Thursday, Sep. 04, 2008

Kira Plastinina

For all its obsessive preoccupation with youth—the underage models and a preponderance of styles that only a gamine could get away with—the business of fashion has always been run by grownups. But there are some notable exceptions: Yves Saint Laurent was the original child prodigy, an assistant suddenly promoted to head designer of Christian Dior at age 21. When Saint Laurent died in June, French TV reran archival footage of the "boy wonder," blinking shyly behind horn-rims. A few weeks after his funeral—at which the French establishment mourned the man as well as the fast-disappearing Old World approach he embodied—fashion's newest half-pint, Kira Plastinina, opened her 54th store, in Los Angeles.

Everything about Kira—from her background to the way she and her father Sergei Plastinin, who finances her fashion company, operate—is a slick mix of mass-market, high-fashion and entertainment strategies. Then there's her age (she just turned 16) and her unlikely home base of Moscow (until recently fashion's ultimate rhinestone sinkhole). Not to mention that Kira has no formal training to be the design director of her eponymous label. Who has time for design school when you're in 11th grade?

Kira's father, a successful entrepreneur who cornered the dairy and juice markets in Russia after perestroika, is not one to get hung up on details. He correctly observed that what counts in the current fashion scene, whether you're in L.A. or Moscow, is buzz. The designer brand Kova & T, by glamorous Russian heiress Dasha Zhukova (who dates billionaire Roman Abramovich), has it. So does Denis Simachev, whose $400 T shirt of Vladimir Putin ringed in roses is available just upstairs from his hot Moscow nightclub. Plastinin says he was wowed by his daughter's fashion drawings and sketches when she was growing up and was confident he had identified another wide-open opportunity in Russia: affordable fashion for the 15-to-25-year-old set. Father and daughter opened the first store in 2007—at the mall, naturally.

Seven days a week, the escalators shoot a steady stream of teenagers onto the third floor of Moscow's Evropeisky Mall, one of Russia's largest. On a rainy, chilly Sunday, Kira, dressed in jeans and pink high heels (all her own label), rides to the top with her stepmother Olga, a former marketing exec at Coca-Cola. "That's what my friends do—go to the mall, go to the movies, shop and drink tea," says Kira in her near perfect English. She overuses the word like as an American her age might. "Right now, I don't have much time to hang out with them, because even on Saturdays I'm working, and if I'm not, I, like, have so much homework." For her crowd, the Kira Plastinina store seems perfectly positioned, adjacent to the cinema, with large store windows and a sophisticated display showing mannequins in trendy looks against a kitschy-glamour backdrop. The logo is her name written like a study-hall doodle, with the i in Kira dotted with a glittery heart. No one standing in line for a ticket or popcorn can miss it.

The store is busy with groups of teenage girls holding up tops and dresses for their friends' approval. In the middle of the shop is a round, bubblegum-pink pleather pouf, where girls can try on shoes or lounge with their friends. There are racks of shorts, stretchy tops, sparkly dresses (priced from $38 to $150) for graduation balls, fitted collared shirts with tiny cartoon characters printed on them, and several styles of high heels and platforms, all with trendy twists. Bright pink, lavender and various pastel shades dominate. "That's what I love about Kira's line, it's so girlie," says Masha Fedorova, fashion director of Russia's Glamour magazine, which has featured Kira and her designs. "I see girls with their mums coming into the store. Their mothers don't mind dressing the girls in that. It's quite simple. It's not overdone. It's not vulgar." Her 11-year-old daughter is a fan, she adds.

As an industry newcomer, Plastinin couldn't beat the expertise of the big European and American chain stores—including Zara, H&M and Topshop—on margins or sourcing (like the competition, Kira Plastinina produces much of its goods in Asia). But he could one-up the so-called fast-fashion companies on proximity to the target customer. The Kira Plastinina brand boasts the authentic point of view of Kira, a real teenage girl who knows exactly what customers like and need. "I knew I wanted to be a designer when I grew up, but I couldn't imagine I could do it when I was little," says Kira. "It was his idea that it could be true now." Their timing was terrific. Kira sneaked in before many of the international chains were well established in Russia, and Plastinin, whose fortune is estimated at $600 million, moved quickly. By December 2007, there were 30 stores, and the company broke even. On the basis of the success at home, Plastinin hired retail experts in the U.S., and Kira's first overseas store opened in New York City in May. Japan may be next, and by 2010, the company aims to operate 500 stores internationally.

Internet blogs, magazines and television all allow Kira to tell her story and, in turn, make herself accessible to teenagers. "They want to know how I manage to balance my work and my school and how I'm doing in school," Kira says. Her name recognition soared after she spent a season wardrobing contestants for the hit TV reality show Star Factory.

The Anglo-American School in Moscow, where Kira studies, provides relief from all the attention, and she says she never talks about work at school. "Everyone in my school considers me a normal teenager," she says as she heads off to play flag football in P.E.

But at the mall, one flash pops, and the young shoppers—their finely tuned celebrity antennae stimulated—straighten, snap their cell phones into video mode and circle Kira. She signs autographs, mentions to one shopper that she turned some of her 6-year-old brother's drawings into fabric prints, and then hops from side to side to fulfill requests for cell-phone pics with the girls. She is very natural, confident and smiling, but soft-spoken. The girls are close enough to Kira to see the hint of acne on her nose and scrutinize her light eye makeup and foundation. She could be one of them. She's not, of course. A few feet away, her bodyguard, Alex, looks tough, and her driver is waiting at the mall entrance in a black Mercedes with its black window screens drawn. And she's got VIP tickets to see the last performance of the musical Mamma Mia! with her mother in a couple of hours.

There's a whole lingo for the very wealthy in Russia, but friends and editors say it's incorrect to count Kira among the zolotoya molodezh, as Russia's rich, spoiled "golden youth" are called—even if her father did pay Paris Hilton a reported $2 million to attend Kira's runway show. Those young people were sacrificed by successful parents who wanted to show off their wealth through their children, says Elena Usanova, host of a popular style program on Russian MTV. Call Kira post-zolotoya molodezh, part of a wave that includes other ambitious talents, like Gosha Semenov, Misha Khaikin and their three colleagues at Facultet, a new venture that publishes serious works by young first-time authors. They are the correction after the excesses—a generation of young people who are well-mannered, focused and pushed by their parents. "They're used to using their brains," Usanova says.

Most days, Kira does her homework in the car on the way to work after school and then takes the elevator to the 11th floor of a nondescript office building in town. Today there's a "style council," a review of the designs. A model, who turns out to be an employee from accounting, steps onto a raised platform in the first of several rooms used by the design team. She turns, and everyone waits for Kira to critique the look. "Cool" or "very cool" signals a keeper; occasionally, she rejects an outfit as "too adult." And there are discussions about alternative colors or correcting a dress that's too see-through. "Once I arrived at 11 p.m., and Kira was at the computer managing a group of older women," Usanova remembers. "All the babies in Moscow were in bed, and she was working away."

Her young fans want to believe. "Are you really the real Kira," wrote Raveena on MySpace last May. "If you are, you are like a role model for me because I have always loved designing, and you made it at such a young age. :) That is GREAT." —Sarah Raper Larenaudie / Moscow