His career began 60 years ago, and his work influenced the entire subsequent development of the domestic fashion industry. Forbes Life editor Yulia Savelieva tells what path the couturier went through and how his name went down in history.
With the death of Vyacheslav Zaitsev, the great era of Soviet fashion finally left – in its history there was no fashion designer more famous and larger. Despite the fact that in recent years the master was no longer active in creative work, and his fashion house was going through hard times, Slava, as he preferred to call himself, continued to be a living legend in the industry. During his long and generally successful career, Zaitsev has earned many honorary titles – both state and creative – but most likely he will be remembered not as a “laureate of the State Prize of Russia” or “honorary worker of the textile and light industry of the Russian Federation”, but as “Red Dior”. The beautiful nickname that the Western fashion press awarded the fashion designer also stuck because it aptly reflected his status between the two worlds: it was Zaitsev who turned out to be the fashion designer who showed the rest of the world that in the USSR, behind the Iron Curtain, there is fashion: interesting, original, up-to-date, progressive and with commercial potential. The latter could not be developed outside of Russia, but this does not detract from the role of the fashion designer in history: he was one of those who formed the concept of “fashion” in the country, brought advanced Western trends into it, organically fused them with the historical motives of culture – and received its own, modern “national product”.
In memory of Vyacheslav Zaitsev, Forbes Life recalls how he became the main Soviet and first Russian fashion designer and how he founded his own Fashion House, the first in the modern history of Russia.
First steps in light industry and fashion
Vyacheslav Zaitsev was born in 1938 in Ivanovo, in the “city of weavers”, which since tsarist times was considered the textile capital of Russia. In the 1950s and 60s, just at the time of the youth of the future fashion designer, the production of calico, cotton, wool and knitwear at the local factories under construction grew so much that the entire Ivanovo region acquired the status of an “all-Russian textile region”. This factor partly predetermined the choice of the profession of Zaitsev, who from childhood was talented in drawing and even cross-stitching. Yes, and there was not much choice. Many times in an interview, the designer admitted that in addition to artistic abilities, he also had a strong voice, sang and danced since childhood, adored the world of operetta and wanted to become an artist.
But this could not be. Vyacheslav Zaitsev had what was called in Soviet times a “unfavorable profile.” His mother, Maria Kokurina, worked as a simple cleaner and laundress at one of the Ivanovo enterprises, but his father, worker Mikhail Zaitsev, received the status of “enemy of the people” when he was captured during the Great Patriotic War, fled from it and, despite the fact that he reached Berlin and returned home with a victory, was still arrested and convicted under article 58-1a – “for treason.” My father left the Stalinist camp when Vyacheslav was already 20 years old, and before that he and his older brother Vladimir had their mother’s surname – and only after the rehabilitation of their father did they become the Zaitsevs.
By this time, in 1956, Vyacheslav had already graduated from the Faculty of Applied Arts at the Ivanovo Chemical-Technological College with a degree in textile design. And since he became one of the best graduates, he received a referral to the Moscow Textile Institute, from which in 1962 he graduated as a certified fashion designer with a specialization in Decoration and Design.
In 1963, an issue of a French magazine came out with an article about Slava Zaitsev, which was called: “He dictates his fashion to Moscow.”
The Soviet system of education assumed the professional distribution of young, promising personnel, and Zaitsev was appointed artistic director of the Experimental and Technical Clothing Factory of the Mosoblsovnarkhoz in the city of Babushkin (now the Babushkinsky district of Moscow). But his very first collection of overalls for women workers in the region and the village was rejected by the artistic council, and the designer himself was accused of almost making fun of Soviet reality and transferred to the consumer goods workshop. This is because instead of the usual gray robes, he showed padded jackets and felt boots, which he painted with gouache and tempera, and sewed skirts from Pavloposadsky scarves.
How Paris Match correspondents Dominique Lapierre and André Lefebvre found out about this experimental collection is not clear. Zaitsev himself in his autobiography Fashion. My House”, published in 2011 by the AST publishing house, writes: “… the French became interested in me, I had to give an interview (…)”. Apparently, during the Khrushchev thaw, in the wake of the demonstration of the bright achievements of the Soviet industry, they could be invited to the artistic council, or one of its participants spoke about the bold vision of the designer.
Be that as it may, in 1963 an issue of a French magazine came out with an article about Slava Zaitsev, which was called: “He dictates his fashion to Moscow.” So the 24-year-old fashion designer suddenly became famous in the West, and his management changed their anger to mercy, although that first collection never went into production. Zaitsev implements this idea almost half a century later, in the couture collection “Origins” of the Slava Zaitsev house in 2008.
By the way, later in his professional career he will be called “Glory”. The father named his son in honor of the Soviet statesman and politician Vyacheslav Molotov, whose portrait hung at their house for a long time. But after Zaitsev found out that Molotov did not interfere with the repressions against his wife and her exile in Kazakhstan, he did not want to bear the same name.
Zaitsev’s work in creating clothes for the Soviet retail chain was noticed at the All-Union House of Fashion Models (ODMO) on Kuznetsky Most and invited him to the team of fashion designers. His task was to create clothing collections, which would then become the basis for the work of fashion houses throughout the country.
Success in the West, the status of “not travel abroad” and the title of “Red Dior”
In April 1965, a large delegation from France arrived in Moscow, which included fashion designers Pierre Cardin, Guy Laroche and Marc Boan (who held the position of designer in the Dior house), and as part of a “friendly visit” and “exchange of experience” visited ODMO. And first of all, they found Zaitsev, already known to them from an article in Paris Match – they wanted to get to know him personally. As a result, Slava Zaitsev showed them what the Soviet designers who worked at the Fashion House then created, and the French were impressed by what they saw. At the same time, one must understand that Zaitsev was only one of the leading designers who worked at the ODMO at that time, and the only man who worked on women’s clothing (another full-time fashion designer Alexander Igmand was engaged exclusively in men’s suits).
According to Slava Zaitsev himself, after that, the All-Union House of Fashion Models began to receive proposals for cooperation from the United States. In 1969, the fashion designer, in tandem with colleagues Lina Telegina and Irina Krutikova, created a collection of fabrics and clothes at the suggestion of the American manufacturer Celanese. She was presented in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art, and was a great success, which the authors themselves did not see – they were not released from the USSR.
Zaitsev was not allowed to travel abroad at all. And while the catwalk collections of the All-Union House of Fashion Models, created by him and his fellow designers, were shown in Japan, the Channel, Italy and Yugoslavia, they remained behind the “Iron Curtain”. It is believed that it was in the 1970s, after a series of shows abroad and several publications in foreign magazines, that Zaitsev began to be perceived in the West as the leader of Soviet fashion, although inside the country this status was still far away. Probably, it was then that he received the nickname “Red Dior” abroad, but there is no exact information about this.
In 1978, Zaitsev, at that time the deputy artistic director of the ODMO, left the main fashion forge in the country. As he himself writes in his autobiography, after the traditional show by March 8, which took place at the Cinema House, and another success, he clearly understood that the outfits he created could not be bought anywhere, and the next day he wrote a letter of resignation.
Work in the theater, cinema and on the stage
While still working in the ODMO, the fashion designer began to cooperate with the capital’s theaters, and later began to make costumes for films, and also dressed women famous in the USSR – from politicians to actresses and singers. According to Zaitsev himself, made on the pages of his autobiography, he went to the theater “so as not to get bored.” According to the norms of the ODMO, his department had to create and approve only four models a month at the artistic council, and there was a lot of free time.
Thanks to this, the fashion designer created costumes for more than 20 theatrical productions, among them the performances “It’s over” at the Moscow Art Theater. Gorky, “The Cherry Orchard” and “Three Sisters” in Sovremennik, “Richard III” and “Ides of March” in the Vakhtangov Theater, “Hello, Pushkin” and “Gypsies” in the Romen Theater and many others. In 1973, the fashion designer created costumes for the production of “The Marriage of Figaro”, a long-term hit of the Theater of Satire, and a loud, sad story is associated with them: during the theater’s tour in Riga in 1987, Andrei Mironov had a heart attack, and he died right on the stage, to bury the actor was decided in a costume by Zaitsev.
Zaitsev also had film experience: he designed costumes for the films The Magician directed by Pyotr Todorovsky in 1967 and the Soviet-Hungarian film Hold on to the Clouds in 1971. But his most famous work was the ultra-modern costumes of the heroine of actress Natalia Selezneva from the 1973 film Ivan Vasilyevich Changes His Profession.
He dressed Zaitsev and various representatives of the Soviet elite, who could afford outfits from the country’s most famous couturier. Among the clients over the years were the Minister of Culture Yekaterina Furtseva, the first female cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the theater director Galina Volchek, the singers Claudia Shulzhenko, Lyudmila Zykina, Edita Piekha, the ex-wife of the President of Russia Lyudmila Putina, actresses Alisa Freindlikh, Lyudmila Gurchenko, Marianna and Anastasia Vertinsky, Victoria Tokareva. But the most famous and striking is his union with Alla Pugacheva, for whose concerts he created dozens of variations of the famous hoodie dress, which became her signature image for several decades.
In 1980, Zaitsev also designed ceremonial costumes for the USSR Olympic team to participate in the Moscow Olympics. And he created costumes for the performances of Russian figure skaters in the ferry skating Irina Moiseeva and Andrei Minenkov, Natalia Bestemyanova and Andrei Bukin.
Own fashion house and attempts to enter the world market
After leaving the ODMO on the Kuznetsky Most, Zaitsev took a short break in creating clothes. He joined the Union of Artists, received a workshop and took up painting, wrote the book “Such a Changeable Fashion” in 1980. And then he returned to the profession, going to work in the Household Service at the factory No19, on Sretenka.
In his autobiography, Zaitsev names two enthusiastic officials who helped him open his own fashion house, believing in his talent, in the prospect of developing the fashion industry and foreseeing future changes in the country. The first was Yevgeny Tyazhelnikov, a diplomat, head of the propaganda department of the Central Committee of the CPSU, USSR ambassador to Romania, who saw the success of Zaitsev’s collections abroad. And the second was Ivan Dudenkov, the then Minister of Consumer Services, who developed the project for the construction of an experimental Fashion House. It was he who suggested to Slava Zaitsev to recruit his own team and head this enterprise on Prospekt Mir as the artistic director, which began its activity in 1982 and is still working to this day.
For its time, the project was unique in that it combined creative studios with production. In the wake of perestroika and subsequent privatization, the Slava Zaitsev fashion house became a private enterprise. Despite the difficulties of doing business, for 40 years, new collections of clothes with a national flavor have been created within the walls of the House. In 1987, Zaitsev presented the Thousand Years since the Baptism of Rus’ collection in New York, and a year later, at the invitation of couturier Marie-Louise Carvin, he showed his Russian Seasons collection in Paris, at the Marigny Theater.
From Red Dior, who worked behind the Iron Curtain, Slava Zaitsev turned into the first free fashion designer from new Russia for several years and embodied the fashion image of a rapidly changing country all over the world – national motifs were combined with extravagant silhouettes.
In 1989, Slava Zaitsev became the winner of the competition of the world’s five best designers in Tokyo: Donna Karan, Claude Montana and Hanae Mori and the designers of the Byblos brand then claimed this award. And until the end of the 1990s, Zaitsev was still regularly invited to show new collections in Europe and Asia. Until Valentin Yudashkin, a new, young and promising couturier from Russia, began to push him.
Efforts to turn this international fame into a successful global business have come to nothing. Zaitsev himself admits in his autobiography that “we tried to sell our clothes somewhere else, outside the house. But it didn’t work out – they deceived me once, twice (…) And I realized that this was not mine. Since then, we have been selling things only at our place.”
In parallel with the creation of new clothing collections and entrepreneurial activities, all these years Zaitsev taught at the clothing modeling department of the Moscow Technological Institute, in 1997 he opened the Fashion Laboratory for young designers at his home, and also studied painting and graphics – in this capacity He has had several exhibitions abroad. In 1999, five of his works were included in the collection of the State Tretyakov Gallery, and he himself has been a member of the Russian Academy of Arts for the last 16 years. From 2007 to 2009, he first appeared as a TV presenter on the Fashion Sentence program on Channel One.
At the end of a career, on the verge of bankruptcy
The last decades of the life of the master of Soviet and Russian fashion were partly a time for summing up. Back in 2004, the first exhibition-retrospective of his work was held at the All-Russian Exhibition Center: in the Culture pavilion, key outfits for the entire 40-year career of the fashion designer, as well as his paintings and graphics, were shown. Another exhibition “Vyacheslav Zaitsev. Half a century in fashion”, dedicated to the 50th anniversary of Zaitsev’s career and the 30th anniversary of his fashion house, was held in 2012 at the Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art in St. Petersburg.
In 2018, 80-year-old Slava Zaitsev announced that he was holding the last seasonal show of his career – two years earlier, the couturier was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and he decided to retire. A year later, he handed over the post of general director of the Vyacheslav Zaitsev Moscow Fashion House to his son Yegor. After that, publications appeared in the domestic press that things were deplorable in the House, lawsuits were hanging on it, and it was on the verge of bankruptcy. Zaitsev himself did not comment on these publications in any way and led a closed lifestyle in his country house in the Moscow region, in the village of Kablukovo, rarely appearing in public.
The designer was last seen on his 85th birthday, March 2, 2023, at a retrospective show of the “Many Faces of Fashion” collection, but even then the fashion designer moved with difficulty and almost could not talk. Today, legally, the Slava Zaitsev fashion house is headed by the 63-year-old son of the fashion designer Egor Zaitsev. And 10 years ago, the couturier himself suggested that his eldest granddaughter Maria could continue his business – then she presented her debut clothing collection at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia – but this story did not continue. Today, some Slava Zaitsev brand outfits are in the collection of the Tretyakov Gallery, the Museum of Moscow, as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
In an interview with Vladimir Pozner in 2011, the fashion designer admitted that “I would love to dress people, I would love to create collections of mass-produced clothing models – shirts, trousers, underwear – everything a person needs. But unfortunately, I was not lucky with people who could take advantage of my potential.
On the day of the couturier’s death, fashion historian Alexander Vasilyev published the following dedication in his Telegram channel: “Vyacheslav Zaitsev is the pride of Russian fashion. The first male fashion designer who, starting in 1965, brought Soviet fashion closer to the international canons of style and beauty, while not forgetting folk traditions and national color.”