Radical Chic in the Village

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By John Harrison

Radical Chic, which offers textile and scarf design, and has its own retail outlet on Bolshoi Kozikhinskii, does not fit very well into the usual stereotype image of Russian companies. Small, dynamic, very creative and hyper-responsive to the market, the company would fit well into Covent Garden or Greenwich Village for that matter. But that is where you, dear reader might be wrong.

We visited owner Radical Chic, Alexandra Kaloshina in the company’s offices above their shop on Bolshoi Kozikhinskii in Moscow. The shop itself is pretty amazing, if you need a present to give to people back home, here is your own special gift shop. The word ‘radical’ has another, more gentle meaning in Russian, and Radical Chic has nothing to do with Tom Wolfe’s ‘That Party at Lenny’s’, however Alexandra’s designs and story is pretty amazing in itself. Here are the highlights of our conversation:

How did you get started in the design business?

“I worked with clothes, and textile design over 15 years in Russia. During that period, I represented various large Italian fabric companies, then I started my own design bureau, that’s the kind of person I am. I understood that we needed to develop specific designs for the Russian market, which was a new idea in Russia because during the Perestroika period we [Russians] had no intrinsically Russia fabric design. So when we opened our studio, it was very difficult for us because we had no specialists, nobody to teach design, but we persevered and established ourselves. I encourage our designer’s to go to major exhibitions and sell their designs. There is no better way to learn than to see your own design through the eyes of a potential client. My designers learned very quickly. We don’t have 40 or 100 years of design history behind us, we have to learn on the job.

“We found that there was a real demand for our fabrics and scarves, not only here in Russia, but in over 30 countries. Now we trade mostly in wholesale to other retailers, such as Gum and TsUM, however we have our own specialist shop right here.

“At first when we went to international exhibitions, the organisers tucked us away somewhere in the corner, in places where it wasn’t possible to find us. But we still won many clients. That is not the way we get treated now though, and we have been winning a whole series of major prizes in the best international competitions.”

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What is special about your designs?

“I suppose the fact that we concentrate on Russian themes and motives, for example here is Bulgakov’s Begemot (the black cat in his novel ‘Master and Margarita’), here are Russian cityscapes, folk stories and so on… We have taken the traditional Russian scarf concept and made it modern and accessible. This was a big surprise for many people.

“Russia as you know, is between Europe and Asia, so our design is not immediately recognisable as being European. At the same time, it is not as decorative as Asian design. We are somewhere in the middle. Asians buy our designs because they think that this is good European design, so we are crossing borders.

“We create a lot of designs, about 1,500 fabric designs a year, and 30-40 designs for scarves every season. Unfortunately, we still print everything in Italy, to this day, there is no one printing works in Russia which can match Italian fabric printing although we are thinking of opening up a factory here in Russia ourselves. The quality of the Italian printing, on to silk in particular, is amazing. Even individual hairs on a horse’s mane for example are visible.

“The fabrics we design are often for a particular use, as specified by the client, — bags, clothes swim wear, anything. With scarfs, everything starts from a concept. With thinking about who is the girl, woman, man, who is going to buy the scarf. How is it going to be used? For example, if the person will be wearing a sable or mink fur coat, then there are certain colours that work with those furs and so on.”

A lot of people are saying how difficult it is to start and run a business here. What is your view?

“I graduated from Moscow State University, a long time ago, and started my own company on the first day after I graduated. At that time it was really difficult because there were no rules, no regulations, no laws. There was corruption; horizontal, vertical, every way you want. We even paid firemen, and local administrators would need to be paid bribes to authorise where we wanted to put our ceiling lights and so on. Now it is an absolutely different situation, and it has become far simpler and easier to start and run a business. People who start businesses now say that it is difficult because of all the documents. But I don’t really agree. The tax situation is great. It’s simple, and you have every confidence that you can grow quickly.”