We don’t have to drive far. Meruyert has sent her car to pick me up at the hotel and I recognize the big colorful signs of the Uzbek restaurants we passed on our way to the Big Almaty Lake. Yet everything looks and feels a little bit more bleak today. It’s raining, I’m still jet-lagged and Fashion Week is over. When we take a right turn, the houses suddenly become smaller and the streets more narrow. We drive through a maze of lifeless two-story cement blocks where fashion never had any meaning. I can’t imagine what my beautiful, elegant host came looking for when she moved here… Until we hit a dead end, and two security guards dressed in black uniforms and armed with machine guns appear from their bullet-proof station to greet my driver. For a second I panic that I didn’t bring my passport; it’s that serious. But they return my sheepish smiles with a friendly wave and watch how the electric gate slowly opens.
I am still stunned when I see her sweet, smiling face in the doorway. Is all this necessary? I want to know. “In this neighborhood? It is.” she nods, deadpan. Meruyert Ibragim, her husband Bakhyt and their two children – daughter Amina is almost five and son Amir is almost three – have only lived here for two months. They built the house from scratch on a grassy piece of land: a modern villa with an indoor pool, a sauna, a sub-terrain garage, a library and a full-service kitchen. It’s a far, far stretch from their old house that according to Meruyert, had no interior to speak of. “My husband likes to build,” she explains. “But he’s not really a contractor. He has many different businesses in different fields. He hired a designer to help and chose all the building materials.” And he promised her more closet space. “He took up all the space because he likes to buy the same shirt or shoes or pants in different colors,” she laughs. “So now I have a room just to myself!”
I’m glad I found Meruyert, even if she’s not a die-hard fan of vintage. Besides her impeccable style and demure demeanor, she’s a stunning 27-year old Kazakh native with olive skin, natural long black hair and those typical dark, Asian features. “I only have one vintage dress,” she apologizes. “It’s a Givenchy dress I found in Paris.” As is the case with any ex-Soviet country, vintage is not popular in Kazakhstan because it simply doesn’t exist. “Kazakhstan was part of the USSR for about seventy years,” Meruyert explains. “We were lucky to get a pair of jeans during that time! Our mothers would wear it for years and then pass it to their sisters and daughters. We were in shortage of everything. So when the USSR collapsed in 1991 and we finally got access to travel and imported stuff from the US and Europe we wanted everything new of course.” Young people don’t even wear the traditional clothing anymore. “Women in the past loved massive accessories and would wear everything together, rings, bracelets, earrings and necklaces. The hats you saw [at the souvenir shops] are probably ‘Saukele’, high triangle hats that girls wear for the wedding, and ‘Tyubiteika’, small square hats that men wear. Check out Ulyana Sergeenko‘s latest couture collection! She dedicated it to Kazakhstan – she is from Kazakhstan originally – and you may see the little Tyubiteika hat! I think if our [Kazakh] designers would make it more modern we would wear the traditional clothes.”
And as it so happens Meruyert has big plans for her country. She partnered with Miroslava Duma to launch the Kazakh branch of Buro24/7 in September 2013. “My task is to make the website number 1 in Kazakhstan,” she says proudly. “However, the goal is more ambitious than that. I want it to be kind of a window for the US and Europe to Kazakhstan. I want people to know about the country. I want to help our talented designers, It-girls, It-boys, photographers etc. to be recognized by the foreign media. To help them grow. I want to put Almaty on the fashion map. By the way, the launch of Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in Almaty is a great help. I hope you liked it! And I also want Buro to be educational for kazakhstani people. To make them know what is happening in the world.” And this makes a lot of sense, because, like I said in my previous post, the new Kazakh generation is attuned and hungry for fashion but it has no history. For example: the Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar Kazakhstan is just 22-years old!
Meruyert has prepared lunch for me. One by one dishes with unpronounceable names appear on the table: shelpeks, baursaks, samosa, kazy, karta… “Do you like horse meat?” she asks. I do actually. We eat it in Belgium too, though rarely. “We will eat ‘beshbarmak’ which translates to ‘five fingers’ because you’re supposed to eat it with your hands. It’s made from dough, potatoes, carrots, onions and horse meat.” It’s delicious, despite my decision to use a knife and a fork. Meruyert tells me she’s Muslim but doesn’t go to the mosque like her husband does every Friday. And that she never wears short skirts because she hates her knees. She studied Global Business and Design Management at Regents Business School in London. And she has high hopes for the women in her country: “We have beautiful girls in Kazakhstan. They dress well and look after their beauty. They visit cosmetologist at least once a week. They don’t put on weight much. Even though they give birth to two or three children before they are thirty they look young and fresh. Kazakh girls and women love to dress up. Usually it’s in a classic way, a nice Alaia dress and classic pumps for example. However now I see changes. They became more individual and look for their own style. They started to experiment more. I think with their kind of appearance – long black hair, beautiful eyes, Asian look – and wearing the latest fashion trends Kazakh girls could be next fashion icons.”