When was the last time you heard anything about Kazakhstan? In fact, do you even know where it is? Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world! It borders Russia in the North, China in the South East, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the South and Azerbaijan West of the Caspian Sea. (That’s a lot of Stans!) From New York it takes approximately two 8-hour flights to get to the capital, Astana and the cultural center, Almaty. It’s four times the size of Texas but only inhabits 17 million people. The landscape looks like a combination of Arizona and Switzerland, with vast steppes and dry desert, set against lush snow top mountains with glaciers and beautiful, deep blue lakes. Up until 1991 Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union and the majority of people still speak Russian, though the natives also have their own Kazakh language (it’s closer to Turkish and incomprehensible to Russians). The main religion is Islam, but it’s a secular country; only very few women wear head scarves for example.
I discovered all this in my travel guide, by the way. I lay no pretentious claim on previous knowledge of this wildly unknown country. But if it was anything like Ukraine, where I visited two years ago, I expected only to be surprised and educated – I took up basic Russian to get around. Kazakhstan’s economy largely relies on its rich resources, like oil, gas, coal, minerals, semiprecious stones and construction materials. It is also the world’s biggest uranium producer. That should account for some wealth among its population, and therefor a growing interest in fashion and style, am I right? I was right. The first indication of Kazakhstan’s prosperity was my temporary digs at the newly built Ritz Carlton hotel in Almaty. The staff spoke perfect English, the breakfast was spectacular and the service was excellent. I also noticed a shiny new building next door: Esentai Mall, which I soon found out, houses every boldface name in fashion, from Stella McCartney to Gucci, to Lanvin, and even has a three-level Saks Fifth Avenue. All I had to do was find out who shops there and I’d have full proof.
Kazakhstan has always had a Fashion Week, but according to the locals it was never any good. Until someone called Daria Shapovalova. She decided to partner with the Executive Director of Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Almaty, Zhanel Bertayeva, and with the help of Buro24/7, the Kazakhstan Fashion Institute and the local fashion magazines (Boulevard, Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Bazaar) put together a superior list of international attendees and design talent. Over the course of three days we saw favorites Aika Alemi (who uses ancient Kazakh techniques and motifs in her designs), the Russian Alexander Arutyunov, the popular Lanthane57 by Yan Ray (who is also the best photographer in Kazakhstan), the pretty and wearable designs of Aigul Kassymova (who also interpreted the vector Kazakh motif), 17-year old Khan Kuchum‘s first collection (watch out for this kid: he’s cute, has the best personality and is talented! I can see him on the pages of Dazed & Confused in a few years!), a very fun The Rolly Polly, and Ukranian wunderkind Anna K (who will sell her second collection at Colette starting June). The big guest designer from the West was Giles, who showed a slightly modified collection. But my absolute favorite was Ruslan Panama! Half Kazakh, half Korean, he lives in London, studied at Central Saint Martins, and interned for the likes of Alexander McQueen – remember this name.
The first day was easy. We had lunch with Buro24/7 and I accompanied Ukraine Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief Masha Tsukanova on a trip to the nearby mountains of Medeu, the home of the highest elevated skating rink in the world. When it was time to see the first evening show I figured I just change back into my comfortable leather Tibi skirt and Cos sweater, but that didn’t take. I had only to set one foot inside the venue to realize I was seriously underdressed. All the girls were decked out in the latest Prada and Vika Gazinskaya, wore jewelry and expensive bags, and had a knack for luxurious style that was borderline intimidating. I beelined back to my room to squeeze into my tightest fitting Peter Pilotto dress and infiltrated once more. I was astonished. Even though the street style is hugely influenced by evening wear and luxury, the fashionable Kazakh girls are serious contenders for their Western peers. And the proof is in the pictures: take a look at Adam Katz Sinding’s street style report for New York Times.
The next few days in Almaty were filled with fashion, sightseeing and food. I lectured about fashion careers for an audience of students and fans, visited Big Almaty Lake, did a photo shoot inside the Kasteev State Museum of Arts (more about that in the next post!), sat down for a million interviews, shot a Muse (wait for the post!), cruised around the city in search of souvenirs and sights and sampled every local dish. I had a great time, despite a horrendous jet lag and mixed-up stomach issues. Everyone was welcoming, generous and went out of their way to make sure we were taken care of. It was hilarious to see how Nabile Quenum and Adam Katz Sinding became local celebrities; Adam because of his expansive beard, and Nabile for the simple fact that he was black, and that is “very unusual” in Kazakhstan. There were all but two black men in the entire country at that time. Everywhere we went people asked him for a photo; not that he minded… In short, I think I need to go back, probably in the deep of summer, when the mountains are green and the water is blue. I made a lot of friends in Almaty so chances are it won’t take long before they see me again…
Many thanks to Daria Shapovalova for inviting me to MBFWA; my personal guide and volunteer Altanay; Natalia and Aika for handling logistics; and the people of Kazakhstan for being so damn nice.
For Daria Shapovalova’s report on Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Almaty, read her contribution on style.com.