Retail therapy in Novosibirsk

The country is in financial crisis, the political situation worsens by the day, and Moscow's businessmen are selling up. What better time for Conde Nast to launch a Russian edition of its glossy Western fashion bible, `Vogue'?
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The storyline could have been lifted straight from a Russian version of Bonfire of the Vanities. The press releases are issued, announcing the glitzy party to end all glitzy parties. Then - wham! - the rouble collapses, the banks hurtle over the precipice, markets worldwide go berserk. Russia faces financial ruin. Suddenly, the word goes out: cancel the party. Marie Antoinette says: no party, and absolutely no cake.

According to the grand plan, anybody who was anybody would have been there. Karl Lagerfeld, Donatella Versace, Messrs Dolce & Gabbana, Naomi Campbell and a clutch of Vogue's closest friends were all due to fly in to join the Moscow political and social elite at an intimate dinner for 350 at Number One, Red Square. A set was specially designed, with "breathtaking decor". A dance orchestra was to fly in from the United States. After the financial crash, only a little celebration for 1,500 - seen as the B-team event, in this party-party week - survived.

That was the embarrassingly dramatic prologue for the launch of the Russian edition of Vogue earlier this month. Now, as the smoke clears, the main action is just getting under way. The latest addition to the Vogue stable - "In Russia. At last", say the posters across Moscow - is battered but still alive. This week, the October issue goes on sale. The official line remains: Vogue is here for the long haul. Financial disasters? A mere blip on the screen. The September launch issue sold 150,000 copies; the October issue looks set to do just as well. And as for the advertisers... the official line is that they are "in waiting mode" (read: nowhere to be found). Unofficial figures suggest that advertising is likely to be down by around a half in the months to come, at Vogue and elsewhere.

At the magazine itself, however, there is little sense that the magazine regards itself as down, let alone out - even if its editors cheerfully acknowledge that "the timing [of the launch] could not have been worse". Vogue itself, it must be said, does not always conform to stereotype. The surprises begin even before you have stepped through the door. When you visit the Moscow offices of an exclusive magazine, you know what to expect. The standard Moscow-posh: an all-marble, newly-built or luxuriously converted office block. Limousines with darkened windows outside, and uniformed goons inside. For Western companies in Moscow, such scenes are virtually de rigueur.

It comes as a surprise, therefore, to find that the almost unmarked entrance, a few minutes' walk from the Bolshoi Theatre, is in a scruffy Soviet- style courtyard. Across the yard, where an ancient truck is belching clouds of poisonous fumes, a sign marks the site of the old Fur Coat Refrigeration Centre - where coats are cold-stored, so that they do not moult in the summer heat. Only when you take the lift to the 11th floor do you leave the dirty world outside, and enter a Vogue-ish world a la moscovienne. A couple of dozen young Russians (all dressed in black; forget any thought of new black or the next black) sit in a simply decorated, open-plan office. Huge photographs from the launch issue of Vogue - Mario Testino photographs of Kate Moss and Amber Valletta in Moscow - gaze out from the white walls.

In some respects, the tranquillity may be deceptive. Russian wealth is looking much less secure than it did. Sure, there are plenty of pricey shops to choose from in Moscow. Dozens of the most glamorous names - Hermes, Gucci, Yves St Laurent, Christian Dior, you name it - all have addresses here. But they are not exactly crowded. The Christian Lacroix shop, just down from the KGB headquarters on Lubianka Square, is a typical example; empty except for a few bored shop assistants. Unusually, the prices are quoted in roubles (most shops use "nominal units" - a coy word for dollars - and convert accordingly). Do they really change the prices every day? Apparently not. By leaving the price tags unchanged in recent months, Christian Lacroix has, in effect, been having a discreet all-prices-slashed sale, as the exchange rate slides. A spangly outfit priced at 32,000 roubles would once have cost $5,000 of hard currency. Now, it is a snip at just $2,000, while the rouble price stays the same. One shop assistant manages a nice put-down, to explain why the place is dead. "Our customers buy at the beginning of the season," she tells the inquisitive visitor with disdain. "Naturally, they are not buying now, before the autumn collection arrives."

Autumn collections apart, many of Russia's big spenders have been left reeling by the bursting of the bubble. However, Alyona Doletskaya, the editor of Russian Vogue, seems almost unbothered by the Russian mega-rich. Their purchasing power is crucial for keeping the most lucrative advertisers on aboard. But the 40-year-old Doletskaya does not regard them as her main target readership. Instead, she talks enthusiastically of "a very quickly growing middle class. There are, of course, the nouveaux riches. But they don't constitute 150,000 Russian readers." She argues that the definition of a prosperous Russian has undergone a radical change. "Four years ago, I would have known exactly what a `new Russian' was. It was a banker with a Mercedes, whose wife drives a BMW and doesn't work. He wears Versace and has three bodyguards. She has 18 hours of massage." Now, though the chauffeur-driven rich still exist, she believes that a different kind of Russia has begun to appear. "PR, consultancy, lawyers, computers, advertising. It's very different."

She emphasises Vogue's dual role - "both reality and dream: very close to earth and very glamorous" - and is excited at the letters that have come in response to the first issue from all parts of the country, from people who have neither the time or money to order anything from Cartier or Gucci, but who still get pleasure from lapping up Vogue. This is shopping terapia, in the words of a Russian Vogue headline, - even if it comes without the shopping. One of the enthusiastic letters comes from a woman in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, who declares: "I was so depressed and then - oh miracle! - I saw the magazine in a kiosk window. I hugged it all day. Now I'm reading it and am happy."

Russian Vogue may sometimes seem unattainable. There are a clutch of foreign names who are involved with the project. But almost every article has a Russian frame of reference which Western editors would scarcely recognise. A fashion shoot with schoolchildren takes as its implied context the rituals played out on the first day of the Russian school year; the headline to a selection of classic Vogue photographs refers obliquely to a once-compulsory and soporific work by Lenin, the Concise Course of Communist History; the writer Tatyana Tolstaya reminisces about shoes and stockings in her Soviet youth; Russian designers and models get a spread of their own. In short, this is more than just a foreign Anschluss by dictators of fashion from abroad. Russia, old and new, is a tangible reality.

Doletskaya, who studied American and English literature in the Brezhnev years, talks proudly in her inaugural Letter from the Editor of a favourite old photograph of her parents, whose "taste of the era, beauty, and youth" made them look as though they "could have come from the pages of an old Vogue". In short: style was possible, even in the old USSR. Dressed now in elegant black-grey-black simplicity (Dolce & Gabbana, Max Mara, and her favourite, Jean-Paul Gaultier), Doletskaya remembers with awe when she first saw a copy of the magazine. Her father, a surgeon, had been sent it by a colleague in the West. "I couldn't believe my eyes. I kept that magazine for years."

Her direct exposure to the West, too, is relatively recent. She first visited the US eight years ago as a translator for a group of Russian architects. She remembers visiting a supermarket - and being overwhelmed. "I began to cry. It was a very strange feeling. I thought: it's so simple, there's nothing complicated. What prevented us from having all this, too?"

From tears in a supermarket to launching Russian Vogue is a remarkable transition in just a few years, as Doletskaya herself acknowledges. "I sometimes have to pinch myself and think: is this true?" Admittedly, Vogue provides an unlikely reason for giving any kind of hope about the direction that a society is going. But Doletskaya's enthusiasm is partly infectious. In the West, Vogue is associated with snootiness. In Russia, it may prove to be more down to earth.

Two words buzz constantly around Russia today: tsivilizovanny and evropeiski. Before, "civilised" and "European" were always used in contrast to Russia itself. Now, for the first time, "civilised" and "European" are seen not just as alien qualities, but as potential selling points in Russia. Restaurants boast of "European service" (we'll bring you what you ask for, without a snarl), and electronics stores offer "European guarantees" (we won't spit in your face if you find that the equipment packs up).

At one remove, the appearance of Vogue can be seen as part of that process of normalisation. It may seem odd to think of toffee-nosed Vogue as having anything in common with the development of civil society. Some of the magazine's most valued customers (at least as far as the all-powerful advertising department is concerned) are likely to be big-spending, thieving thugs - there is no shortage of such types in Russia today. And yet, if Russians from Doletskaya's "quickly growing middle class" can be persuaded to think of their country as self-confident, elegant and dignified, there might be hope yet. In Russia in the past 10 years, stranger things have happened.