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Stylist Lotta Volkova is the brains, the muse, the collaborator and the model of choice for Vetements, the cult eastern European designers currently shaping fashion. Meet the woman of the moment
People are already calling it the fashion moment of 2016. In Galeries Lafayette, an upmarket department store in Paris, cult label Vetements, purveyor of elevated streetwear, is staging its latest rule-breaking collection. The brand is opening staid old couture fashion week with a show featuring genuinely unexpected collaborations with various other fashion labels – waist-high Manolo Blahnik boots, rejuvenated Juicy Couture tracksuits – and models with a haute level of scowl. But it is when stylist Lotta Volkova strides past on the catwalk, modelling a floral white and blue Vetements dress, with a dismissive hand holding the corner of a white clutch bag, that the front row’s iPhones are raised in unison. Because that’s the picture. Lotta Volkova modelling the Vetements dress that self-consciously references the Vetements look. In an industry that constantly seeks to label things “cool”, Lotta Volkova has just been crowned as the coolest woman in the world.
Volkova is arguably fashion’s most in-demand creative. She is stylist and muse for the Vetements collective, the Paris-based group of designers currently subverting the barriers between streetwear and high fashion. She consults for fashion houseBalenciaga – on the casting and catwalk shows – where Demna Gvasalia is creative director. She also works with her friend, the menswear designer, Gosha Rubchinskiy and a raft of other labels. She somehow squeezes in editorial shoots with the likes of Juergen Teller and DJs at her friends’ fanzine launches. Volkova’s is a seven-day working week.
A few days before her Vetements fashion moment, I’m sat in a cool-but-you-have-to-know-it’s-cool-to-realise-it’s-cool cafe in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, not far from the Gare du Nord, asking Volkova how she, as a 32-year-old woman, feels about appearing as a model on the catwalk. Since starting work with Vetements, Volkova has walked in every show alongside kids cast from Instagram and regular models with an edge. Between swigs of Perrier and sips of black coffee, she laughs fast and loud before snapping into her brusque-sounding answering mode.
“It came about really spontaneously and out of the blue. When we were prepping for the first show, we did not have enough models, so Demna was like, ‘Oh, you are gonna model’ and I was like, ‘OK fine.’ Of course I was flattered. But for me it was like a friendly gesture. ‘Try this black turtleneck and sweatpants, and I just want to see you in it’ and I put in on and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is the opening look.’ I was like, ‘Nawwwww….’” Her speech is peppered with a Baltic-accented vocal fry that is too compelling not to mention.
“Spontaneous” and “out of the blue” are phrases that Volkova returns to regularly. Those and the fact that she and her gang are “just doing what we laaaav”. Volkova’s rise to the pinnacle of high fashion was neither exponential nor intentional, but not wholly surprising either. Born in Vladivostok, Russia, in 1984, Lotta was exposed to rebellion early on. Her father had jumped on a train from Siberia when he was 16 to captain a ship. Her mother, a professor of physics at medical school, instilled in Lotta the idea of doing things her own way: “For her that was a rebellion against communism, against this pre-packaged life.” It is her mother, too, that she has to thank for her Led Zeppelin-inspired name (she’s named after the song Whole Lotta Love). “She liked the whole post-punk, early 80s, alt-rock era, so I grew up sucking in all those references.” It was also her mother who fuelled her love of fashion, taking 12-year-old Lotta on shopping trips to London and Tokyo. “I had Prada shoes and Dior by Galliano jumpers, she was wearing Galliano herself. She is tiny and has really big boobs and is blonde, but then she pretty much looks like me.”
The sociopolitical landscape of the early 90s also had a powerful impact on Volkova’s taste; apparently high fashion in 2016 owes quite a debt to Antoine de Caunes and his 90s TV show Eurotrash. After 1991 the cultural influences from Europe and America flooded into eastern Europe: “Suddenly you had these crazy things on television and people started talking about fashion and art,” Volkova recalls. “I feel like it’s a Russian character trait – we look for something new and we are quick learners in a way.” That, coupled with Marjan Pejoski’s swan dress for Björk at the 2001 Oscars ceremony, indelibly formed Volkova’s left-field taste. “For me fashion was about expressing how different you are, you know?”
As with all stylists, Volkova’s taste is her currency, and hers is particularly esoteric. Her Instagram account forms a visual stream of consciousness which for those in her aesthetic network makes complete sense. Not everybody will understand quite how a picture of a wolf with a glass of red wine on its back chimes with raw 4am post-DJ stint snaps and Soviet era tracksuit bottoms. But that’s the point. Her taste relies on a balance of street and haute. Grunge for a generation of “likers”. So specific and individual is her look that the phrase “That’s a bit Lotta” has, in fashion terms, now become synonymous with anything unexpectedly cool with just a hint of a scowl.
When we meet, Volkova is looking “very Lotta”. She is wearing a blue Vetements pinstripe shirt, jeans by John Lawrence Sullivan, a label she consults for, lace-up Vans with white socks which betray her skate kid credentials, a diagonal neon green Shellac manicure from a no-frills salon, her trademark severe parted short hair and large steel-framed glasses. It’s a strange cocktail of Wall Street and backstreet, coupled with her extraordinary face, blank yet engaging, and her gangly frame; Volkova is not someone who blends in. Does she know she is physically intimidating? “I think a lot of people would describe me as extremely direct! It’s quite a Russian thing that you come across as quite stern and a bit cold, but once you get to know me I am quite a warm person.”
At 17, encouraged by her mother, Volkova arrived in London to complete a three-month course in art and design at Central St Martins. Was she nervous? “No. I was excited… My whole childhood and teenage years I was just bored, waiting to grow up and live life by myself.” Unsurprisingly Volkova didn’t return to Russia when the course finished, instead submerging herself in London life, partying at electroclash nights such as Nag Nag Nag and Trash. By 2004 Volkova had started her own brand (which of course “came about really naturally”), dressing herself and her friends for that scene. The label “Lotta Skeletrics” riffed heavily on DIY punk heritage and featured T-shirts overloaded with studs and sandpaper-distressed jeans. In classic Volkova hi-low style, these clothes were worn with experimental makeup, but also with beautiful Prada shoes.
It wasn’t until 2008, when she moved to Paris, that Volkova’s styling career started to crystalise. She met Gosha Rubchinskiy, the Comme des Garçons-backed Russian designer who is also a crucial part of the Paris/Russia style nexus. Rubchinskiy is also part of the Vetements family – his catwalk turn in theVetements DHL T-shirt on the AW/15 catwalk was broadly hailed as the fashion moment of last year. “We became friends instantly. We were both born in 1984 and I think that makes a big difference. We have the same references and are interested in the same subcultures.”
Three years ago Volkova met her main co-conspirator Demna Gvasalia, who currently designs both Vetements and Balenciaga. “We were introduced by a mutual friend and he asked me to check out a look-book shoot and I was like, ‘Wow, the clothes are really beautiful, really well made and really interesting’ but I really didn’t like Demna’s styling. I told him and he said, ‘Well, why don’t you do it yourself then?’” Volkova has since morphed into stylist, consultant, muse and, crucially, proto-customer for the designer. “For Demna it’s important to consider a real woman in his clothes. I am a woman and a customer.”
Volkova, Gvasalia and Rubchinskiy are a gang united by their backgrounds and style references growing up in the former Soviet bloc. They combine street labels and a left-field fashion approach which owes much to Maison Martin Margiela, where Gvasalia once worked. And it is the crew’s take on beauty that is wielding the most influence on fashion right now. “Of course conventionally beautiful things are beautiful but everyone finds them beautiful and I find that boring. I want to be inspired by things that not everyone knows.”
This translates into high fashion in unexpected ways – from an anorak on the Balenciaga catwalk presented in the way an atelier would have shown a fur coat in the past – to office chairs, rather than gilt opera seats, for the front row. “The chairs were comfy!” Volkova tries to convince me.
But she is right. This outlook cuts to the heart of the prevailing mood in fashion. “Actually practicality is quite important to us. For everything, in a way. That mentality; things have to be functional.” Granted Volkova’s look isn’t practical in the way most people would understand the term. Vetements’ hooded tops and steroid-level Balenciaga anoraks are not practical in the hiking sense nor comfortable in the TV dinner sense. There is a level of nuance and caveat; a disparity that Volkova almost manages to vocalise. “I know I am saying it’s all about practicality but I hate to be comfortable in a way. I’m good at putting on heels and doing a look. I’m actually shit at really dressing down.”