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Women of the World: Belarusian Beauties
On the streets of Belarus’ capital, Minsk, almost every woman is long legged and slender, with delicate Slavonic features. They are manicured and coiffed to perfection and never appear in public without a slick of lipgloss and mascara. Muscovite femme fatales may scoff at the idea of ‘provincial’ Belarusians knowing anything about style, but anyone who’s been to Minsk can attest to the truth of their eyes. These ladies know how to dress. Despite the average salary being just $250 a month, fashion is alive and well in this Russian speaking republic. Almost every rouble goes to their appearance; shoes are saved up for, lipstick shades agonized over, and outfits planned weeks ahead. Even those in their forties and beyond tend to stay trim and style conscious. Although there is little choice in the shops (Minsk is unlikely to welcome a Zara, Monsoon or Mango for some time yet), women are keen to follow the latest trends and manage to keep themselves looking stylish – regardless of their budget.
By Anne Coombes
Photoes by author

Tanya is 24 and a teacher. She describes her style as eclectic, as she likes to mix unusual items. Jeans are the mainstay of her wardrobe, but she vamps up her look with ethnic jewellery, beaded and embroidered blouses and novel hair accessories. She has her eye on some knee high crocheted boots with a platform wedge heel for the summer. She tries to travel to Lithuania to pick up clothes whenever she can. Her last purchase there was a necklace made of beads and ribbons and some turquoise Middle Eastern – inspired jewellery. “Looking good gives you status; it makes you appear successful,” she asserts. “Women here know what to wear to appeal to men. Our look is about far more than attracting the opposite sex though. We want to impress our friends by showing our individuality. Clothes are an important form of expression here. We’d rather go hungry than set foot outside not looking good. Men buy cars, but we spend all our disposable income on make-up and clothes. Your appearance is worth investing in.”

Most women go to the gym at least once a week and fitness clubs abound in the capital. Tanya admits to going three times a week, saying, “This is the only body I’ve got, so I look after it. It’s mine and I love it.” Aerobics is the most popular class, but one of the newest fads is for strip dance classes. Local legend has it that some girls spend just as much on their underwear as they do on their outerwear – so, perfecting an erotic undressing technique makes a lot of sense. Incidentally, one of Belarus’ entrepreneurial success stories has been the Milavitsa lingerie label. Its factories have gone from success to success. There isn’t a woman in Minsk who doesn’t have a few matching sets from one of Milavitsa’s glamorous stores. The label has also been selling well throughout the Russian regions.

Irina is 28, and a university lecturer. She admits that Belarusian women love being the center of attention, and thinks this often leads them to choose clothes embellished with sequins and diamantes – anything that captures the eye. For the same reason, they can end up putting on too much make-up. Although she knows there is a thin line between being subtly sexy and being tarty, she knows she doesn’t always achieve the right balance herself. “I recently bought a glittery blouse for a party and almost instantly realised it was a mistake,” she smiles ruefully. She admires the individualism of Gwen Stefani and the classic look sported by Nicole Kidman and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Yuliya is 35 and is an office manager. She describes her style as ‘elegant and feminine’. “It’s nice to dress sexy, but, obviously, not at work. I don’t think that’s appropriate. It’s also fun to follow fashions but, most of all, I like to feel comfortable. I tend to buy classic pieces that flatter my figure: fitted jackets, wide legged trousers and pretty sweaters.” Like many professional women, she likes to buy her wardrobe when she travels. Buying good quality fabrics and well tailored items can only be done in a few select shops in the capital and prices are generally prohibitive.

Yuliya admits, “I couldn’t live without lipstick – the last one I bought was by Chanel. My passion may have come from my mum as she spent a lot of time mixing hers to create just the right shade. I also love Givenchy perfume.” Yuliya is blessed with an amazing complexion, but she insists this is nature rather than nurture. “All the women in my family have naturally good skin – although I think eating dairy products helps: sour cream, cheese and yoghurt. My grandmother is 95 and she still looks good. She doesn’t even have cellulite! I think that a positive attitude is more important than lotions and potions. You need to be content with yourself. Try to bring happiness to those around you. Smile and your inner radiance will shine through. The worst thing you can do is be bitchy; jealousy is destructive – it eats away at you, making you look ugly.”

Vikar is 23 and is a student. She doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on clothes, but always manages to look quirky. She combines jewel coloured cardigans and t-shirts with jeans, wears statement jewelery, and extends her ‘experimentation’ to her hair. She has a small dash of red, blonde or orange added every few weeks and this keeps her looking up-to-date. She says, “I love Madonna. She’s such an inspiration and is in fabulous shape.” Anya is 19, and is similarly innovative when it comes to fashion. She likes to customise her outfits – using fabric pens on t-shirts or sewing on appliqué details. She also loves teaming a plain black dress with a bright yellow or red bag. Luckily, she wears the same size as her mum (designer Elena Korshak) so she can share her wardrobe. Vikar reveals that she spends about $30 each month on having her hair done and another $20 on creams and cosmetics: red nail polish is her weakness. Anya always has a nude coloured lipgloss on hand, but rarely wears much else. Vikar believes the cold Belarusian climate helps keep women here looking beautiful. “Stay out of the sun,” she advises, “Vegetables always last longer when they’re kept in the fridge! Also, keep a window open. Lots of people are afraid that draughts are bad for them, but I think fresh air is very important. I have a sauna regularly as I’m convinced this is good for my skin. In summer, you’ll often find me relaxing at home with my face covered with mashed up cucumbers or strawberries. Finally, don’t worry so much. Enjoy each day, value happiness and avoid unnecessary stress.”

Designers Speak

Moscow’s fashion week now draws almost 50,000 visitors and is fast becoming the hottest showcase for new talent. It features many designers from throughout the CIS, including those from Belarus. Two of Minsk’s best known couturiers share their ideas on style. Elena Korshak’s Autumn 2005 and Spring 2006 collections at Moscow’s Fashion Week combined strong geometric designs and simple cuts with elegant femininity.

What first inspired you?

I first began cutting up my mother and grandmother’s dresses when I was six. I thought of designing only as a hobby for ages and, even now, I don’t really take it seriously. I still feel like a little girl trying out ideas on her dolls.

How would you describe Belarusian women’s style?

They are extremely sensual and love to dress sexily in high heels and tight trousers. In summer, it’s all plunging necklines, sheer fabrics and short skirts. The idea is to attract men; eligible bachelors are in short supply.

What advice would you give them?

We should dress to please ourselves. Some clients who walk through my door seem to be apologizing for their existence. They shrink on entering a room, as if trying to take up less space. Hold your head high and be proud of yourself. If you’re comfortable with who you see in the mirror each day, you can’t go wrong. As for being more elegant, women often forget how important small details are – such as earrings. They can be dramatic or delicate. When you move your head, a glimpse is revealed. They add an element of surprise. Also, full make up at 9 am isn’t a good look. It’s amazing how many women here don’t realise that it’s better to show off their natural beauty. They should save the heavy eye shadow for the evening.

What do you want to achieve as a designer?

I’ve been likened to Prada, which I know would delight most people; but I prefer to be recognised for my individuality. Following Perestroika, people here became more aware of fashion. Designers were finally able to travel and quickly became influenced by what they saw abroad. Of course, it’s good to learn from others, but the ultimate compliment is to be called unique.

Olga Samoshchenko’s collections are inspired by the most feminine of trends. Her Autumn/Winter 2006 collection sported 1940's fur collars and cuffs, offsetting tweed, while her latest collection, for Spring/Summer 2007, flirts with the simple elegance of early 20th century Parisian chic. Her silk and chiffon confections almost float down the catwalk on their own. Olga has a growing Moscow client base and dresses some of the capital’s media elite.

What first inspired you?

When I was 11 my parents wanted me to attend a boarding school in Minsk for talented young artists, but I wasn’t at all keen on the idea. I finally agreed when my mother promised that I could have my ears pierced if I’d go! I didn’t actually sew anything until I was 15, when I made a pair of culottes which I then wore constantly. I soon came to the conclusion that it was easy and I would happily sew without any pattern at all. Only later, studying design at the Belarusian Academy of Art, did I realise there might be more to making clothes! After graduating, I won first place at the Russian Silhouette competition and this gave me an apprenticeship to a fashion house in Paris.

How would you describe typical Belarusian style?

Regrettably, there isn’t much choice in the shops here – mostly cheap cotton imports or poorly styled local items. Additionally, young women seem heavily influenced by pop videos; they tend to choose glittery, revealing outfits for daytime wear.

What advice would you give them?

Dresses are the mainstay of my own wardrobe. You can wear them for any occasion and anyone, regardless of their size or height, can look good in the right dress. Otherwise, choose well cut classic items; wide legged trousers and fitted blouses are flattering.

Which accessories are most important to you?

My latest passion is designing ornate brooches; I’ve been attaching old settings of pearls or gemstones to pieces of velvet, silk and fur. I also love bags; they can completely change an outfit. What advice would you give to up-and-coming Belarusian designers? Anyone who chooses to become a fashion designer here is probably rather crazy. It’s certainly not an easy way to make money! Setting up your own business is always difficult, but even more so when there is such a small market for what you produce. Most graduates just end up working for state factories – very dull.

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