Fashion

L’Officiel Arabia meets Ulyana Sergeenko

The story "What a Way to Go!" by Tanja Beljanski first appeared in the March 2020 issue of L'Officiel Arabia.
Reading time 10 minutes
Ulyana Sergeenko, Fashion Designer

Designer, street-style star and one of the faces of Russia’s fashion revolution, Ulyana Sergeenko’s place on the fashion scene is impossible to ignore. 

Ulyana Sergeenko was born in 1981 in Ust'-Kamennogorsk, a town in Kazakhstan, which was at that time a part of the USSR. Sergeenko grew up in a family of linguists and intellectuals and her childhood was, as she says, simple but happy. She spent many hours in the family home library, reading through all types of books. Reading was the main entertainment in those Soviet years. Russian and European fairy tales, classics from the Russian literature (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, the poetry of Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva) or tomes picked from the world literature (Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn or Gone with the Wind). These dreamy bookworm moments fed her imagination. Ulyana Sergeenko graduated the Faculty of Philology at the St. Petersburg State University. 

Following her marriage to billionaire Danil Khachaturov, Sergeenko became a key couture client of Valentino, Givenchy, Jean Paul Gaultier, Chanel, and her favorite, John Galliano at Dior. This was introducing her to the fashion industry. She first gained renown as a show attendee, photographed by Tommy Ton alongside other members of the Russian fashion pack, or the Czarinas as they came to be known. 

At that time Sergeenko would often ask Moscow designers to create looks to her specifications, looks the designers would then feature in their collections, leaving Sergeenko frustrated and motivated to seek her due recognition. When her style caught on among friends and the like, Sergeenko eventually took up a recommendation to launch her own brand in 2011. Years later, Sergeenko has dressed an impressive roster of celebrities including Beyoncé and Nicole Kidman, racking up a dense network of Russian production links, based on the aim to promote Russian craftsmanship traditions such as Elets and Vologda lace among other handmade embroidery techniques. Her efforts were recognized by the Paris High Fashion Syndicate, which appointed her as an official participant of its Paris Haute Couture Week, and is now still the only Russian designer included in the official calendar of Paris Couture Week.

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Paris, January 2020 | Ulyana Sergeenko SS20 Haute Couture Collection

Sergeenko has also designed gowns for the international ballet star Sergei Polunin, opened a pop-up store in the Russian Seasons Gallery and debuted her 2019 Spring/Summer collection at the opening night of Galeries Lafayette in Doha. Alongside her creative endeavors, the designer also takes part in cultural exchange projects between Qatar and Russia such as the Love Ball Arabia charity event. 

Craftsmanship and technical knowledge have defined her work from the beginning. Ulyana Sergeenko collaborates with highly skilled ateliers from Russia and numerous craftsmen from former Soviet republics, helping them to preserve their precious knowledge in the process. Within the last seven years, Ulyana Sergeenko has been working with around seventy different ateliers and craftsmen including lace makers from Yelets, Vologda and Krestsy. Always searching for the best in each craft, the designer also seeks out specialized ateliers abroad. For her first show in Paris (in 2012) Ulyana Sergeenko worked with the artists to hand-carve detailed accessories and the heels of shoes. For her Fall-Winter 2014-2015 collection the stone was sourced from Lebanon, carved in Florence and manually added to handbags in Moscow. These crafts, sometimes almost forgotten, bring Ulyana's vivid imagination to life. Opulent and timeless wardrobes are produced from her imagined stories referencing literature, movie heroines, traditional Russian culture and Occidental glamour.

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Paris, January 2020 | Ulyana Sergeenko SS20 Haute Couture Collection

Starting with only five people the Moscow studio now has more than one hundred employees.

For the SS20 Ulyana Sergeenko couture collection think: love, money, party, enjoying life, cats & glitter.

Season after season, Sergeenko follows the adventures of a restless heroine whose hunger for life in its many facets is reflected in the way her wardrobe morphs and evolves as her experiences grow. This season her heroine returns from her trip to the mysterious Samarkand. She decides to throw a big celebration to mark her comeback, so that every day of her life now would be filled with happiness, brilliance, and joy – and starts with a grand party, where she will have fun like there is no tomorrow. Ulyana finds the inspiration in a character of Shirley MacLaine in the movie "What a Way to Go!” (1964) which on its turn was an homage to Countess Mona von Bismarck, who used marriage as a pass to high society, befriended Truman Capote and loved pink. 

The show itself happened in Bismarck’s Parisian mansion, the interiors bathed in pink as a symbol of obsession.

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Paris, January 2020 | Coco Rocha, Ornella Muti and Dita von Teese posing in Ulyana Sergeenko SS20 Haute Couture Collection

SS20 is a mockery of the material world and tells a story of love, stronger than money. Ulyana dresses her heroines in airy feathers and fancy dresses, fur coats made with bills and shoes with cat ears. The image of a cat becomes a structural element on corsets and dresses. The cat is the heroine's alter ego: cunning and predatory, yet gentle and affectionate. Cat paws became the basis for prints, a form of embroidery on gloves and dresses. Money is another motif, as banknotes of the “Ulyana Sergeenko Bank” are printed on organza and gathered on boas, coats, trains, becoming an amusing substitute to fur. Money becomes a print, too, or is rendered in hand-knitted Vologda lace. 

And along with the models, the designer's muses appear at the party – burlesque star Dita von Teese, stylist Nadya Lee and actress Ornella Muti. 

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Paris, January 2020 | Ulyana Sergeenko SS20 Haute Couture Collection

Tanja Beljanski: How did you start journey into the fashion world?

Ulyana Sergeenko: I may say that I’ve been inspired by fashion since early childhood. Back in times in the Soviet Union it was hard to find fancy dresses, so everyone had to be very creative. My grandmothers were sewing incredible dresses for themselves. Recently I have found a video from my school Prom where the principle prophesied my career as a fashion designer, because I always invented something, sewed, tailored and refined my looks. There was no other way. Some years after I used to order garments according to my sketches in different ateliers. Then I started receiving a lot of questions on where did I get my new outfit that’s why I've founded my own fashion house in 2011. That is how my first collection appeared. At that time I had no idea that we would ever become a couture house. After the debut in Moscow, we moved to Paris and soon, we grew up from the experimental workshop to the rank of serious production. This how my fashion journey started.

TB: What sparks your creativity the most?

US: The women who surround me, old movies or favorite books, vintage toys, memories from childhood and traveling. 

TB: Are there designers you always look up to?

US: It is really hard to choose. I love Jean Patou, Cristobal Balenciaga, Elsa Schiaparelli, Chanel, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana.

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Paris, January 2020 | Ulyana Sergeenko SS20 Haute Couture Collection

TB: How do you design?

US: I started working with Russian heritage, but I also love to lead parallels between our culture and others. And (this was one of my biggest discovery) we have so much in common with European, Asian, Arabic, African cultures. It surprised me a lot because I see clearly that I found magical and unlimited source of inspiration in these connections. The best example is the symbol of Ulyana Sergeenko – the ruby-red rocking horse. It comes as a good memory from childhood.

TB: How do you discover new textiles?

US: The members of my team and me are constantly making research of new techniques and textiles. Several times per year my team visits specialized professional expositions in France and we travel around Russia, visiting some small towns known for its craftsmanships.  

TB: Which traditional techniques do you love to use in your designs?

US: Hand-knitted Vologda and Yelets lace are our very famous traditional techniques, Krestetskaya stitching and others.

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Details | Ulyana Sergeenko SS20 Haute Couture Collection

TB: Which countries are your biggest markets?

US: I would say that most of our clients are based in Russia, CIS and the Middle East.

TB: What does your usual working day look like?

US: I’m not a morning person, so I usually arrive at the office after lunch, we have our ateliers at the same place, so it is very convenient for me to follow up all the processes. I meet with the design team, we are making fittings, discussing the mood boards, looking for the perfect solutions for our most crazy ideas.  

TB: Is there a historical figure you most identify with?

US: I’m in a total admiration of “old Hollywood” actresses - Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor. 

TB: Your greatest strength?

US: The power to dream. 

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Paris, January 2020 | Ulyana Sergeenko SS20 Haute Couture Collection

TB: If you’ve had a breakthrough moment in your life, what was it?

US: I think it was my first show in Moscow, when it all began.

TB: Where are you most at peace?

US: At home, with my family. 

TB: Favorite fashion trend of all time?

US: Floral-print dresses.

TB: Is there anything you would never wear?

US: I think that I’ve tried it all. (smiles)

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Paris, January 2020 | Ulyana Sergeenko SS20 Haute Couture Collection

TB: What do you think is the single most important change that needs to happen for women in the next 10 years?

US: I really wish that all the women would believe in inner power that we possess. 

 

*Ulyana Sergeenko Couture @ulyana_sergeenko_moscow & ulyanasergeenko.com

 

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