Designer to the Russian Military, Dressing to Kill

"Thank God the army now understands that image is just as important as technical issues," Valentin Yudashkin says.
"Thank God the army now understands that image is just as important as technical issues," Valentin Yudashkin says. (Associated Press)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 22, 2008; Page A15

MOSCOW -- Valentin Yudashkin, the first post-Soviet designer to bring a contemporary Russian look to the international fashion world, wowing critics with sumptuous theatricality as well as wearable styles, has taken on his biggest challenge to date: Russia's armed forces.

Yudashkin's most recent catwalk was Red Square itself, where he debuted his newest collection of uniforms on thousands of soldiers who marched across the cobblestones during a May 9 parade commemorating victory in World War II.

The 44-year-old has created 85 designs, which will come into use over the next three years to dress all branches of the Russian armed services for all seasons and circumstances, including battle.

The soldiers in Red Square sported uniforms inspired by the first Victory Parade of 1945, among other historical influences, including Russia's czarist past. The uniforms are of noticeably lighter materials and slimmer lines.

Russia's envoy of playful extravagance to the Paris, Milan and New York fashion weeks, Yudashkin seemed an unlikely choice to reinvigorate the Russian army's wardrobe. The designer became known in Russia when he was in his 20s and dressing Raisa Gorbachev, wife of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He created a buzz internationally in the late 1990s when he dressed his models as beaded, bejeweled and quilted Faberg┬┐ eggs.

"Compared to the clothes we usually make, this is very different," Yudashkin said at his Moscow fashion house. "Young people joked that soon we'd see the uniform with Swarovski [rhinestones] on the epaulets."

The new uniforms were shown to then-President Vladimir Putin in January. "We made this big presentation, very exact and clear," Yudashkin said. "Our president is a very elegant man, and he understood everything. Thank God the army now understands that image is just as important as technical issues."

The design for the presidential honor guard was the first to be completed, the red and blue suit with brass buttons evoking an imperial rather than a Soviet past. Striking changes for female soldiers include a beret of Astrakhan fur and waisted wool coat with an Astrakhan collar for winter.

Some people, however, were dismayed. Alexander Prokhanov, editor of a nationalist newspaper, told the radio station Echo Moskvy that "when the Russian infantry attacks, they will look like a swarm of butterflies."

One of the most controversial changes made in the last uniform redesign, in 1994, was the reduction of wildly oversize peaked caps. Now soldiers' foot wraps, worn for centuries, are also gone, replaced by socks and laced boots. Smart bomber jackets with fur collars, already compared to U.S. "Top Gun" jackets, have been created for air force pilots along with snazzy white dress uniforms for the navy.

"Of course we talked with many soldiers about their thoughts," Yudashkin said. "I served in the army myself and understand what it is." The designer was a conscript in the Soviet army in the 1980s.

Yudashkin's makeover is the result of a competition. Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, a former furniture salesman, initiated the idea and invited top designers to participate.

Yudashkin began his fashion business when private companies first began appearing in the Soviet Union during Gorbachev's attempt to reform the communist system. "At that time, the country suffered a total lack of everything, and it was normal to do something with your own hands," Yudashkin said. "If you could paint a T-shirt or cut fabric, then you had something different than everyone else."

Today, one concern is that some of the army's senior officers won't fit into Yudashkin's stunning but tailored garb -- more than 30 percent of the army's elite officers are overweight, and 25 percent failed a recent fitness test, according to the Defense Ministry.

Commentators in the Russian press also wrote that the uniforms dressed up an often brutal and troubled institution that needs fundamental reform. Most young Russians try desperately to avoid service in it.

"The press writes good and bad things about every army, especially when there is a war," Yudashkin said. "In my view, what is most important about the uniforms is that the fabrics and design are contemporary and that they are, first of all, understandable to today's youth who will join the army. I want them to feel comfortable."

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