcoholism and prison reduces the number of available men. (He said that American women have an easier time finding a mate, since in the United States, there are more men than women.)

“I want to make women happy,” he said.

Vassiliev was in town talking to the Kennedy Center management about supporting an exhibit from his costume collection.  Vassiliev hopes to bring 50-60 Ballet Russe pieces for an exhibit slated to open in the center’s terrace exhibition room.

In his book, “Beauty in Exile: The Artists, Models and Nobility who Fled the Russian Revolution and Influenced the World of Fashion,” Vassiliev opens with the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe. In the book, he explains how the visionary’s dramatic sense of style, as well as his obsessions with Orientalism and antiquity, captivated audiences around the world.

Vassiliev bought his first costume when he was sixteen years old. He said he was lucky that his father, a Bolshoi designer himself, supported his desire to collect costumes from a young age; Vassiliev now has a collection of 10,000 dresses and costumes.

Embracing Soviet Style

Vassiliev’s current Moscow exhibit, “Fashion Behind the Iron Curtain,” explores a less heralded period of Soviet style.  His vast collection is the backbone of the show, which also includes museum collections.  “This is the first exhibition of its kind. We are showing the personal dresses, bags and hats of the biggest stars in the Soviet Union,” he said. The costumes once belonged to famous artists like prima ballerinas Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya, actresses Lyubov Orlova and Valentina Serova, and Lyudmila Gurchenko.

“Some of the dresses are homemade and some of them are American made, others were smuggled through the black market or came back with sailors or artists on tour,” Vassiliev added.

“This era had a very controversial relationship with fashion, which was declared a hangover from the bourgeois past,” said Irina Korotkikh, curator of the Soviet fashion exhibit at the Tsaritsyno Palace in Moscow. “Today it is hard to imagine the lengths to which the icons of the time had to go to keep up the image of genuine stars.”

Vassiliev knows something of this era, and he has designed his much-photographed Paris apartment and Vilnius summer home in the manner of the exiled aristocrat, a fin-de-siecle tribute that honors the beauty and rituals of days gone by with bamboo furniture, sumptuous fabrics in rich royal colors, overlong curtains, antique books and ceramic pitchers.  His mother, a lyrical beauty, was a Bolshoi actress. His father was at one time president of the design guild.

“My father was sponsoring my fancy desires,” he said, smiling. “They actually liked what I did and I managed to collect a great deal.”

In 1982, at the age of 23, Vassiliev married a young French woman and moved to Paris. He stayed in Paris and joined a circle of Russian émigrés and still considers Paris his home. He lives there when he is not doing his television show.

He has worked extensively as a designer for the French theater scene, the Avignon Festival and the Ballet du Nord. He has also designed costumes for the Las Vegas Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, the Polish Ballet and the National Ballet of Mexico—to name just a few.

Still, most of his time these days is consumed by television. On a recent episode of “Fashion Verdict,” a young mother wearing ill-fitting jeans and a grey hoodie peered at Vassiliev doubtfully, squinting through her horn-rimmed glasses.

She spoke about her long days working for a film company on location on city streets, then running home and caring for her young children and husband in their small Moscow apartment. Just as the audience was beginning to feel her pain, her mood lightened and she walked away with a closet full of clothes that had the blessing of Evelina Khromtchenko, Vassiliev’s co-host and the indomitable edimatrix of fashion magazines. The show ends on a dreams-can-come-true-it-can-happen-to-you kind of note.

“I want to help them be more sure of themselves, to be self confident,” Vassiliev said of the women on the show. “Then even if they don’t get a man, they can’t blame their clothes.”

Firebird Helps Cultural Reset Fly

Alexandre Vassiliev's "Age of the Ballet Russes" exhibit to open at the Kennedy Center in 2013, is sponsored by International Firebird Arts Foundation.  The exhibit will focus on the influence of the Ballet Russes as a trendsetter, defining high style and fashion in Paris in the early l900's and resonating in every fashion capitol of the world throughout the century.

International Firebird Arts Foundation, "Firebird," is a U.S. nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and showcasing Russian culture in America through exhibits, concerts, cultural exchanges and other events.  The Foundation provides exposure and support to aspiring young musicians, artists and dancers.

Founded in 2005, Firebird is led by distinguished board members and advisers with extensive experience in supporting and promoting cultural cooperation between Russia and the United States.  Many share Russian roots and are descendants of the l9l7 emigration.  In keeping with its mission of focusing on what we share in common rather than on what divides us as adversaries, among Firebird's accomplishments has been a week-long "Tribute to Maestro Mstislav Rostropovich" and the gala "Celebration of Diaghilev to Balanchine."

Alexandre Vassiliev's exhibition. Source: Elena Pochetova

Alexandre Vassiliev's Profile
AGE: 53
STUDIED: stage design

Alexandre Vassilev was born in 1958 in Moscow into a famous theatrical family. His father was a renowned scenic and costume designer and his mother was a dramatic actress. He created his first suits and scenery for a puppet theater when he was five years old. Vassiliev later graduated from the prestigious Moscow Art Theater School (MKhAT). He worked as the costume designer at the Moscow theater on Malaya Bronnaya. In 1982 he immigrated to Paris where he began to work for French theaters. Vassiliev creates scenery for operas, theatrical performances, films and ballets, He is a lecturer and owner perhaps the greatest private costume collections. His book, “Beauty in Exile,” has been translated into English.