Fewer Bentleys cruise the streets of Moscow these days, sushi sales are down, and construction on Europe's tallest tower has halted for lack of money. For fashionistas at the opening of the 18th annual Russian Fashion Week on Sunday, the most potent sign of the times was the sight of people wearing last year's styles. "Even the very rich aren't just going out and buying anymore," says Tatyana Ageyeva, a buyer who has worked for élite labels like Kenzo and Hugo Boss for nearly a decade. "Before, the wealthy would buy expensive things because they didn't care. Even if they knew they wouldn't wear it, that it would just sit in the closet, they would drop 3,000 euros. Now they are avoiding risks."
Little wonder. The ruble has lost 30% of its value against the dollar in the past six months, while economic activity decreased 7.3% in February compared with the same month last year, Deputy Economic Development Minister Andrei Klepach said on March 24. The government has said the economy is likely to shrink 2.2% this year. (See pictures of the Cold War's influence on art.)
All this means fashion lovers are cutting back on spending. "Right now we are seeing signs of de-premiumization meaning that shoppers are trading down for cheaper items," says Victoria Grankina, a retail analyst at leading Russian investment bank Troika Dialog. "Overall, the luxury market really struggled in December and January, since the consumer was feeling quite under the weather. In March, we have been seeing some signs of stabilization, but we are not sure this is a trend. No one can predict when this will end." (See pictures of Paris couture.)
Rich Russians are accustomed to huge markups on luxury brands sold in their country. Top fashion labels can sell for up to 1,000% of what they would in the U.S. or Western Europe. But factor in inflation and the devaluation of the ruble, and the price is too high for many, says Grankina. "There is a layer of wealthy people who are willing to pay up, but when the ruble falls against other currencies, sellers pass that on to consumers at a time of inflation, so things become much more expensive."
But while sales may have slumped, the spirit of some of Russia's rich remains breezy. The élite GUM shopping mall, situated on Red Square, has seen its number of shoppers fall some 30% this year, according to Ageyeva, the buyer. But Lilya Bondarchuk, a manager at the Jil Sander store in GUM, says that "clients joke about the crisis and ask each other if they have noticed it yet." Natalya Batalova, a corporate attorney who shops at GUM every few months, says she hasn't felt the crisis so far. "I don't know what it is," she says with a laugh as she walks down one of the mall's softly glowing arcades in a black fur coat and chic diamond earrings, with a big, white Kenzo shopping bag over her shoulder. (See pictures of the best Oscar dresses.)
It is this attitude that buoys the soul of Russia's biggest fashion designers. "Russian designers are in a more stable situation now," argues Alexander Shumsky, the head of Artefact, the public-relations firm running Russian Fashion Week. "The biggest part of their business is to work with private clients. I've talked to some designers, and they say the situation is not critical that clients have fallen off only 15% or 20%." At the same time, Shumsky acknowledges that about 10 designers have pulled out of the fashion show this year because of a huge deficit in corporate sponsorships. "The smaller designers are feeling it the worst. It's logical, because their production level is much less, so they can't benefit from economies of scale," says Troika Dialog's Grankina. (See pictures of the Russian Czars' fashions.)
Some high-end foreign boutiques like Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, which opened in Moscow just a year ago, have also closed their doors. Italian jeans retailer Diesel recently shut all its shops in Russia. Still, if Russia's fashion industry has one thing to put its faith in, it is the Russian consumer's penchant for flair. "It's in the Russian character to be flashy. They'd never go for a simple style. They'd never spend lots of money to look like a street sweeper," says Ageyeva. "That will never change."