A Russian-born American model, fashion journalist and haute couture collector, learn how Tatiana has lived her Life Up Here from the runway and magazine covers to a contributing editor role at Harper’s Bazaar.
MARGE: Tell us a little about your experience growing up in a family of nuclear scientists. Did your upbringing in Soviet Russia have any profound affects on your interests or early life choices?
TATIANA: It did. I grew up in Russia in a family of nuclear scientists. My father worked for the Russian Federal Nuclear Project. We had an “upscale” upbringing, but in comparison to the rest of the world, it was nothing special. My early fashion choices in the Soviet Union were made without, or with very limited influence, from the West. My first exposure to global fashion was the Olympic Games on color television that came about in the ’70s. As a child I remember the outfits, the costumes. I specifically remember the figure skating costumes (skating was a big sport in Russia at that time) in such beautiful fabrics and colors. The Olympics opened a window to the world to me as a little girl.
In Soviet schools all students had to wear the same uniform — you could not deviate left or right, or personalize anything. Everybody had to be the same, with no expression of their own. This was, of course, due to the totalitarian nature of the communist regime.
I was different. I was expelled from school for cutting my bangs, for shortening the skirts of my uniform. My mother would buy me two or three uniforms a year because I would always do something different to them and then be expelled from school for a week! By seventh or eighth grade, I decided to chop my hair and get a perm, the western style perm, with shorter hair on top and length in the back. Did you know that the word in Russian for “chemistry” is the same word for “perm?” I remember my chemistry teacher telling me that chemistry should be inside of my head, not on it. So, of course, I was expelled, again. As you can see, I suffered “fashion persecution” from early on.
At age 14, we had a first dance at my school. I wanted to wear something different, so, I went for sewing classes and I made a dress. I was the belle of the ball. I stood out while everybody else looked the same. My mom did save my dress, but when you look at it now, years later, you can see how badly it was made!
When I left for France to model (in 1990), I really wanted to escape Russia, its uniformity, and its sameness. There was no personality in clothing in Russia. But, when I got to Paris, what did I see? At the heart of the fashion world, most women wanted to look the same! They wanted to wear the shoes of the season, the bag of the season, the outfit of the season, which for me, was a complete shock. I thought that when I went to Paris, it would be full of personality, individuality and personal expression. But when I got there, that turned out not to be the case.
So, I started shopping in vintage stores and flea markets to try to find unique, one-of-a-kind creations. This is when my passion for vintage fashion was born. I still to this day go to vintage fairs both in San Francisco and wherever my travels may take me. When you find a great piece of vintage it’s fabulous and always fun. I ended up buying a lot of vintage couture, occasionally for a fraction of the price. I loved wearing unique things, and learning about the garments with stories — almost like genealogy — fitting a puzzle together, a process.
MARGE: What was modeling like in Paris? We can guess that you traveled a lot. Can you share with us a favorite experience, or location you found to be inspiring?
TATIANA: When I came to Paris, my first show was Yves St. Laurent Couture. It was really very special. For a girl who had come from a rigid, communist society, never being exposed to things like this, cultural or otherwise…for me, I was like a child in a candy store. Yes, as a model I did travel a lot. Shooting from Bali to St. Bart’s, to all over the world, it was very educational and truly fun.
For the first month in Paris, I worked as a fitting model for Yves St. Laurent. From 9 to 5, I would come to the atelier, do hair and makeup, and go from one workroom to another to fit the clothes for the collections.
I have always loved the design process — the how and why things are made. I was fortunate to observe the work of a great designer — from draping fabric on the body to see what works, to doing a sketch, to the first and second and third fitting. Couture was a process for things to work, for things to fit. In couture there is no uniformity in sizing, not like prêt-á-porter, for instance.
Modeling, I think, may well be the only profession today where women are paid more than men…considering the current public discourse about women getting less than men in every other field. I think modeling is probably the only field where women feel much more superior than men.
Fortunately I was a model at the best time — when supermodels were the most recognizable faces in fashion. Now when you look at the runway, you recognize one or two models and the rest are inconsequential. In a certain sense, however, it may be better for designers not to have recognizable faces, because people then pay more attention to clothes. In the ’90s though, supermodels had a status akin to Hollywood stars.
It was the time of my personal dolce vita, and I remember that unique decade fondly. The pressure that many movie stars like to complain about today was part of a top-model’s reality then; it was just part of the game. It was a really special time and, like those fleeting moments in history, I don’t think it will ever be recreated again.