`Red' era yields to pink lingerie

SUN JOURNAL

Underwear: One benefit of the end of Soviet rule, for Russian women, is the availability of beautiful, pricey, imported bras.

February 08, 2000|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- During the Cold War era, Soviet women looked like so many ballistic missiles, their bodies molded into hard, imposing lines by the unlovely and unforgiving underwear of the day.

All that changed after Russia began to project a come-hither image to the rest of the world. Now, women's underwear is soft, beautiful and sexy, especially the bra. The bra has shed its rocket-ship-nose-cone past and has turned up on advertising posters all over Moscow -- lacy, racy, round, usually French or Italian. For thrust, there's the Wonderbra.

"American women are mostly concerned with comfort, quality and price," says Aleksandr Fyodorov, who owns 11 luxury lingerie stores in Moscow. "Even rich women don't want to pay $150 for a bra. In Russia, it's very different. If they have money, they go for the best."

The best in Fyodorov's stores, called the Wild Orchid, comes at a steep price. The French and Italian bras he sells cost $90 to $150 or more, with matching pieces priced at $70 and up.

"Our clients are the wives of successful businessmen," Fyodorov says, "or ladies with wealthy boyfriends."

But many 25-to-30-year-old working women earning modest incomes also shop in his stores.

"We have young women who save for months to buy a beautiful Nina Ricci bra," Fyodorov says. "It's not only a product, it's a dream. They read magazines, they watch TV. They see beautiful clothes, expensive vacations. That dream of well-being is not affordable. When they buy a bra, they're buying a piece of the dream."

Fyodorov used to be a solid-state physicist who specialized in developing superconductors. He lived in the United States from 1990 to 1991, when the U.S. economy was stagnant. He couldn't help noticing that one store at his local mall in Miami always had a line. It was Victoria's Secret.

"In 1992, I returned to Russia," he says. "I was ready to develop a business. I saw the niche was open."

Entering one of Fyodorov's stores is an intensely sensuous experience. They are sumptuously decorated and beautifully lighted. Elegant saleswomen offer advice. Best of all, they have fitting rooms, a luxury that most Soviet women did without.

Women who grew up in the Soviet era recall being grateful to have the opportunity to buy a bra -- after lining up for hours for the privilege. No one ever let them try them on. That meant that a huge investment of time, required to buy the coveted East German or Latvian bras, often turned into an enormous disappointment when a woman got her hard-won purchase home and found it didn't fit.

On the brighter side, demand was so great you could always find a friend to buy it from you.

Nelli Ratkevich, a journalist, lived in remote Norilsk, above the Arctic Circle, in Soviet times. She was awarded a trip to Moscow for a prize-winning article on Lenin, and promised to buy Latvian bras for all her woman friends.

In Moscow, she discovered stores would sell only one to a customer. She spent her whole trip standing in line at different stores, buying Latvian bras.

A few years ago, a Muscovite named Irina Zabotina took a tour to Italy. While there, she decided to buy a $100 bathing suit, an enormous investment on her Russian salary. She was astonished when the saleswoman asked, "Don't you want to try it on?"

To this day, one of her best friends, a 50-year-old woman, has never tried on a bra before buying it. Like other items of clothing, bras are often sold in sidewalk kiosks where there's no possibility of discovering how they will fit.

"Russian lingerie depended very much on world styles," says Viktoria Sevryukova, chief costume designer at the Moscow Gorky Art Theater. "When the Iron Curtain closed on us, it practically killed lingerie. We were on an island and wore whatever we could get."

Sevryukova has a collection of Russian lingerie dating back 100 years. She has piles of slips and camisoles and corsets, delicate, finely embroidered, batiste, silk, beautiful in every way.

Until recently, she refused to add any Soviet pieces to her collection. She thought they were ugly -- rough sheets of table-cloth-like damask that hardly seemed to have a woman's body in mind.

"Now I'm beginning to find the charming aspects of that underwear," she says. "I think there's something touching in it as well. I have a special feeling for it. It reflects the attempts of Russian women to remain women."

Women, she says, express themselves through their underwear: "Underwear reflects a person more than anything else. A person's underwear reveals what she tries to conceal about herself. That's why I say underwear is everything."

She is collecting lingerie and facts in hopes of writing a book.

"I want to write about mothers, about grandmothers, about normal Russian women whose lives are reflected in underwear. Even in such Soviet underwear, they lived, and men loved them. Even such underwear should be remembered."

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