Russia's Putin lightens up, in clothes at least

September 28, 2006|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Foreign Reporter

MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir V. Putin is not typically a flashy guy. He tends to dress in conservative colors, is spare with emotion and, despite his compact frame, gives off a tough-guy look.

From him, it can be said, one knows what to expect.

Which is why it was unusual, a touch unsettling even, to see the former KGB officer striking a jaunty pose in the pages of one of the nation's most popular newspapers, the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, one recent morning.

There he was, the normally staid and stoic head of state, bereft of his conventional dark suit and predictable tie, exercising a bit of fashion freedom by sporting more casual garb - in daring colors, no less.

"Putin Has Changed His Wardrobe," announced the headline, above a full-page inside spread that pictured him, in candid photographs, in four different outfits.

In May, in the southern Russian resort town of Sochi, even before spring had sprung, Putin showed up in a light beige suede jacket with his favorite black jeans (which, the newspaper pointed out, were a bit on the shabby side).

In steamy Morocco, Putin appeared with no jacket at all in a nearly transparent shirt which showed off his "rippling muscles."

At the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg in July, at an informal dinner with President Bush, Putin went with a suit in a color in which he had never been seen: mustard brown.

And he received members of the East-Asia Economic Caucus last month in yet another light-hued ensemble. His suit pants and jacket were the color of white steel, his broad striped tie, bright blue and red.

"It turned out stylish," the paper fawned, noting that Putin's choice of dark shoes - seemingly incongruous to one who doesn't know better - was safely in line with the current demands of male fashion etiquette.

Trained in the ways of the secret police, Putin knows how to keep a straight face - and, most of the time, he does. His usual dress reflects that sentiment. In a 2002 survey of how the electorate views him, one respondent from the city of Voronezh described the president as "buttoned up" and a "black box."

That's why this new attire makes him seem almost wild.

"What is the cause of this obvious `liberalization' of Putin's clothes?" Komsomolskaya Pravda wanted to know.

Perhaps, the newspaper suggested, he is feeling more self-confident - a bit of a stretch for a man who tends never to act inferior - and is expressing, through lighter-colored suits and jackets, an "inner freedom."

Russia's most esteemed fashion designer, Vyacheslav Zaitsev, declined to offer his thoughts on the matter, saying through a spokesman that it was "immoral" and "taboo" to comment on the way politicians dress.

But Natalya Turkenich, an image-maker and stylist at the Moscow-based Style Guide agency, which advises well-to-do businessmen, their wives and other clients, had a few words on the president's new look.

"When I noticed these changes for the first time, I thought, aha, he must have an image-maker who whispered into his ear, `It's not correct to wear dark-colored suits all the time,'" she said. Then she noticed some fashion faux pas which confirmed - in her mind, at least - that he was selecting his outfits: a beige-colored shirt that made him look "pale and tired," and a light blue shirt with a red tie, a color combination that grated on her eyes.

"It was not becoming for him - after all, he is the president," Turkenich said of the latter. "Seeing him wearing such a shirt, he was associated by many people with middle-level management.

"I was very pleased to see that he's no longer wearing boring dark suits," she offered. "But he doesn't understand a thing about small details. Nuance in clothes is something he can't comprehend."

Putin's wife, Lyudmila, has been accused of nothing less. She is roundly criticized by many here for her flashy and sometimes unflattering outfits, including sleeveless tops and impossibly high heels.

During a visit to the Bush ranch in Texas a few years ago, Lyudmila Putin reportedly appeared with first lady Laura Bush in a sleeveless top adorned with feathers and dined in a sequined sweater depicting the American flag. In London to accompany her husband on a state visit, she appeared in all white, prompting a catty British fashion critic to declare that she resembled a "6-year-old bridesmaid."

In the past, even in summer, Putin has clung to his deep blue and dark gray suits. And in choosing shirts, he rarely went with anything patterned, preferring solid colors. But at the East-Asia Economic Caucus, the short-sleeved polo he wore to dinner was full of intricate ornamentation. Komsomolskaya Pravda called it "joyful."

Fashion mistakes aside, the president's new look may be received as something of an improvement. In 2004, The Times of London ran a photo spread of world leaders' "dress-down" wardrobes, with commentary from the paper's fashion writer. Bush's cowboy belt buckle was said to "give a welcome edge" to the "suburban pairing" of a brown jacket with a blue shirt, while then-president of the European Commission Romano Prodi was given good marks for a classic white shirt and black suit that, while not "adventurous," was "safely chic."

Putin did not fare well.

"Why is the jacket so long?" the paper asked. "Putin still looks like an undertaker who's just removed his tie."

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