Monday, June 17, 2013

Romanov: IRFE, a revival of a fashion house

Anywhere the moneyed of Eastern Europe shop, from Chelsea and Palm Beach to the Urals, you’ll find an Irfé boutique. Since 2008, the Paris-based Russian luxury-clothing label – praised by Alexa Chung as ‘clever, fluid and architectural’ – has been expanding its empire and is now sold in 80 outlets worldwide, with its owner and creative director, Belarussian ex-model Olga Sorokina, often snapped at parties in Cannes, Milan, Paris, Moscow and in Los Angeles at Oscar time.
She describes Irfé’s signature look as ‘aristocratic romanticism’. A slim silhouette on the lower body is typically offset by a voluminous upper half. Designs are inspired by Russian ballet, art and culture – the intricate styling of Fabergé jewels, traditional embroidery, firebirds and double-headed eagles – and reworked with a modern ‘baroque ’n’ roll’ feel.
It’s a look that appeals to rich young Muscovites yearning for a closer connection to Russia’s pre-communist heritage. The brand itself was born at the end of that era, founded in the 1920s by one of the country’s most glamorous and notorious aristocratic couples. 

Irina, princess of Russia, was the beautiful niece of the last tsar, and her handsome husband Felix Youssoupoff, once the richest man in Russia, was the playboy aristocrat who’d murdered the peasant mystic Rasputin. In exile after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the pair embarked on a dress-design business in Paris (the first two letters of their Christian names forming the title).

Irfé was a hit with American and British customers in Paris during the années folles, when fashion took its lead from Coco Chanel. Punters flocked to Irfé to look a murderer in the eye and buy clothes designed and modelled by a princess. They wanted to hear how Felix and fellow-conspirators, including his friend the Grand Duke Dmitri, had lured Rasputin to the cellar of his St Petersburg palace, in the vain hope that by killing the empress’s unpopular favourite they could save Russia from revolution. Felix would regale them with details of how they plied Rasputin with wine laced with cyanide, then shot him, before drowning him in the River Neva. The ineffectual tsar’s punishment was merely to send them out of town. 

Irfé’s customers were also intrigued by the killer’s wife, who married the charming cross-dresser as an innocent 18-year-old (too young to understand the word homosexual). But anyone hoping for the tears of a princess was left disappointed: in the many photographs of Irina in Irfé designs, or out and about with her husband, her expression is always serene.
People continue to enjoy the story behind the label, but in a country whose richest citizens still worry about being exiled themselves (a fate that has befallen several oligarchs at odds with the modern Kremlin), it is Irina’s story that resonates.

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Princess Irina Alexandrovna of Russia.

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