A Step Up for Fabled Russian Boot

Twins Galina, left, and Olga Shantseva model their valenki, the felt footwear that is becoming a fashion statement.
Twins Galina, left, and Olga Shantseva model their valenki, the felt footwear that is becoming a fashion statement. (By Anna Masterova For The Washington Post)
By Nora FitzGerald
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 4, 2007

MOSCOW -- Russia's epic winter is fast approaching, the time of year when traditional felt boots come out of hiding. No longer the standard cold-weather look merely for soldiers and street police, the oversize footwear is now sported even by Moscow teenagers.

Called valenki, they are in fact the heaviest wool sock imaginable. Russians are falling in love with the boots again despite, or perhaps because of, their primitive appearance. Even the real fashion-killer, ankle-high galoshes worn over the felt boots to ward off rain are enjoying a resurgence.

In the 1990s, the ugly-duckling boots became deeply unpopular with increasingly fashion-conscious urbanites. But last month, the Mir Shersti (Felt World) store in Moscow sold 40 to 50 pairs a day. Business is up next door at the valenki museum and store.

"Last year at this time, we weren't selling any," said Elvira Garaeva, the museum's director. Customers pay $130 and up for a pair of handmade valenki that she embroiders.

Revitalized valenki have begun to appear in nightclubs and bars -- people are batiking, painting and burning images on the felt. Russian and Ukrainian designers have featured the boots in fashion shows, using nontraditional colors such as orange and yellow or decorating the boots with ribbons and brocade.

Moscow designer Olga Soldatova takes things a step further, creating oversize bags from the same felt, with famous Soviet-era paintings depicted in beads on the front.

Some fashion-forward Russians have become bored with the European brands they embraced so slavishly a decade ago. They are returning to what fashion observers call "Slavic style."

"You see a lot of ethnic clothes on women now," Garaeva said. "In Russia, people pay more attention to restoring traditions and history."

Not everyone loves the look, and it is hard to say whether valenki will catch on outside Russia and the former Soviet republics. However, some fashion Web sites are suggesting that valenki could become the next Ugg -- the bulky, hot and increasingly expensive sheepskin boots from Australia.

Handmade valenki are produced through a painstaking process of brushing and folding the wool and then shrinking it in water. The handmade versions are much less coarse than the factory-manufactured pairs that are standard issue for Russian soldiers and police.

Craftsmen roll the wool by hand and mold the bottom of the foot. The loosely woven and extremely large sock is then taken to a traditional Russian steam bath and dipped into hot water several times to shrink it. The boot is placed over a wooden mold, beaten to shape with a stick and left to dry overnight over a fireplace.

For hundreds of years, handmade valenki covered the elite feet of the Russian empire, from Peter the Great to Nicholas II. Felt boots were very expensive in the 19th century, and the average family could afford only one pair, so they would be worn in shifts, according to historians.

In the Moscow museum, a nostalgic photo montage of soldiers in felt boots at the front exploits the legend that valenki helped Russians prevail in the Napoleonic wars and World War II -- the Western European leather boots worn by the enemy were inadequate for the Russian winter.

During the political opening that began in the 1980s, valenki fell on hard times. Twenty-five percent of valenki factories closed and the valyalshiki, the craftsmen who made them in the villages, took other work. Many Russians banished the boots to the sheds at their country homes.

But now young Russians have rediscovered them. Twins Olga and Galina Shantseva, 19, paint their felt boots -- the footwear is popular with their art student friends.

"We like to wear them when we go to nightclubs," said Galina, who stopped by the museum recently with Olga.

It's hard to imagine dancing in the boxy boots that have no left or right, but the twins say the things eventually mold to your feet.

"It's a new style and original," Olga said.

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