Pride and propaganda

He's a controversial figure in the West, but the Russian leader is a fashion icon at home. Clare Rudebeck finds out why Moscow's elite keep Putin close to their chests
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One hundred years ago, on 22 January, thousands of impoverished Russian factory workers marched to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg to ask Tsar Nicholas II for assistance. Carrying portraits of their leader and chanting his name, they were attacked on the tsar's orders when they reached the palace gates. More than 100 people were killed and the 1905 massacre, which became known as Bloody Sunday, marked the beginning of the end for the ruling classes.

Cut to 2005 and, despite being tossed around in an ideological storm for the past century, Russians retain their enthusiasm for parading with a picture of their leader. In Moscow's elite bars and clubs, this winter's must-have item has been a designer T-shirt bearing the image of President Vladimir Putin. The T-shirt, by the young fashion designer Denis Simachev, costs £166 and is worn proudly by members of Moscow's glitterati, including Aliona Doletskaya, the editor of Russian Vogue. "The T-shirt is very popular. It was an immediate sell-out," says Doletskaya. "Luckily I have one, as do many Muscovites who love fashion and who have a bit of money."

But the T-shirt is more than a fad. Its popularity has been steady since its launch three years ago. "There was unprecedented excitement from the beginning," says Simachev, 30, who will be showing his latest menswear collection in Milan this month. "We have been inundated with orders from Russian VIPs." The design is also very popular in Japan. However, in Britain, where Simachev's clothing is available in a few select boutiques - including Vertice Uomo in South Molton Street, London - the reaction has been less enthusiastic. Alex Allegri, Vertice Uomo's manager, confirms that they the Putin T-shirt in stock, but says it hasn't been flying out of the store. "I think people buy them for a laugh," says Allegri. "There has been a lot of bad news coming out of Russia recently. It's probably not the best season to be trying to sell T-shirts with Putin's image."

In recent months, the West's relationship with Putin has cooled. It is becoming clear that the ex-KGB officer is not as reconstructed as once thought. In November, he showed support for the winning candidate in the rigged second round of Ukraine's presidential elections and he has overseen the transferral of the assets of Yukos, formerly one of Russia's leading oil companies, to government control. He has also been repeatedly criticised by Amnesty International for human rights violations in Chechnya.

However, in Russia, Putin's approval rating hovers around 70 per cent. Although there are voices of dissent, many Muscovites talk warmly about their president, believing he is a "strong man" who has brought "stability" to the trouble region. Simachev calls Putin "a modern trademark for the Russian Federation". Danila Polyakov, 21, one of his stylists, agrees. "We like Putin, very much so. Everybody wants to live well. People recognise how much has changed in Russia since he came to power, how stable the country now is."

Doletskaya's appreciation of her president is more aesthetic. She is simply relieved that, unlike previous Russian leaders, he is neither ancient nor alcoholic, nor ugly. "One can hardly imagine a T-shirt like that with a portrait of Leonid Brezhnev on it."

But what does Putin himself think of the T-shirt? "We have heard that he likes it," says Danila Polyakov, a former model who has worked with Simachev for many years. "Certainly, he didn't do anything to stop us producing it." There are even signs that Putin is exploiting the Russians' weakness for hero worship. The state-controlled television news follows the leader's every move without criticism. On the occasion of his 50th birthday in 2002, he was sent tens of thousands of birthday cards and letters by school children in a stunt backed by the education ministry.

But there's a twist. On the T-shirt, Putin's face is surrounded by flowers, the sort of border usually reserved for saints and martyrs. "Russians don't do things by halves," says Polyakov, the stylist. "Especially in the early years of his presidency, we totally over-exaggerated who he was and what he could do for our country. When we designed this T-shirt, we were satirising the cult following that surrounds Putin and the way it echoes the cults that surrounded Stalin and Lenin."

Doletskaya, the Vogue editor, says: "It is worn by people with a sense of humour. As well as showing a bit of pride in our president, it is also anti-monarchical. It is satirising the over-emphasis on one person, the leader." By wearing the T-shirt, well-off Muscovites take a swipe at their president, and at the leaders before him who cultivated the people's love. But they can't quite break free - they still love wearing Putin on their chest.

Simachev has built his career around this fascination with the faces of power. His current collection, for winter 2004/2005, features a T-shirt with Lenin's profile on it. The collection he will be showing in Milan this month repeatedly uses a portrait of Chapaev, a Red Army commander who became a Soviet folk hero. He also uses the hammer and sickle. But Simachev uses these famous images in a faintly disrespectful way - Lenin's profile is super-imposed on a hairy chest. The mocking of the powerful is gentle enough to show that the wearer is aware of the ironies but not disrespectful of their political masters.

Simachev feels a strong sense of national pride. "I am Russian and proud of it. It's my job to represent Russia to the world and our history is very important," he says. "It's about establishing our identity as Russians, and my identity as a Russian designer."

And his enthusiasm is shared by the new breed of Russians for whom he designs, says Doletskaya. "What is great is that young Russians have no hard feelings about the Soviet period as they haven't lived through it. When they put on a T-shirt with the Soviet coat of arms, or Lenin's face, they feel a sense of belonging to their country."

Simachev and Polyakov have no doubt that Putin is in touch with Russians' powerful mixed feelings about their past and present, and that he is aware of the T-shirt's satirical comment on his leadership. As Polyakov says, "Putin is not stupid." And, despite its criticism, Simachev's T-shirt is another PR coup for a president who already has a type of tomato, a mountain in Kyrgyzstan and a spy-thriller named after him. Time will tell whether he is more worthy of his people's adoration than his predecessors.