As businesses flee Russia, a New York model returns to Moscow

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As Western businesses fled Russia after Moscow invaded Ukraine, Kira Dikhtyar, a 33-year-old model in New York, traveled in the opposite direction.

Leaving behind a decade-long modeling career in the United States, the US-Russian dual national returned to her hometown of Moscow this spring to launch a new clothing line in sanctions-hit Russia while declaring her support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The company’s concept, which it says is still under development, consists of inexpensive replicas of Western-branded clothing to stock the shelves of Zara, H&M and other retailers that have closed their Russian stores at the aftermath of the February 24 invasion.

“We’re tweaking the design a bit so we don’t get sued by companies,” Dikhtyar said in a phone interview from his home in Moscow.

The project provides insight into the irregular reorientation of the Russian economy under Western sanctions. One of the best-known examples is the recreation of McDonald’s without the Golden Arches and Big Macs, but otherwise offering what its new backer – a Siberian oil tycoon who bought all 840 stores – says will be a largely fare indistinguishable under a new name – “Tasty and that’s it.

With few options in Ukraine, the United States and its allies prepare for a long war

At an economic forum in St. Petersburg on Friday, Putin said the adjustment of the Russian economy was successful. “Russian businesses and government authorities worked calmly and professionally,” he said. “We are normalizing the economic situation. We have stabilized the financial markets, the banking system, the trading system.

The effects of the sanctions have so far also been mitigated by soaring oil and gas revenues, allowing the Kremlin to continue funding the war effort and stimulating the economy.

Dikhtyar sees himself at the forefront of this economic reinvention and expresses no regrets about pursuing business in wartime Russia. “What’s wrong with that?” she said. “It’s an amazing opportunity here in Moscow.”

In the United States, Dikhtyar is best known for her stint on the reality TV show “The Face” and a subsequent tabloid feud with former supermodel Naomi Campbell. For the past decade, she has worked as a model and her image has featured in the pages of FHM and foreign editions of L’Officiel and Playboy.

“People are being brainwashed by the media so much – it’s insane,” she said, accusing the United States of prolonging a war in Ukraine that has drawn international condemnation from the Kremlin.

“There is no more peace and it is the fault of the United States of America,” she said. “If they did not support the army in Ukraine, they would get peace… but since they brought military equipment to Ukraine, to give a lot of money to Ukraine, that means that Russia must now bring in more soldiers and more equipment, which can lead to more deaths and longer conflicts.

Back in Moscow, Dikhtyar joined a small cohort of Western-linked Russians who refused to condemn the invasion despite the reputational risk. Valery Gergiev, conductor of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra and close ally of Putin, was fired of his position in Germany. Actor Vladimir Mashkov – known in the West for his roles in ‘Mission Impossible’ and ‘Behind Enemy Lines’ – has staunchly supported the war only to have his daughter rebut it on US television. Pianist Boris Berezovsky was fall by his agent in March after urging Russian forces to cut off electricity in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

In the world of fashion, Burberry, Chanel, H&M and Hermès have all closed stores and online sales in Russia, joining the nearly 1,000 companies that have reduced their activities in the country, according to a Yale University Project.

But in their race for exits, Dikhtyar sees an opportunity.

“The market is huge,” she said. “Think about it: 150 million people have nothing to wear because all the brands are pulling out.”

In Sloviansk, clashing loyalties as Russian forces approach

Those who have worked with Dikhtyar say his attempt to do business in Moscow while championing the war in Ukraine is provocative but not surprising.

“She likes to be controversial and cause scandals,” said Ivan Bitton, the owner of a fashion house in Los Angeles who did several photo shoots with Dikhtyar between 2015 and 2018.

Bitton pointed to her televised fight with a black model on “The Face” over Dikhtyar’s alleged claim that darker-skinned models wouldn’t make it on the show. Dikhtyar said his remarks were misunderstood.

Her commentary on the war touches on sensibilities in a fashion industry that is home to both Ukrainians and Russians working side by side as models, photographers and designers.

Evgeny Milkovich, a Ukrainian photographer working in New York, has photographed Dikhtyar Many times. His family home in Kyiv is a 10-minute drive from the town of Bucha, where Ukrainians were massacred in March. Milkovich said he was appalled at how the Kremlin’s “propaganda” took “humanity” from some Russians in the fashion industry.

“People like Kira fight their own wars with their controversies,” he said. “We have done several successful photo projects, but the essence of the people I work with is also important to me. So, unfortunately, the cooperation can easily end here.

Born in Moscow, Dikhtyar showed great promise as a rhythmic gymnast, competing for Russia’s junior national team before being recruited as a model in her early teens. Tall and thin with blue-green eyes, Dikhtyar was represented by MC2, a modeling agency founded by Jean-Luc Brunel with the backing of disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein.

Dikhtyar said she first met Epstein when she was 17 – but unlike dozens of other women, she said he never touched her. Instead, both forge a friendship that extended beyond 2008, when Epstein pleaded guilty in Florida state court to soliciting underage girls for prostitution.

“Yes it’s true. I was friends with Jeffrey Epstein. I’m not advocating for anything,” she said of the financier who killed himself in 2019 while in custody and accused of abuse and sex trafficking of girls.

In Russia, she made headlines last year when she accused a once-powerful Russian oligarch of raping her when she was 15, a revelation broadcast on state television as part of a a campaign she launched against sexual violence. But Dikhtyar’s advocacy work on behalf of women is also divisive. Her professional website and accompanying news articles list her as a “United Nations Ambassador” for her international work on reforming sexual consent laws.

However, a spokeswoman for UN Women, the global gender equality arm, denied working with Dikhtyar and said the United Nations ‘did not name her’ ambassador, a title which requires the approval of UN Secretary General António Guterres.

Dikhtyar said she could not be blamed for the way previous news articles characterized her work on behalf of women.

The prospects for new retail businesses in Dikhtyar are unclear.

Russia’s economy is expected to contract by 8.5% in 2022 as international sanctions take their toll, according to the International Monetary Fund. But analysts say there is a potential market for mid-priced clothing with Western panache.

“No matter how poor the Russian population has become, they still want to buy clothes and there are still people who have money,” said Ekaterina Schulmann, a Russian political scientist at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

Olga Rebrova, Russian designer and owner of fashion brand Stanchy, has warned that a new Russian clothing line will not be able to match the low production costs of established fast fashion brands that manufacture in Vietnam, Bangladesh or in China. But she said the mass exodus of Western retailers has made it “a little bit easier” for Russian businesses to succeed.

“When your competitors are big conglomerates, it’s quite difficult to compete because you don’t have such marketing budgets,” Rebrova said in an interview from Moscow. She said her own business benefited “since I don’t have any big competitors now”.

Outlining her business plan, Dikhtyar said the designers would take a dress from her wardrobe, modify the design slightly, and mass-produce it. “Basically they take it, copy it, give it to the factory and in the morning you have thousands of them,” she said.

Jeff Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management, said if Dikhtyar’s activities infringe on the intellectual property of other fashion brands, it could have a long-term negative impact on Russia’s economy.

“If they go against the most minimal global standards of respect for intellectual property, then Russia will become even more of an island,” Sonnenfeld said.

After taking part in an interview lasting more than two hours, Dikhtyar then asked that an article not be published about her because she said she was not authorized to speak on behalf of the clothing line.

While pushing to stop the publication, she said she knew people from the Russian mafia. “The Russian mafia still exists,” she said. “We will have to do background checks on you and your family for this kind of article.”

Moments later, she insisted it was a joke. “Are you afraid of the Russian mafia? she asked.

Mary Ilyushina and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, and Paul Sonne in Washington contributed to this report.



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