If two years ago someone had said, "Michael, two years from now you will be writing an article about a Russian knitwear designer who lives in Chelyabinsk, Russia" I would have thought them mad and politely found an exit from the room.
Despite being the editor of 'Beauty Worlds: The Culture of Beauty' I am definitely not a fashionista. Most of the fashion web-sites I have been on and the zillions of fashion photos I have looked at leave me uninterested and unmoved. The women may be beautiful but the combination of women and designer clothes rarely grabs my imagination.
However, towards the end of January of 2003 a Russian by the name of Alexander Serafimov sent me an email. Now, I get a lot of email and that one lay unopen in my INBOX for about three weeks before I got around to having a look at it. But when I started looking at the images he had sent I felt something different. In some unfamiliar way these images stirred my imagination.
Very intrigued, I emailed Alexander and this is what he told me about himself. He's forty-two and graduated from the polytechnic in engineering and had several responsible but not particularly creative jobs. However, he had very wide interests including art, literature, ancient history, entomology and karate.
He began designing clothing entirely by accident. One day, his wife was preparing to knit herself a new dress. She was looking at a German knitting magazine called Verena. Alexander looked at the illustrations and suddenly realized that all of the images were familiar to him, "I had been turning over the pages of a huge book dedicated to the history of photography all over the world. One picture among others was one of the first color photos, showing an Alps resort around 1912. There were so many happy, rosy-faced skiers (of both sexes), standing under snowy spruces, dressed in sweaters much like those I saw at Verena's pages. Men were decorated with manly crosses, rhomboid shapes, snow-flakes, with reindeers galloping from right shoulder to left. Women shamelessly tried to tempt men with flowers (of species unknown even to inveterate botanists), satin-stitched on their shoulders and breasts." He realized that while everything else has evolved the world of knitwear design was very conservative. He describes being "literally seized" with the aspiration of fighting against this conservatism.
His philosophy of design is to give a "wee bit of a shock" but he does not consider himself particularly avant-garde. His engineering background helped him to design a novel fastener which you can see integrated into his designs.
A seminal incident in his history occurred in 1972 when he was twelve. In the ideological days of the early 1970s groups of men walked the city streets wearing red armbands and calling themselves "Voluntary Helpers Of Militia". They would sometimes carry enormous scissors for cutting off the signs of Western decadence-bell-bottoms and long hair on men. Alexander was attacked by three adult men carrying tailor's scissors: "I, being twelve-year-old, was resisting and fighting with wild frenzy because I was remembering how long and how laboriously my mother sewed for me that velveteen trousers -- my first bell-bottomed trousers... I was ready to "die a hero's death", but couldn't allow them to cut up my mamma's work. And, after the unsuccessful (for them) scuffle, having given up, one of them cried: "Degenerate!!! Yuckish idolater of the West! You must know that the bell-bottomed trousers are worn ONLY BY THE TRAITORS, who are copying the American mode of life!!!"
Now, while I am very impressed by Alexander's work, as are a lot of other people in the West, he has a very "uneven" relationship with Western fashion. When he sends his portfolio to Western fashion or knitwear companies they all respond enthusiastically until they realize that he is still living in Russia. Then, the relationship cools. "Brilliant work! If you can get over here, Alexander-look us up." He has the impression that they think he is part of the Russian mafia and is looking for an exit visa to the West.
I gather he thinks the West views much of Russia as an "Evil Empire" or "barbarian lands." He is also very disappointed because, on several occasions, he has had his designs "stolen" by Western companies without any credit (or cash) to him.
I've been puzzling over what is it about Alexander's designs which so gripped my imagination. His clothes seem to have a "depth" which so much of contemporary fashion seems to lack. They have ideas embedded in them linking female beauty with mystery and danger. Inviting and mysterious worlds to explore are "painted" onto some items. Lizards, dragons, and dangerous felines adorn others. Is the young and pretty smiling woman wearing the dragon's dress as warm and inviting as her smile seems to indicate? Or is that smile on the dragon's mouth, the fastener which Alexander invented, the ironic smile of a hungry beast that knows the bait has been taken?
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