Ulyana Sergeenko, a face that most industry insiders are already familiar with, is living a (high) fashion fairy tale. After launching an experimental first collection in Moscow in 2011 with her longtime business partner, Frol Burimskiy (who is with us during this interview), this Kazakhstan-born socialite eventually earned a spot on the prestigious haute-couture schedule.
Her debut couture show, which took place in Paris in 2012, was well received by editors and the crème de la crème of society. Yet besides being a successful couturier, Sergeenko is also a regularly photographed fixture on the street-style circuit.
To say that this Moscow-based multihyphenate knows the ins and outs of the fashion industry is, well, an understatement. During the world’s fashion weeks, this style-savvy siren is often spotted on the streets wearing her signature towering heels and scene-stealing ensembles.
For autumn/winter 2017, Sergeenko’s creations stay true to her heart (there’s a ton of references to her upbringing and Russian influences) and chic design aesthetic. The powerful necklines and feminine silhouettes – and pretty much everything in this collection – are truly fit for royalty.
Tell us about your newest haute couture collection.
Ulyana Sergeenko: The newest couture collection is about gangsters of all time. After World War II, in Russia there were a lot of bands of gangsters, because of the poverty at that time.
Frol Burimskiy: It wasn’t so easy to control people, so you had thieves in the suburbs of Moscow and some mafia gang leaders. Normally, Ulyana looks into something more romantic but this time it’s about the beauty that everyone possesses.
US: The collection also started with a picture of my grandmother. At that time the women were all so beautiful and glamorous. They had gorgeous hairstyles and wore gorgeous dresses every day. So that was my first inspiration, and then from there some Soviet movies about gangsters and some Hollywood divas. I was also inspired by Michael Jackson and Russian singers. We mixed it all together.
Why did you decide to start your own couture label?
US: I started to create a lot of clothes for myself, and then my friends were asking me, “Why don’t you start your own line?” It was like an experiment but the first collection in Moscow was a huge success.
FB: Immediately after that, people started to contact us. They were buying from abroad and foreign magazines wanted to interview Ulyana. It was just a private show in Moscow.
US: We also have our beautiful godmother, [Russian model] Natalia Vodianova, who has taken care of us.
FB: Actually, it was really her request to start our own couture line, because when she saw the product for the first time she was like, “Guys, this is couture.”
What’s it like working with clients on their made-to-order looks?
FB: We have a lot of clients now. In five years [the number] grew to a couple of hundred, which is quite a lot for a couture house. So of course now we have a big team working with us. The concept of the brand is that we will give a very personal service. We travel around the world and we meet clients, wherever it’s convenient for them. Sometimes they visit us in Russia or in Paris.
US: We try to give a little bit of Russia to every client.
FB: We have clients from Saudi Arabia and China. Now, we have a lot of clients in Hong Kong and a lot of clients in the Middle East and the United States. But we appreciate that they all love the idea and concept of the brand … which is Ulyana’s initial idea. And when people actually start buying – we have this interesting story that some people become really addicted. We have this client who once ordered 35 looks of out 40-something from one collection. We are very lucky because we have these dedicated clients and they are really into the collection, and other times they’ll want us to sketch for them, so we work a lot by sketching, too. We create pieces and wardrobes. Someone can just tell us their occasion and we can just dream and fantasise outside of the collection, just personally, for a client.
Where do you get your inspiration?
US: It depends on the collection, but mostly it comes from my childhood and the little town [where I grew up] in Kazakhstan. I also love movies and I love to read. When I was a child, I always thought of the dresses of the main characters in books and tried to re-dress them with my own imagination.
Is everything designed and produced in Russia? Can you tell us about the craftsmanship and Russian influence?
US: Mostly in Russia. We’re trying to find people who are able to do old Russian crafts. It’s a lot of research but we’re trying to take them from different parts of Russia, and now it’s my dream to organise a school. It’s a big deal to connect old crafts from Russia with couture clients from Saudi Arabia because it’s a way for these crafts to survive.
FB: Now these crafts are disappearing. Some of them came from centuries ago. This season, it was our mission to create everything in-house. We didn’t use any foreign masters, we just used Russian crafts. It’s a celebration of our atelier. Our production team is more than 100 people, which makes us the largest atelier in Russia of this kind.
You’re also a street-style star. How do you decide what to wear when you go to other designers’ shows?
US: To be frank, a few years ago, I spent more time choosing my dresses and jewellery, but nowadays I’m more focused on my brand and what we’re doing. And really, I love to wear my own clothes. Even the most simple dress is couture. Of course, when I see some other shows, I try to respect other designers because I admire them a lot – sometimes I’ll even wear a total look by another designer or I’ll just try to add on something done by them.
How does one become an haute couture client, then?
US: If you want to be a couture client, you must really want it. If you have such a big desire and wish [to be one] then it has to happen one day. You know, you can also make couture clothes by yourself. This is a solution for everyone. You can use even a simple thing like a T-shirt and put some flowers on it.
FB: And if it’s beautiful and it’s executed well, then it will be couture.