When you first enter Fashion Week from the outside, its clear that you’ve entered a different part of Kazakhstan. The sights and smells of Almaty’s congested streets are gone and replaced by perfume, cigarettes and gleaming diamond necklaces. A quick scan across the lobby reveals a major disconnect with the rest of the city. Next year’s sports cars are on display and young women dressed to the nines line up to pose and have their photo taken with the new model.
Founded in 2003, Kazakhstan Fashion Week has grown into a premier event for the fashion world across the former Soviet Union, regularly featuring designers from Russia, Ukraine and Georgia. In the last few years, the event has expanded even more and featured designers from Germany, the United Kingdom, France and the United Arab Emirates. However, despite every effort to make Kazakhstan Fashion Week like other fashion events in the West, there are reminders everywhere that this isn’t a typical fashion event.
For starters, fashion week in Kazakhstan isn’t just for fashionistas, it is a playground for another group: Kazakhstan’s increasingly wealthy and abundant nouveau riche. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan struggled with the trials of statehood. The transition from the Communist-style planned economy to the Capitalist-style market system was hardly smooth and like with many other former Soviet countries, this Wild West era of privitisations was incredibly unequal and saw a small section of well connected people get ridiculously rich overnight. And as usually happens with those who get rich overnight, Kazakhstan’s nouveau riche have become accustomed to spending recklessly. Moreover, for the nouveau riche, Fashion Week isn’t about setting trends in fashion. Rather, it’s about showing others that you have enough wealth to not worry about money and be painfully obvious about it.
The local slang for this type of wealth flaunting is “pontyi” and it is such a widely observed phenomenon that it has even spawned its own series of Internet memes. “Pontyi” literally means to show off, but in the post-Soviet context it has come to be associated with the extravagant purchases of the new upper class. “’Pontyi’ is very much a part of the local culture and if you look around Kazakhstan Fashion Week you will see it on display. But, even this is changing among the younger generation,” says Ivan Anopchenko, an actor from the capital, Astana. Anopchenko, was one of the many local attendees to tout the changing face of the country, as more and more people become accustomed to having wealth.
But profits from the country’s resources haven’t only gone towards designer clothes and new Mercedes. In fact, more and more of Kazakhstan’s population have seen their livelihoods improve from the destitution of the 1990s. As a result, life has begun to change fast in Kazakhstan and nowhere are these changes more on display than at fashion week.
Like anywhere in the world, Kazakhstan’s fashion scene caters to the rich. However, for a country whose fashion scene is still in its infancy, if it were not for the nouveau riche, local designers would have virtually no sales. As such, many designs reflect the tastes of the local elite.
“People want shiny and bright things here and want to be eye catching with lots of glitz and glamour,” says Viktoria Pustynikova, a representative from the Danish company, Kopenhagen Fur.
Pustynikova is one of the many foreigners in attendance at Kazakhstan Fashion Week who have come to observe local trends, network and shore up a market for their products; and it’s easy to understand their motivation. Between 2000 and 2010, Kazakhstan was one of the world’s fastest growing economies in the world and the country’s apparel market is estimated to be worth $4.8 billion in 2013, with the market set to double in only four years time. With forecasts like that being thrown around, many foreign companies are trying to get in early.
Yet, despite the prevalence of “pontyi” on the local fashion scene, there are signs of shifting away from this style. One of which is Leonid Zherebstov, a local fashion designer who burst onto the scene last year after winning the Open Way Young Designers Contest and has had his designs featured in Vogue Italia. Leonid is part of a new generation of Kazakhstani fashion designers who have elected for more minimalist designs.
“Under the Soviet Union, creativity was under state control and all economic production was planned in advance. This meant that there wasn’t much room for individuality and expression,” says Zherebstov, referring to the drastic changes that Kazakhstan has experienced over the last two decades.
“Today, there are no barriers on creativity and every designer can express themselves on the catwalk. Some people may like it, some may not, but expression is what is important,” adds Zherebstov.
And greater diversity seems to be the direction where things are heading at Kazakhstan Fashion Week and beyond. “Some people consider fashion merely getting a Louis Vitton bag and Chanel shoes, but now people are really starting to understand that fashion isn’t just expensive things,” says Dana Omarova, a culture blogger based in Almaty.
In the past five years, more and more global fashion brands have entered the local market. Stores like Zara, Top Shop and Saks Fifth Avenue have all come to Almaty and become staples for Kazakhstan’s growing consumer class.
“It can be difficult to follow fashion in Kazakhstan. We cannot just go walk down the street and see stylish people everywhere like we are in London. That’s why it’s important to have events like Kazakhstan Fashion Week. It’s how we can follow trends and show the world our own style,” remarks Nargiza Kaipova, a make-up artist on Kazakhstan’s budding fashion scene.
Talking with people at fashion week, the direction of Kazakhstan’s future is a question without an answer. “What Kazakhstan’s style and identity is, we still don’t know. We just take different elements from Europe and Asia and try to make something new,” says Madima Kurbanaliyeva, a local university student attending fashion week.
For a country located at the centre of the world, where cultures have mingled for centuries, this type of fusion may be a glimpse of what lies ahead. But this does not mean that “pontyi” and the in your face extravagance that it represents are set to disappear. According to the 2013 Wealth Report by Knight Frank Research, the number of high net worth individuals in Kazakhstan is predicted to increase by 81 percent over the next decade. Moreover, the number of people with reported assets over $30 million is forecast to hit 244 by 2022, which means that Kazakhstan will soon have more wealthy citizens than Austria. Kazakhstan’s nouveau riche might be transitioning to less flashy attire, but it’s hard to imagine “pontyi” completely going away with statistics like these.
“I think it’s because of the Eastern influence in Kazakhstan. If you have something, most people think that they should show it off. For better or worse, it is our national personality,” says Kurbanaliyeva.
Socio-economic disparities are evident across Kazakhstan. Beyond the well-polished shopping malls of Almaty and Astana, Kazakhstan is a country of limited infrastructure and rural poverty. “Kazakhstan is developing fast due to high oil prices, but it’s impossible to distribute resource wealth equally because extraction is not a labour intensive industry,” says Dr. Nygmet Ibadildin, Professor of Political Science at Almaty’s KIMEP University. “Wealth is spreading in Kazakhstan, but it is a slow process,” adds Dr. Ibadildin.
“In appearance, Kazakhstan looks like a very unequal country,” says Dr. Ibadildin, “this is mostly due to issues with the authoritarian political system, but wealth distribution is slowly becoming more equal.”
Despite Kazakhstan’s problems moving forward, income inequality has actually been decreasing. This is reflected in Kazakhstan’s GINI coefficient, the economic metric used to measure income inequality. On the GINI index, a score of 0 represents perfect equality and a score of 100, represents perfect inequality. According to the most recent statistics by the World Bank, Kazakhstan has a score of 29, ranking better than the United Kingdom with 36 and the United States with 41.
Kazakhstan is very much still a country in transition. Despite the changes of the last 22 years, gatherings like Kazakhstan Fashion Week are far from the norm. Moreover, any look at change within Kazakhstan ultimately leads back to the country’s oil wealth or authoritarian politics, as the two have dominated the country’s identity since 1991. And while the fashion scene might be young and searching for its identity, fashion has always been about expressing who you are and who you want to be. In a country where so much stays the same, it’s exciting to see something new being attempted.
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