Masha Tsigal: Moscow’s 1990s it-girl on how war has changed fashion in Russia

Masha Tsigal: Moscow’s 1990s it-girl on how war has changed fashion in Russia
Masha Tsigal was a member of the original crowd that brought dance music culture to Russia. Voted one of the six coolest people in Russian then she became a leading avant garde fashion designer who apprenticed with Vivienne Westwood in London. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews March 23, 2023

Decades on from Russia’s wild 1990s, the country’s cultural landscape continues to be largely shaped by the enduring influence of the giants that hogged the limelight in the shadow of the former Soviet Union.

In Moscow’s bars, Russians dance through the night to popular hits by Grigory Leps, Ruki Vverkh and Philipp Kirkorov. Meanwhile, the city's cinemas offer the latest blockbusters directed by directors Nikita Mikhalkov and Nikolai Lebedev, featuring actors like Vladimir Mashkov and Igor Vernik. This scene could be taken directly from the late 1990s, but is still a perfect description of 2023.

But despite these similarities, today’s Moscow is not the same as it was 30 years ago. Years removed from shock therapy and the hope of riches from capitalism, Russia is now embroiled in a war with Ukraine. Many of the country's wealthiest citizens have left, along with numerous Western investors who arrived in the burgeoning 1990s.

However, despite the war and its myriad of challenges, for many Russians life continues as normal. Even Moscow's elite socialites and celebrities can be found enjoying the city's upscale bars, restaurants and nightclubs many of which rival those found in Western metropolises such as London or New York. The capital boasts an impressive array of dining and entertainment options that cater to the discerning tastes of its sophisticated patrons, despite the country's turbulent political climate.

These Russians include Masha Tsigal, a fashion designer. Tsigal, born and raised in Moscow, was born into the closest thing Russia has to artistic royalty. Her parents, Anna Birshtein and Alexander Tsigal, were both accomplished artists whose works were displayed in galleries around the country and the world. Her grandfather, Vladimir Tsigal, was a prominent sculptor and creator of monumental and decorative sculptural objects. His wife, Nina Vatolina, was a legendary Soviet artist, renowned for her famous posters “Fascism – the most evil enemy of women” and “Don't Chatter!”

Tsigal's grandmother Nina Vatolina painted the legendary Soviet war poster "Don't chatter." 

Tsigal embodies the epitome of Moscow's "tusovka," a group of socialites shielded from the war's impact, able to maintain a life of comfort regardless of economic changes. Despite more than a year having passed since the conflict began, she continues to work day in and day out from her studio, which is located in central Moscow and offers a breathtaking view of the Moscow City business district skyline.

Like many of Moscow’s stars, Tsigal also got her start in the 1990s. She leveraged her connections with the city's elite to kickstart her design career with a fashion show at the Hermitage nightclub in 1994. The following day, she woke up to find herself thrust into the limelight, on the front cover of Kommersant, one of Russia’s most popular newspapers. From that moment on, she embraced her newfound fame and never looked back.

In 1998 the leading British fashion and music magazine The Face featured Tsigal as one of the six coolest people in Russia.

Almost thirty years later Tsigal is still creating clothes, and she shows no signs of slowing down. She has a new style and a new focus on sustainability and upcycling but has continued designing. Like most in the tusovka, the war has not stopped her from doing what she loves. In addition to hosting lectures and workshops on a regular basis, she has also become a prominent social media influencer, expanding her reach to a younger generation with no recollection of her 1990s exploits. She is also a regular commentator on a new fashion advice show on NTV, a state-run channel.

While life continues as normal for Tsigal, she admits that the war has had a disastrous effect on Russia’s fashion scene. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, many of the world’s biggest clothing brands chose to leave Russia, from high-end luxury labels like Chanel to fast-fashion giants such as H&M and Zara. Those companies are slowly being replaced by brands from Turkey, China, India, Brazil and Iran, but the quality and variety of options available in the market are yet to reach the same level as pre-war times.

“Now, for me, the hardest thing is finding simple clothes for a cheap price,” she told bne IntelliNews. “It has become so much more expensive to buy basic staples, which are an essential part of my upcycling.”

According to Tsigal, these issues have only been compounded due to Russia’s inadequate domestic production of fabrics and threads, which requires local fashion designers to rely heavily on imports from foreign sources.

“Domestic fashion brands are still struggling to fill the gap left by foreign companies that left Russia,” Tsigal explained. “There are many talented designers here, but they don't have the same resources as big Western brands. It is hard for them to keep their prices low and competitive.”

Although Russian designers have the creative talent to compete, they face significant obstacles in scaling up due to a lack of production capacity and poor distribution channels, she noted.

However, despite the current challenges faced by Russian fashion designers, Tsigal remains optimistic about their future prospects. In her view, the gaps in the industry can be filled by Russian inventors and entrepreneurs, and it is only a matter of time before they find a way to do so. Although Tsigal acknowledges that developing production capabilities will take time, she sees the departure of Western brands as a unique opportunity for Russian designers to establish themselves as a viable alternative. With determination and innovation, Russian designers have the potential to make their mark on the fashion scene.

In additon to design, Tsigal is also a DJ, TV personality  and gives seminars on alternative life styles amongst other things. 

And it is not a forlorn hope. A similar thing happened after Russian President Vladimir Putin slapped tit-for-tat sanctions on the EU, banning the import of agricultural products, and cheese in particular. French cheese disappeared from the shelves but it took Russia two years to set up its own cheese industry. At the same time, the EU food ban inspired Russian restaurateurs to go back to Russia’s deep pre-revolutionary culinary history and experiment with regionally sourced ingredients and dishes, which caused a revolution. Today Moscow is one of the best foodie cities in Europe with a vibrant and innovative restaurant scene. The same thing could happen to fashion.

As for her own fashion business, Tsigal admits that she hasn’t had an explosion in sales, even with the lack of Western competition. And despite her relative comfort, she is even considering leaving Russia and setting up her studio abroad.

“My son, who is also a fashion designer, wants to study abroad,” she explained. “Once he leaves Russia, I think I will leave too.”