I have a distinct memory of the Russian stylist Lotta Volkova from London clubland in the early noughties. Casting models for Katie Grand’s Pop magazine, I frequently scoured the underground in search of arresting individuals and found this strange looking creature throwing shapes on a podium at Kashpoint, Matthew Glamorre’s alt-scene one-nighter in Soho. This was the club of choice for delinquent denizens, outré fashion students and those who revelled in the gloriously messed-up aesthetic of the day. Anything went there, the weirder the better, and there was much to observe amongst the electroclash massive. But this girl stood out as different, she had an edge, and the look—a giant mirror-ball fashioned into an oversized space helmet spoke for itself. The attitude was laissez-faire, playful and wonderfully inventive. I can’t say I saw a future star that day, but the touch paper had been lit and she was ready to take off.
Fast forward fifteen years and the look and attitude remain startlingly original. She is now the coolest girl of her generation, a stylist and tastemaker known for her work with the Russian menswear designer Gosha Rubchinskiy, and an important partnership with Demna Gvasalia of the Vetements collective and Balenciaga. But to call her a mere stylist is an understatement. She is a muse, a point of reference and the inspiration for the brands she champions. Think of the great designers and there is invariably a notable female in the background. Yves Saint Laurent had Loulou de la Falaise, John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld both relied on the taste and poise of Amanda Harlech. What Volkova brings to the table is the same adroit eye—the ability to pinpoint the moment and edit a collection in her own inimitable manner.
To outsiders unconnected with the fashion industry, Volkova’s look and appeal will not be instantly apparent. She is whey-faced and unconventional, not your average woman wearing flattering clothes; and that, of course, is part of her appeal. Bad taste meets good taste is her calling card—mismatched, asymmetric, oversized and underplayed. Clothes are experimented with, proportions exaggerated. In Volkova’s world personal style is channelled into something that captures the zeitgeist and overrides it to an unforeseen conclusion.
“I think her recent work with Vetements and Balenciaga is something that’s really vital and much needed,” says her friend, the artist and designer Thom Murphy. “I like that they are pushing and playing with the idea of class and taste. And expanding the narrative and opening up the lens of what style and high fashion can be—drawing our attention to things that might otherwise get overlooked. I think I first met her at London club The Cock. She had a medieval-style bleached haircut and white eyelashes. There were lots of people around at that time in clubs doing a sort of DIY look, but she always looked really good—the style and sense of proportion shone through, even though she was using everyday found objects to create it."
Her peers are united in their praise for this credible figure. Within an industry not known for its authenticity, Volkova shines like a beacon of impeccable taste. “Lotta is the consummate multi-hyphenate millennial,” says the stylist and blogger Navaz Batliwalla aka Disneyrollergirl. “She can be a model, stylist, muse and casting director, but it’s all backed up by a credible point of view. Even if you don’t like it, you believe in it. She’s entrenched in today’s fast moving culture and off kilter expression of youth and beauty. Unlike say, Katie Grand or even Melanie Ward, you feel like she really does hang out with the beautiful freaks and weirdos she finds on Instagram. To brands it’s very powerful to have someone like that on side.”
“She is a true Vladivostok incarnationalist who unites inspiration from Russian realism with a unique take on fashion from the West,” says the Belgian fashion journalist Leen Demeester. “Vetements focuses on singular impactful pieces with immediate appeal rather than thematic singular collections. They present refined alternatives to overthought design, and she is very much part of their success.”
Volkova hails from Vladivostok, the last stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway, near the border with China. It’s a large, fairly conservative city, not known for breeding style icons, but she was lucky in her exposure to Western influence. In 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union, fashion magazines began to trickle into the country, alongside pirate satellite TV, and these became her first point of reference. She was named after the Led Zeppelin song Whole Lotta Love, which feels kind of apt for this hard-edged girl and her rhythmic schtick.
In 2004 when I first encountered her she was still a student at Central Saint Martins, running around London with her freaky mates, making bold visual statements for their own entertainment. Lotta’s world must have looked strange through those first snatched glances of fashion culture, and then through her early experiences in a new country. A combination of down at heel grunge, Versace vulgarity, and the posturing of high profile supermodels made for a conflicting mix of ideas. There have been incremental changes in fashion since then—a reduction of all that came before, shaken up into a new post-modern aesthetic. The so called Russian revolution she is part of, based on realism and nostalgia, has taken the fashion world by storm with a raw, underground aesthetic shaped by the experience of growing up after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Who knew that such seismic political change could inform the way we now think about clothes in 2017? More pertinently, who could have predicted that this mysterious looking girl in her nightclub couture would make such a mark on the industry as a whole?
“I first became aware of Lotta around the time of the Soho club night NagNagNag and was really impressed with her look,” remembers the journalist James Anderson. “I did an interview with her for i-D magazine at the time—not because she was actively promoting anything specific, but just because I kept seeing her out and about and thought she looked interesting and it seemed right to feature her in the magazine as she was someone who was carrying on that grand tradition of re-inventing themselves through the way they looked. A year or so later she launched her own fashion label, which I think enjoyed some success, but to be honest it wasn't very good. I thought at the time she was much more stylish and interesting herself, than the clothes she had made! I like her work as a stylist now—I think she is very talented. You can see she has a good instinct for spotting how to slightly subvert clothes to create something which looks simultaneously ‘normal’ yet slightly peculiar and sometimes a bit sexy or perverse. She deserves her success.”