There’s something about the work coming from Russian designers at the moment that seems perfectly suited to the current need for comforting nostalgia.
The use of traditional motifs and techniques combined with a casually elegant femininity of flounces and fine details creates a dreamy world of soft primness a world away from the everyday dramas of our modern lives.
Scrolling around Instagram with all the extra time on my hands, and having a current obsession with the themes of Dark Academia and Cottagecore, I found myself immersed in a new fashion world, that of designers from Russia.
First on my list of discoveries was Vilshenko, founded by designer Olga Vilshenko who grew up in Soviet Russia, where her choice for clothing was far from fashionable and very limited. As she writes about the founding of her brand, which is now based in Shoreditch, in the UK, her mother made clothes for family and friends, while Olga and her sister helped out.
“Over time, by helping her, I learned the skills to create clothing and fell in love with the idea of fashion and clothing design. For my mom, making clothes was both a hobby and a supplement to her wages, but I knew that I wanted to make it my focus in life,” writes Olga.
Her unique blend of traditional Russian motifs comes from the inspiration of Russian folklore.
“I really enjoy taking those stories and elements of history and bringing them to the modern age. Vilshenko clothing always features traditional Russian clothing styles and patterns, such as khokhloma or gzhel, which I think are incredibly beautiful and lend themselves perfectly to modern fashion,” explains Olga.
The journey hasn’t been completely painless. Coming from a town with no fashion education available, Olga originally trained to be an accountant, then was lucky enough to get an opportunity to study first at the Chelyabinsk Humanities Institute, and later after moving to London, at the London branch of the Istituto Marangoni.
A short time after she graduated, Olga launched Vilshenko, but it wasn’t easy.
“This was a very tough time for me, and I think the business side can make it hard to focus on creativity, especially at the beginning. I believe I was very lucky to have a great term behind me at the start,” Olga writes.
“In fact Sarah Richardson was one of the people who helped steer my designs more towards my Russian heritage, which is something I had been unsure about. When we put together a lookbook of designs it showed that this had been the right choice.”
Vilshenko’s aesthetic is a clever mix of classically feminine shapes and the strong traditional motifs from Olga’s Russian heritage. The use of fine techniques like embroidery, felting, pintucks and beading adds a richness to what would otherwise be simple garments.
The brand also has a vintage edge with silhouettes that are reminiscent of the 1930s and 1940s; there is also a touch of 40s tomboy flare with flat-front trousers, delicate collared blouses and soft, fluffy sweaters.
“Vilshenko is about elegance and a delicate style, but with a strong character,” writes Olga.
“Women who wear Vilshenko are, I feel, creative and playful and perhaps have a slight Tomboyish sparkle to them. But they revel in their femininity and want to wear something that is classically stylish without sacrificing their comfort.”
The brand uses all natural fabrics, and organic fabrics when available, while also monitoring their supply chain to ensure the sources are as sustainable as possible. Vilshenko has also stopped using real leather or suede, instead opting for the best versions of faux products available.
“Although the awareness around sustainability in clothing is something that has recently gone mainstream, it’s an ethos I’ve always followed for my own designs. Growing up, my mother would often mend clothing or repurpose other fabrics or offcuts, and I keep the mindset of sustainability in every collection we do,” writes Olga.
Thoughts of Russia’s winters naturally make one think of furs, but while still loving the aesthetic, Olga says that “we believe it looks better on the animal, so we strive to use only the best quality and most sustainable faux fur in our designs”.
Ethical manufacturing is also something the brand takes into account when producing garments: “We know that the well-being of factory workers and the local economies where our designs are made is just as important as the materials we use.”
Vilshenko uses factories in India, Nepal and Europe, and according to Olga the brand regularly checks on the treatment of workers and that the factories are in accordance with regulations and labour laws.
Celebrities like Florence Welsh, Gwyneth Paltrow, Heidi Klum, Natalia Vodianova and Alexa Chung are fans of Vilshenko, but for Olga it is the “woman in the street with a unique sense of style” who really inspire her.
“She could be from any cultural background, but she loves traditional feminine motifs and vintage fashion and understands how to wear them.”