Ulyana Sergeenko showed her Spring/Summer 2015 couture collection this week, and while it is one of my favorite couture houses, it hasn't always been that way. In fact, prior to taking in Sergeenko's Spring/Summer 2014 couture collection, I had very firmly situated her in the camp of street style stars that I hate. You know who I'm talking about; the girls who dress (or better yet, are dressed) solely to have their pictures taken by Tommy Ton, Scott Schuman, etc. To me, they represent a fashionable version of everything that's wrong with fashion week, whether it be New York, London, Milan or Paris, and everything that is wrong with what we have come to label as "personal style" aka "street style" aka sponsored dressing aka fame whoring. Ulyana was 100% on this list with her veils and her capes and her swim caps and her borderline medieval dress wardrobe. Her theatrical get-ups all screamed "Look at me" and/or "I am trying really hard", etc. And look at her the street style photographers did. Every season. She has become one of the usual suspects (and somewhat suspect, they are) on W, Style.com, Vogue, and other big sites' street style sections. However, her S/S 2014 Couture collection, her most wearable one to date, put it all in perspective for me. The at times-overly full skirts, statement headwear, and other costume-dressing that she is known for, authentic or not (and I'm really leaning towards not), this is the best marketing tool she has and it has been the perfect mechanism (in addition to a bunch of financial backing) for her to transition from street style star to fashion designer worthy of Paris Couture shows and of major red carpet appearances.
A bit about Sergeenko. She is 33; a former model. She is, as the New York Times wrote in 2012 piece, entitled, The Czarinas Are Back, "one of a contingent of wealthy young Russian women who are becoming a highly visible, if not ostentatious, presence at the couture shows in Paris." In fact, Ulyana's image was front and center in the piece. Her image is also used as the face of the New York Times' subsequently article, The Circus of Fashion, in which Suzy Menkes called out the "the people outside fashion shows [who] are like peacocks." (The New York Times has since changed its tune very recently, writing on the heels of the Spring/Summer 2015 couture shoes that thanks to political complications in Russia and a "titanic" fall in the value of the ruble, the Russian Fashion Pack was not in quite full force this season. That did not stop Sergeenko from showing. She showed her S/S couture collection in Paris, albeit in a presentation setting, not an elaborate runway format).
Born in Kazakhstan, when it was still part of the Soviet Union, Sergeenko moved with her parents to St. Petersburg as a child. She describes herself as a "poor girl from a small town." Now, she resides in Moscow with her insurance billionaire husband, Danil Khachaturov, and is an avid shopper of couture. And speaking of couture, she launched her namesake collection in Moscow in 2011 with her business partner Frol Burimskiy. She has a team of 65 (last time I checked) and designs with her grandmother as her muse.
In her fourth season, Sergeenko's S/S 2014 collection (pictured above) received fairly positive reviews. Style.com wrote: "Couture has taken on a more modern tone, and Sergeenko's destination-oriented approach starts to look old-fashioned. That said, she's worked hard to lighten up her constructions since her debut four seasons ago." Style.com also compared her show to something we could have expected from Galliano at Dior. A year ago, the same site called her out for "the mistakes of a neophyte." Of the collection, Suzy Menkes wrote for the NY Times: "While the designs often seemed too much like paintings from a book of Russian fairy tales — Ms. Sergeenko managed to bring a sense of emotion to her work. And that counts for a lot."
What that collection, complete with silk chemisier gowns, lamp-shade skirts, jewel-toned bustiers, nipped-waists, hand-painted beaded fringe, and bloomers as pants, and the ones that have followed (think: Fall/Winter 2014 and Spring/Summer 2015) have made explicitly clear is that these garments are not for the faint of heart or the regular woman. This is for the couture customer. Someone like Ulyana. And just like any good brand ambassador, Ulyana plays the role. Sure, we have seen her in jeans a handful of times, but her designs, just like the creations of others that she puts together for her own wear, feel oddly natural when you consider them together. One look at her fashion week attire or her couture collection out of the context of the whole picture feels disjointed. But when you see her modern-day take on traditional Russian influences, it works on her.
So, whether Ulyana's parading around like all of the other shameless street style stars or whether she is actually one of the authentic ones is largely up for debate. What is not up for debate: She is a terribly smart business woman, who made the transition from street style star to couturier all based on her outlandishly unique (aka strategically created aka curated for attention, etc.) "personal style," and for that, and that reason alone, I like her. It does not mean she's not a fame whore, though.