As Volga Volga prepares to show its collection for the first time at Pitti Uomo in Florence, we talk in depth with the Tokyo-based, Russian born designer who spent years working with Yohji Yamamoto and collaborated with Comme des Garcons.
If your idea of a fashion designer is someone who restlessly tinkers with fabric and silhouette to get something just right, pragmatic concerns be damned, who thinks and overthinks, who produces undeniably laudable work while constantly questioning himself, you are probably thinking of someone like Misha Panteleev, the Russian-born designer behind the Tokyo label Volga Volga. His designs, with their characteristic multitude of fabrics artfully combined in closely aligned color tones betray a mind both aesthetically and technically attuned. Some garments take a dozen different fabrics that need to be cut, dyed, and matched just so, linings and padding as carefully considered as their outer side.
All of this painstaking labor takes place in Volga Volga’s studio in one of those small Tokyo neighborhoods devoid of tourists and devoted to the local art and craft scene. Walking into the humble space, one could easily mistake Volga Volga for an amateur operation, and not a workplace of a designer who at some point was Yohji Yamamoto’s right hand and whose work the mighty Rei Kawakubo championed for years. That is largely because Panteleev himself is as unassuming of a creator as you can imagine. He is modest to a fault, a refreshing demeanor in our age of relentless self-promotion. This has not always played to Panteleev’s advantage, but at fifty-two he’s not about to change. “Maybe it’s a Russian thing,” he mused when we sat down to talk about his work.
Panteleev was one of the most promising fashion designers of the first Russian wave in the early 90s, when the words “Russian fashion” sounded rather uncomfortable. It was the time before the children of the Russian oligarchs insinuated themselves into the rich-kid circles of London and Paris, where their unlimited allowances let them play at fashion. Back then, one needed to possess real talent to get noticed.
In his youth Panteleev was already a part of Moscow’s bohemia – both of his parents were accomplished painters – where he hung out with musicians of the nascent Russian rock scene. Though his mother also modeled, fashion did not enter Panteleev’s mind until he saw an Yves Saint-Laurent’s retrospective in Moscow. “I was simply floored,” he said. “I did not think such things were possible.”
But the Soviet Union had other plans for Panteleev, and off to the army he went. When his discharge came two years later, the Saint-Laurent exhibit was still on Panteleev’s mind, and he decided to enroll at the Textile Academy in Moscow. In 1991, three months into his first year at the academy Panteleev won a fashion design competition sponsored by Nina Ricci and Chambre Syndicate de la Haute Couture. As part of his prize, Panteleev got to visit Paris for the final leg of the competition (Paco Rabanne presided over the jury). “It was a real awakening for a youngster from Moscow,” he said. “You cannot imagine how it felt to be in Paris after the drab Soviet Union, which just collapsed before my visit. I did not sleep for three nights – I just wandered around the city, falling deeper and deeper in love.”
When Panteleev came back he swore to himself that he would leave Russia as soon as possible. He applied all his talent towards winning the same competition in his sophomore year. His designed a crinoline dress with hidden rails and ball bearings around the waist that let the dress extend its length, presaging Hussein Chalayan’s technological obsessions that vowed the fashion world at the end of the 90s. Panteleev came in second, which allowed him to see his beloved Paris once again. After Panteleev returned to Russia he quit the academy and started his own line. Because of the economic hardships at the time Panteleev was forced to make everything by hand, from spinning yarn into textiles in his kitchen to sewing the garments on a dress form by hand because he did not have a sewing machine. In retrospect it was an invaluable lesson. “It really was haute couture, but because of necessity,” Panteleev said.
At the time Panteleev was influenced by Gaultier and Mugler and club nightlife, processing it all through his own lens. He was 26 years old, and for the first time he believed in what he was doing. He began showing his own line in fashionable clubs and cafes, and entering fashion competitions. Custom orders from the Russian cultural elite followed.
Panteleev began to be noticed by the Russian fashion media, which lauded him as a promising young designer. In 1995 after show at a trendy Moscow café, he was approached by a Russian-speaking Japanese businessman, who invited him to show at a fashion festival in Osaka. Panteleev spent two months in Osaka preparing the collection. He was such an anomaly that he began receiving job offers even before his show. The first offer came from Jun Ashida, the immensely rich designer to the Japanese Imperial court, and then from Michiko Koshino, whose “Michiko London” label was hot at the time. But Panteleev deliberated while continuing to work on the show. This paid off, as his show caught the eye of none other than Yohji Yamamoto. After an interview in Tokyo, Yamamoto offered Panteleev a position in his design studio. “I was so shocked that I asked to think about it, because I could not process what was happening,” Panteleev said. “By the time I walked to the subway stop outside of Yohji’s office, I came to my senses and said, ‘yes.’”
Panteleev began at Yamamoto on June 1st, 1996 as the head of accessories design for the main women’s line, the first full time non-Japanese employee on Yamamoto’s Tokyo team of six hundred. For the thirst three months Panteleev was literally Yamamoto’s right hand, because his desk was immediately on Yamamoto’s right-hand side, as the maestro wanted to see firsthand what Panteleev was capable of. “It was strange, because Yohji never spoke to me directly, partly because of the language barrier,” Panteleev said. “Working at Yohji was refreshing, because Yohji not a fashion person. He is not a social maven who chases PR opportunities; he keeps the fashion world at arm’s length.”
In 1998 Panteleev met Shiori Kurushima, a Paris-trained patternmaker. The two fell in love and eventually married. After several years at Yamamoto Panteleev began wondering about other opportunities, and with Kurushima’s encouragement he decided to launch his own brand. The ever-modest designer refused to put his own name on the label. While they were searching for a name, the couple was watching Soviet films that Panteleev’s parents sent him. One of them was “Volga Volga,” a seminal 30s Soviet propaganda flick about building the bright future. Kurushima thought that this should be the name, and so the label was born. They presented their first, Summer 2001, collection in London. One of the first stores that picked up the new line was the cult boutique Yasmine Cho, where Volga Volga’s first garment, style number 2001-1-1, was bought by the actress Nicole Kidman.
The first order of business for Panteleev was to develop a new design direction for Volga Volga. “After Yamamoto, the expectations from both the Russian and the Japanese fashion public were high,” he told me. “First thing I decided that Volga Volga had to be different. I needed my own voice. I was interested in the relationship between textiles, textures, and colors. I decided not to make black clothing, even though black is the most versatile ‘color’ and it will always be that way. In a way black is easy; it’s a win-win situation. So, I decided that I would make earthy colors that are close to black, such as navy, and dark gray. I did not make a black garment until 2007, once I finally got over the black PTSD from my years at Yamamoto.”
Instead, gray was to become Volga Volga’s signature color. In order to get the stunning shade of gray that the label is famous for, Panteleev uses traditional Chinese ink made from the sumi stone, which is a natural type of charcoal that for centuries has been used for Kanji calligraphy (While working at Yamamoto, Panteleev took up calligraphy as a hobby). The ink from this chemical-free stone is black, but after dying and washing a garment it turns a shade of gray that is impossible to get with a chemical dye.
Panteleev would also concentrate on natural materials, such as cashmere, wool, and cotton, combining them in ingenious ways, using gradations in color tones and textures instead of embellishments or prints.
His collections found early success, and Panteleev’s reputation as a talented underground creator resulted in more job offers. Maurizio Altieri of Carpe Diem visited him in Tokyo and offered him to come to Italy. So did CP Company, part of the Stone Island group that is known for hiring technically astute designers. Though Panteleev was flattered, he decided to concentrate on his own young label.
After one of menswear seasons in Paris Takeji Hirakawa, one of the most influential Japanese fashion journalists, wrote in his report that while he liked the Comme des Garcons Homme Plus collection, personally he wanted to dress in Volga Volga. On the strength of such praise, Panteleev and Kurushima decided to present the brand to Rei Kawakubo.
“The first lesson I received from Kawakubo-san was on how to respect your own work,” Panteleev told me. “After she carefully inspected each of the fifty garments we presented to her and Junya Watanabe, they carefully folded and packed everything up themselves. We were stunned. There she was, with her entourage quietly standing in the back, folding our clothes.” Kawakubo bought Volga Volga for 10 Corso Como Comme des Garcons in Aoyama and for the Comme des Garcons corner in Isetan, the famed Tokyo department store. Between 2004 and 2006 Volga Volga also produced five collections in collaboration with CdG.
“I have never met such a hardworking person in my life as Kawakubo-san. She is the first one to come in to the office and the last one to leave at night. We would get faxes from her at 7:30 in the morning,” Panteleev said. “People say that Kawakubo is unapproachable and humorless, but that was not our experience at all. She was funny and engaging. Most designers view other designers only as competition. Kawakubo treated us with respect.”
At one point Kawakubo told Panteleev that fashion is dead.
Volga Volga did well until 2008, when the global financial crisis hit. It seemed that overnight half of the brands stockists went bankrupt or changed direction. After doing some soul-searching Panteleev has slowly been changing Volga Volga’s aesthetic. He remembered that during one of their conversations Kawakubo literally told him that fashion is dead. “To me it meant that it has become nearly impossible to come up with a new silhouette, and that the future of fashion lay in materials,” Panteleev told me. On the one hand you can see this in Kawakubo’s own recent catwalk efforts that result in absurdist silhouettes, the effort she calls “not making clothing,” and on the other hand you can see this in the streetwear takeover of fashion, with its uniform of hoodies and sweatpants that need no design acumen.
For his part, Panteleev decided to concentrate on material research. “I thought it would be interesting to combine natural and manmade materials. I wanted to mix textiles the way a cook mixes ingredients,” he said. Wearability and utility have also become Panteleev’s goals. “At Volga Volga I have been thinking a lot like a cook. A cook is his first degustator, and I am my first client,” said he. “At Yamamoto, I did not think about wearability at all. I designed something, and it went off to be worn by a model. So, for example, I did not think of the weight of my garments in my first collections, and some of them were very heavy. Now I am obsessed with lightness and reversibility.”
This obsession has led Panteleev to discover his currently favorite material, Polynavytex (go ahead and try googling it). The material was developed by a Japanese textile manufacturer with NASA as its main client. It’s super-lightweight, completely waterproof, and stretchy. What’s more (and that’s where NASA comes in), it’s electrically charged to repel bad elements. In gray, the material looks like silver liquid. At his Tokyo studio Panteleev showed me a reversible coat made of cashmere and wool on the outer and Polynavytex on the inner. You can wear it to formal dinner or as streetwear. Because Polynavytex completely retains body heat, the coat is warm enough for winter, while weighing less than 400 grams. “If it starts to rain, you wear the coat inside out, and the water will just run off of it,” explained Panteleev, lit up with excitement, as he does any time shows his work. “I wanted to mix something that people think is unmixable, something high-tech and organic. To me that is the future of fashion.”