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How to Open a Door to the World of Fashion. Interview with Leonid Alekseev

In 2024, the applicants for the St Petersburg School of Art and Design will be able to choose a new educational track 'Fashion Design'. We talked to Leonid Alekseev—the track supervisor, a fashion designer and founder of the brand 'House of Leo'—about St Petersburg style, the fashion industry, launching his own brand, cooperation with the Mariinsky Theatre and what the students will learn over four years of the studies.

How to Open a Door to the World of Fashion. Interview with Leonid Alekseev

Photo courtesy of HSE University Art and Design School

Leonid Alekseev is a curator of the Master's track 'Creating a Fashion Brand' at HSE University Art and Design School and the Bachelor's track 'Fashion Design' at HSE University-St Petersburg Art and Design School, a founder of the brand 'House of Leo', designer of clothing lines for Russian and national brands, a participant of international and Russian Fashion Weeks, costumes author for theatrical plays and films.

— Could you tell us how you entered the fashion world and realised that you wanted to design clothes? Have you been dreaming about it since your childhood or did you make this deliberate decision later?

— I was introduced to the fashion world when I was 19 and fell in love with it instantly. Back then, St Petersburg already had its own Fashion Week, fashion journals and big names in design. Having started making my first steps, I concluded that I needed an education. This decision was very important as I didn't want to answer the same question for the rest of my life: 'Why don't you have a professional education?' For me as a young designer, it was crucially important to spend some time on becoming a professional, and I started thinking about what was the best place to do it.

What were the educational options you were choosing among?

— At that moment in Russia, the professors of fashion did not have any professional experience, no one created their own collections, had a brand or worked in it. It seemed very strange to me to be taught by theorists as this world is not theoretical but applied. First of all, I went to Italy where everything related to fashion was interesting but it was much harder in terms of teaching creativity. There, I found out about the English Central Saint Martins College—it was the largest fashion school at that time. I learnt that there were a lot of professionals who taught the students and carried out projects with fashion brands, and the college offered an opportunity to undertake an internship in world fashion houses. This is how I made the decision that I wanted to be enrolled there.

How did you manage to enrol there? How did you feel during the studies?

— Back then, one could apply in Russia: the examiners came here and assessed candidates' portfolios. After such communication, they recommended me to attend a basic course in fashion design on ‘foundation’ (a preparatory programme—ed. note). Later, it became a common practice for all designers: first, to take a basic foundation course in design, and after that, to choose a specific fashion design just like a specialisation. My education in London lasted for almost five years. There were a lot of questions about how to find yourself inside a foreign culture and how to make connections. London is a port city just like St Petersburg. The only difference is that the newcomers settle down in our city but in London, everything fully changes every three-four years.

After the university, everyone I studied with scattered away all around the world. Deciding on what I would do further with my professional education, I realised that I wanted to create my own clothes brand, and so I decided to take the first steps in the environment which was familiar and conceivable. It was the city of St Petersburg to which I returned from London, rented my first office, created the first collection and participated in the Fashion Week. Since that time, I have been professionally engaged in fashion design for almost 19 years. At all stages, I remember the education, the basis which I received in the university with joy.

Can you tell us about your teacher and people you can call this way in general?

— There is a world-famous professor, curator and ideologist—Adrian Perry Roberts. He has come to Russia lots of times to talk about professional education. This is a person who helped me to build my inner strength as a designer, taught me not to be afraid of hardships and start thinking as a fashion designer. We still keep in touch. He has already visited the main schools in London and Rome. His career is very powerful and bright; it still inspires me to teach others.

You have your own brand 'House of Leo' launched in 2019. Before that, you had a brand under your name. How did you create your brands and why did you take a break for some time?

— I love everything related to fashion and engage in various design directions: I have a clothing brand, I create clothes for men and women, I have a couture fashion line as well as a children's one, I work with uniforms a lot, create theatrical costumes and work as an art director of plays. Besides, I am very serious about teaching and am constantly developing my teaching skills.

When I only started it, I had a question 'What should I do? How to call my brand?' One acquaintance advised me: 'Firstly, make something decent and only then start thinking how to call it'. Then, it flew by very fast. After entering this fashion conveyor, only after four years of constant runways, works and creative searches, I realised that I was the famous designer Leonid Alekseev and a hostage of my own name. I have worked under this name for many years and tried to find new options for integrating my name more conceptually but nothing worked out. The clients started getting confused because of the lack of focus, and so I decided to concentrate on men’s clothes. Having taken a break and studied the fashion business, I realised how much I wanted to build my own brand, and formed my own code which I called 'House of Leo'. Today, we build everything by the principle of a house, as a lifestyle and a style in clothes. Now, at the Art and Design School, I teach everyone that in a brand, you have to define your mission, and strategy and clearly choose your path. Perhaps, for a designer as a specialist, it is not that important. Their work is to create clothes. However, if you strive to create your own brand, you should formulate everything in the early stages.

Could you tell us about your experience of creating uniforms?

— A professional designer often gets orders from large companies which want to see their employees in some kind of unique, bright and functional clothes. Here, you have to find a balance between your vision, a brand for which you develop the uniform and peculiarities of the employees' work. Keeping in touch with them and hearing what they want and expect from their clothes, and having the technological basis to know how to reach it.

One of the most positive experiences was the work with the Russian Railways, with a train 'Sapsan'. This company regularly updates the employees' uniforms depending on the new trends but at the same time, they have strict requirements for technology and quality. At the first meeting, they told me that 'Sapsan' was not a train but a plane, and this was the support point for perceiving the employees' uniform as one for stewards and pilots. 

At the Russian Railways, specialists work on promoting and developing the brand so it is important to integrate into the term, carry out research, and try plenty of options to find the best decision. We have worked on this version of the uniform for almost three years but we have become what the next step in the future would be.

As a St Petersburger, do you think that the city has some kind of a territorial feature? What collections can one create here? Does the city have its own tradition of fashion design?

— St Petersburg certainly has its own fashion vibe, traditions and ideas. Everything starts with our visual perception of St Petersburg when we walk down the streets: there are a lot of classical buildings and a lot of examples of classical beauty. We see ensembles, columns, squares, and statues, thanks to it, our level of style and beauty is higher.

St Petersburg is the city of poetry, walks, feelings, self-reflection, and all these things influence the lighter muted colour scheme (we will hardly wear screaming colours) with the more delicate flowing silhouette. You are more likely to see us in a coat than in a sports jacket. We absorb all this in the city. After coming here, a person starts to fall sick with St Petersburg and with time becomes a St Petersburger without even noticing—this is an inevitable process.

There are a lot of designers who take into account that fashion is art. We talk about ourselves as artists, each of whom has their own unique style and ideas. Some people perceive fashion more decoratively, create extraordinary prints, embroideries, drawings on fabric, and others, quite the opposite, develop a more recognisable dramatic vision. Some want to do everything in retro aesthetics and associate themselves with poets and artists of the past, and others create modern heroes of the new times.

— Do you think that those creators who have managed to achieve something in St Petersburg in fashion design will be able to repeat this success in any place in the world?

— This is the question I always keep in mind because I am not only a born St Petersburger but also a St Petersburg designer. Of course, what I do causes a great interest and respect everywhere. People see that I am different but cannot formulate straight away in what way. On the one hand, it is very good for the career to be different but I think that first of all, commercial success depends on the ability to clearly understand what your client wants and offer it to them on time. If you can do it in St Petersburg, it means you'll be able to do it anywhere.

— In your portfolio, you have a top-tier cooperation with the Mariinsky Theatre. Could you tell us what you work on for the theatre?

— I have been keen on theatre for a long time—I decorate plays as an artist. By chance, I met the choreographer Alexander Sergeev. He decided to stage a complex ballet—the poem 'Twelve' by Alexander Blok, the music for which was written by Boris Tishchenko, another famous St Petersburger. The choreographer and I were to combine the difficult music and poetry of revolutionary St Petersburg. Alexander really wanted to find such a form in which the choreography and the composer's music would be able to interact with the audience without illustrating it. We explored the poem itself for a long time as the play fully repeats the piece of poetry. So we came up with an approach which eliminated the factor of specific time. We transferred historical St Petersburg to the form of a virtual city where transforming pixels group into walls and houses right in front of you. This form of realistic digitalisation has become a big breakthrough for the Mariinsky Theatre as well as the ballet itself.

In March 2024, they plan to launch 'Coppelia'—a classical ballet with a fairytale plot. There, the task is completely opposite: to take a famous historical play, keep its most important elements and transfer it into a more understandable field. To keep an idea but turn it into an up-to-date fairytale which raises significant problems of choice between the real and the artificial.

— You are a curator of the Master's track 'Creating a Fashion Brand' at HSE Art and Design School, and in 2024, you will become a curator ofthe Bachelor's track 'Fashion Design' in St Petersburg. How did you become a professor at the Art and Design School? Have you had teaching experience before?

— I have always been interested in teaching. Since receiving my professional diploma, I have started my first steps in teaching. I taught courses on portfolio for applicants to fashion universities, courses on fashion theory and history where I told about the way brands were built and how designers worked. I consulted stylists and photographers and told them how the fashion business worked.

When I received an offer from HSE University to become a curator, I accepted it straight away. Full-time teaching is a challenge for any professional because you have to not only keep your professional activities going but also help other people, introduce them to the fashion world and shape their right consciousness, skills and design tools. The first four years were quite hard but now, I'm enjoying it. I have my own methods which allow me to help students master our educational programme in fashion design, and colleagues with whom we shape the direction itself.

The educational programme at HSE University is unique. It is similar to world and national examples but is also different from them in integrating today's fashion. Our education is more individual. It focuses on developing a designer's personality and formulating unique individual codes.

— What is the atmosphere during the classes like? How do you communicate with students? What is the hardest thing in the studies?

— We communicate very closely as the workshops supervised by the curator set tasks in various directions, and the students learn to think and comprehend the craft at the same time. Therewith, there is always someone who can advise and guide you—and it is important. We do not simply give an assignment and wait for them at exams but help every student to go this way. We work in teams within a group, solve additional tasks to present the projects more efficiently and achieve more.

The most difficult thing is to learn how to work together because all designers are individualists, and it is not easy for them to work in a team. We do it imperceptibly—people form a kind of ideological community which helps them to move forward. Lots of our graduates keep communicating and working together because they understand each other well.

— Do you see any difference between teaching fashion design at the Art and Design School and the studies in times of your becoming? Does the modern youth have a leg up in comparison to the past?

— There are two important things I always insist on. The first is creative safety. We are not used to reprimand or break students. Our big goal and desire are to help improve what a person has in them and more in the direction they want to. There is always an opportunity to adjust creative tasks to your vision and keep your thoughts. The second is that we see a professor as a certain trampoline from which one has to push off to jump higher. We do not bring in our students to land but try to help them to reach more difficult heights so we always motivate them for new deeds.

— You say that you teach students to work the way you work yourself. Could you tell us about your approach to teaching? How will the applicants to the track 'Fashion Design' study?

— Firstly, my method is a playing method when at the beginning, you receive input data from which everyone can move in the right direction for themselves. The concept is always built on quest and research. We teach the principle of ideas quest so that they can develop it and expand it in the future. Thus, while working on each project, a person fully masters a certain sphere which can be a source of ideas for the rest of their lives.

Secondly, we teach students to work plastically, which means transforming their thoughts and ideas into plastic forms. For a designer, it is important not only to come up with an idea but to find an original form. There are more than just classic ways of modelling: dozens of more playful and extraordinary. All our projects are interrelated. Step by step, while studying, we cover all the spheres of fashion design. In the end, having all the necessary skills, a student chooses a sphere they want to work in.

Thirdly, we allow the students to form an atmosphere of their future brand in which a person will be able to develop. It helps the students who decide to work in retail, marketing and styling. We give the skills of global understanding of the fashion process which later allows the students to find themselves in any spheres related to fashion.

— Do you mean that in four years, the students can become anyone within the fashion industry? What is the range of potential professions?

— They can become stylists and art directors, create or plan visual content, consult brands on their development, carry out researches for brands, and work with innovative materials and technologies in clothing production—the range is huge.

— How do you think the fashion will change? How strongly does the agenda from global warming to sustainability influence today's fashion? Will these trends stand at all and will they develop?

— The main thing that happened to fashion in the last ten years is that fashion has gone beyond the silhouette. If we used to say that fashion was broad shoulders, something narrow, long, and short, now fashion is a lifestyle. Any lifestyle includes a lot of topics, and a lot of things influence it. These are the tasks fashion has to solve. Lots of people want to keep their individuality: not to follow but find trends which fully reflect what they like at the moment. Some people are not ready to pay a lot for fashion, so there appeared ways to retail fashion or create more affordable fashion. Some people are not ready to sacrifice their comfort which is why oversize fashion and comfortable fashion appeared.

Society developed a new desire that the fashion industry paid more attention to ecology and environment. People expect that just like other industries, fashion will operate according to certain procedures. Rational and sustainable fashion is a difficult task. There is a question of how to produce clothes and follow the environmental agenda. Sustainable consumption is the weirdest thing we reached. We say that we have too many clothes, can we have less? How can fashion, which has to make people wear new clothes all the time, work with this demand? How can we make clothes which, quite the opposite, will cost more but serve for a long time? What should the coat which you buy for yourself for three years look like to stay in fashion?

— What are the tasks of the fashion of the future?

— The fashion of the future has a lot of tasks related to the localisation of the market. People want fashion to reflect the place where they live. We don't want to wear something that is considered fashionable in Los Angeles anymore—we want our clothes to reflect the ideas of St Petersburg and be our local history. 

Fashion will react to the changes which we as a society will face in the future. Will we want to protect ourselves from the society and have a more remote lifestyle, or will we develop corporative responsibility so that everyone will go out in the evening and clean the street in front of their house or share the clothes with neighbours? If we formulate a new lifestyle today, we will understand what we will wear tomorrow.

— What do you think: fashion design is for everyone or only for the chosen ones? Is it something unapproachable for common people or can an average citizen touch designer outfits?

— Fashion is a game, a hobby, a peculiarity. It is not for everyone. This is what people use to stand out. But everyone cannot walk around without clothes so fashion has two sides. There are clothes that we wear and which hang in our wardrobe—items of clothing; and there is fashion—what happens to clothes when we wear them, an outfit. You can create items of clothing—and it is not fashion. On the opposite, you can understand why the clothes which we create today are up-to-date.

— How strongly does couture fashion influence people, designers and consumers?

— Fashion goes through different levels. There are more interesting fashion, museum fashion and exhibition fashion. No one expects that anyone would wear such clothes—it is a more conceptual design to enchant and inspire people. There is fashion which engages in solving the tasks of what today's man and woman should look like. This fashion may not use new items or forms but it can provide new combinations: a jacket without a skirt, a tank dress and boots, a hoodie and a hat.

A society has a demand for fashion, a demand to see new ideas. Sometimes, it's about colour, texture, form, and sometimes, it's about the attitude to clothes, how and where to wear them. Twenty years ago, they wouldn't let you in a nightclub if you wore trainers. Nowadays, there are trainers which people buy from auctions for tons of money—this is the inconsistency of fashion.

— What would you recommend to those who want to start mastering the fashion industry and the world of fashion design right now?

— To immerse yourself in the fashion world better, you should get acquainted with it—just open the door and enter. All future applicants should learn about the world in which they want to dive. One can carry out a small research, and look at the fashion shows of this season, tendencies and brands in the market. It is always great when to the interview, the candidate comes prepared after watching recent fashion shows or commercials and says that they do not understand what it is but would like to learn about it. When there are a lot of questions, you get a desire to answer them.