I did not go to Vladimir for fashion. This ancient outpost east of Moscow is famous for other landmarks. Russia’s most notorious maximum security prison: Vladimir Zentral, “open” since 1783. Literally any Russian will probably be able to hum the tune of a song about this prison. A symbol of political oppression, it has secured itself in the national cultural DNA. The town is also a UNESCO World Heritage site with several churches from the 12th century rise of Russia as a nation state. Vladimir was “Moscow” before Moscow. The people’s bread dough of Patriotism, Orthodoxy and Punishment was kneaded here.
I went to Vladimir for my mythical roots and Vladimir was delivering: the golden onion domes catching the low clouds rolling over the river bend, the wool shawls and the fur hats braving early November frost, the police roll call complete with K-9 and horseback units at attention in the main square. It made sense. And then… Two couture silhouettes in red, gaucho hats, a fashion poster! The Municipal Center for Propaganda of Fine Arts. Subtle Russians are not. I marched right in.
It was an exhibition of the Vladimir-born fashion illustrator Tanya Maklashina. I thought I’d seen the hand. Turns out, she’s the official illustrator for Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Russia. That made sense, too. I’ve covered it several times. The museum occupies three floors of the former Officers’ Palace (for real, is militarism ever out of style?!). The room was well-curated given the challenges of the monumental space and context. Fashion moves in mysterious ways. Maklashina arrived front row after sketching friends and TV personalities during maternity leave. The art practice initially provided a quick reprieve from domestic routine, but quickly transformed into a passion and a new career. I loved seeing this fashion narrative on display: democratic accessibility of the industry, its persistent desire for new talent, the dreams-come-true attitude. Here were Schiaparelli and Dior providing a magical gateway to Elsewhere ’round the corner from the literal Gates of Russia. Powerful stuff. Yet I also thought…
Tanya Maklashina has been featured in Russian editions of the fashion media stalwarts and in the British Vogue itself. She also says she is available for Instagram commissions and wedding sketches. Such is the freelance hustle in this gig economy. ALSO… “I couldn’t help, but wonder…” Is #fashion toxicly eurocentric?! One travels into the holy heart of Russia to discover it’s been diagnosed with Chanel. The fashion industrial complex of the glossies, the Mercedes Benz platforms, the MET-type exhibitions… operates within the cognitive and economic system of White Imagination. You make it in Vladimir when you make it in Vogue. Why so?! Sad face, eggplant, broken heart. Is there a radically different way to illustrate fashion?! An other lens?! This is not shade at Maklashina; just a broader post-paris inquiry. I actually loved how her work introduced a playful discourse disruption into the didactic cultural space it managed to occupy, if too briefly.
Three other notes about Vladimir… If you go. And you should. The central prison area is at once utterly unremarkable and a weird time warp twilight zone. It’s 1783 forever and Dostoyevsky himself is about to cuss out the pothole puddles. The angst hangs thick AF. For the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, take the bus to Bogolyubovo village and time-travel again. The stunning Pokrova-Na-Nerli church was built in 1165 (!) and to this day stands alone in the meadow untouched by any development. If you catch it tourist-free, you can witness the wind writing prophesies on its white walls in cursive Cyrillic. When hunger strikes, you simply MUST go to Tonya & Her Pelmeni, a bistrobar with traditional Russian dumplings (meaty pelmeni + veggie vareniki) and post-globalization variations on the dumpling theme. I ate here five times in three days. Iconic comfort food. Next time I am in Moscow, I would seriously consider hopping on the express train to Vladimir just to eat at Tonya’s again. Yeah, that good.