The Capital of Fashion

The Capital of Fashion

Rigans, as well as Latvians in general, always follow fashion even though it is difficult to keep up with Paris, Milan and London, where fashion is an industry. Although this is the case today, in the Soviet era, Riga was considered a true “capital of western fashion” in the USSR: the memories of pre-war prosperity were still alive and, thanks to old masters and high-quality design schools, continuity preserved. This was also the time of the legendary Riga Fashion House and its equally legendary edition, the “Rīgas Modes” magazine.

There Was No Fashion…

Young people know that those were the times of ideology and severe supply shortages, so they might ask, how is this relevant to fashion? But they would be wrong. A supply shortage could not diminish a woman’s desire to look beautiful and fashionable, especially in Riga where ladies still remembered life before the war, which was as bustling and brilliant as the rest of the greatest cities in Europe. In the 1920s and 1930s, fashionistas and the owners of ready-to-wear boutiques would board trains for Berlin or Paris and would come back home with the latest news and fresh collections. Social life in Riga was in full swing: there were dances and nightclubs, theatres and cinemas, art exhibitions and cafes, beauty salons and fashion houses. Fashion followers had many opportunities to demonstrate their new clothes and fancy accessories.

The World War I was a painful landmark that left bitter memories. For Latvia it ended in 1920, when the country finally gained real independence. The society struggled hard to forget the dreadful experience – and rejoiced in freedom. In painting, romanticism manifested itself, while the Art Deco style dominated in architecture and clothing, with its brilliance, geometrism, relish for luxury and grandeur, and worship of technical progress.

In the mid-thirties, dark clouds began to gather over Europe, and soon after, another war broke out. The year long Soviet occupation was followed by a German occupation and then again by a Soviet one. But even under the heavy cover of wartime and occupation, life did not stop, and in the midst of devastation and poverty, women wanted to look beautiful. Almost every family had a sewing machine, and sewing classes were increasingly gaining popularity. Not only did women at that time know how to knit and sew, but they also knew how to alter old clothes by turning them inside out. Today, it is not a well known fact that clothes were often torn apart and then reassembled inside-out again. The reason for turning a garment inside out was because the backside was not as faded and worn-out as the front; after the alteration, the garments looked practically new. You could have also transformed an old tweed coat into a nice jacket or made a quaint cocktail dress out of a pre-war ball gown. The possibilities were virtually endless. It is an inaccurate assumption that led people to believe that everyone wore dull, identical clothes in the Soviet times – however, one certainly had to take put in a lot of work to look stylish and fashionable.

“Rīgas Modes” magazine, 1957.
Photo: archive of Fashion museum

In Jugla, Riga, the “Rīgas Audums” (or “Riga’s Fabric”) factory worked; founded in the 1920s, it manufactured beautiful fabrics. Mostly they were distributed all over the USSR, where they dissolved like a drop in the ocean, but a small share stayed on the local market. With some resourcefulness and useful connections you could have overcome the deficiency of goods and found the needed fabric. It was more difficult with sewing patterns. They became the core value: people copied them from each other, rummaged through fashion magazines with pattern sheets and adapted old patterns to fit current fashions. “Rīgas Modes” was definitely the most popular fashion magazine in the USSR, not only because of its drawings and photos, but also due to the handy patterns that were enclosed in every issue.

Many women have vivid and very personal memories connected with “Rīgas Modes”. The magazine first came out in 1948 in the Latvian State Publishing House and was introduced as an “Assistant for families and sewing workshops in creating beautiful and tasteful clothes.” The illustrations at the time were drawings, not photos.

Later, the magazine was handed over to the Riga Fashion House – it was the heyday of “Rīgas Modes”. It appeared four times a year until 1992, in Latvian and in Russian. The circulation was quite impressive, with a whopping 220,000 copies – but it did not cover the needs of the entire Soviet Union. Each issue was handed down from hand to hand and was read down to holes. Pattern sheets were valued the most: their folds, torn and worn due to frequent use, were glued off and secured with slips of tracing paper.

The patterns enabled readers to make clothes for themselves during a time where ready-made garments that were offered by stores showed neither diversity, nor beauty, nor quality. There was certainly a deficit of beautiful clothing and footwear: imported articles in stores were snatched in minutes. Foreign goods could only be bought through connections with stores and warehouses or received in parcels from relatives who had emigrated to the West. Some people took the risk of buying clothes privately – in Riga, the traders were often sailors and port workers; but that kind of trade – “speculation,” as it was called at the time, – was illegal.

“Rīgas Modes” was not the only guide in the world of fashion, but it was definitely the most influential one for both women and men, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. It is no coincidence that fashion historian and collector Alexandre Vassiliev represents the magazine as the “Soviet Vogue”, in his exhibition “Fashion behind the Iron Curtain”. Its value was not confined to spreading sewing designs and patterns; it contributed to forming a sense of taste and style and also demonstrated the primary standard of beauty.

Models or – using the term of the period – “mannequins” were scarce, and their beauty was always special, somewhat exotic, and haunting: Asnāte Smeltere, Galina Pahno, Gunta Gigule, Baiba Puzina, Yeva Lūkina, Inese Gulbe, and the prima of the Soviet era Regīna Pozvolska were highly regarded models at the time. Sometimes the magazine invited actresses, such as Regīna Razuma and Maya Kirse.

What is in fashion? Riga!

The Riga Fashion House with the best designers of Latvia was founded in 1949 and submitted to the Ministry of Light Industry. Its mission was to design clothes and footwear for mass production. Twice a year the Fashion House created a representational collection and organized “mannequin parades,” which were held at the Sports Palace, attracting immense crowds. For many years the Riga Fashion House worked under the artistic leadership of the designer Alexandra Gramolina, who had emigrated to China but returned after Stalin’s death. Incidentally, some of her works can be found in Alexander Vassiliev’s collections.

Designer and former fashion model of the Riga Fashion House Asnāte Smeltere recalls, “It is not too much to say that in the 1960s and 1970s Riga was the trend-setter for the entire Soviet Union. Artists of the Riga Fashion House created designs that were shown in exhibitions and fashion shows; some of the designs were approved for mass production. Our “Rīgas audums” at that time produced fabrics that are worthy of separate exhibitions, and the clothing factories in Latvia dressed the entire population of the USSR.”

However, not everything ran so smoothly. Ilga Sūna, a long-term employee of the Riga Fashion House and “Rīgas Modes” whose beautiful photographs captured the style-setters’ backstage life, recalled in one of her interviews that the designers’ work at that time was connected with countless standards and rules which implied calculating the amount of fabric and thread needed. “Above all in designing for mass production was planning, regulations, calculations, and measuring. The goal was to create standards for clothing factories. Even the complexity of sewing had to be pre-calculated. It was utterly unacceptable to propose a blouse with a rounded collar: it was deemed too complex! Every step was under ruthless control, you were really tied down by technological limitations.” The journal, in turn, had its own problem: the shortage of high-quality photographic utensils made it difficult to meet the demand for high-quality photos.

“Rīgas Modes” magazine, 1960s.
Photo: archive of Fashion museum

How did the designers of Riga Fashion House learn about the latest fashion trends, while being behind the Iron Curtain? For this purpose, there was a special “intelligence department” or, officially, the Prospective Design Department. Its staff were to look through foreign magazines, translate articles, and create sketches. There was also the “creative team” that got the designs ready for shows and exhibitions. Sometimes their products were even taken abroad, in order to demonstrate that life in the Soviet Union was not so bad: fashion was employed as a sort of ideological weapon. It went on until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the change of the economic model. The only thing left from Riga Fashion House was the “Salon A” (at present “New Salon A”) – a fashion salon founded by Asnāte Smeltere.

Even today, senior Rigans like to meet with friends at “Rīgas Modes.” For those who are not in the know – it do not have any significant connection with the name of the legendary magazine. In this case it refers to the large house 49/53, Brīvības Street where a number of stores and offices, as well as the Riga Central Library are located. In 1974–1992, however, it was the dress-making and tailoring mecca of the Soviet times: the Rīgas Modes fashion centre. Long before that, this was the place where the Frankfurt Hotel stood. In 1970 it was pulled down, and the fashion centre building was erected.

Rīgas Modes, like the rest of fashion centres in Riga, was a state-owned enterprise belonging to the Ministry of Consumer Services. It had hundreds of employees, and from the early morning, and sometimes even from the previous evenings, there were crowds of customers impatiently shuffling at its doors: people were waiting to order suits, coats or dresses. The queue was actually one of the distinguishing features of the Soviet period: you had to stand in queue for everything, including passports, apartments, cars, food, books, clothes, shampoos and tights… It could be said that people stood in queue for the entirety of their lives, patiently waiting for their turn, and were quite happy when they finally got a hold of whatever they were waiting for, while their life went by unnoticed.

Back to fashion and the prestigious fashion centre – it was the dream of every woman. You could have anything made there, everything from dresses and suits to fur coats, corsets, and wigs. In the central building, there were rooms where fashion designers sat at tables. A designer listened attentively to the customer’s requests, drew sketches, and then the customer took it to a cutter. “The multi-storey building was perfectly planned, with its stairs, elevators, and a huge lobby. In the room where individual orders were taken, there was a beautiful parquet floor, tubs with palm trees, red leather sofas, and black tables. That was considered chic at the time,” says fashion designer Ilze Līdere.

Rīgas Modes was the most expensive and prestigious fashion centre in Riga, and the public matched the level of the establishment. This was where costumes for films and for a variety of stars, such as Raimonds Pauls and Vija Artmane, were designed.

There was also an experimental laboratory, which annually created two innovative collections and presented them to the public at fashion shows. Elita Patmalniece, a brilliant artist and one of the fashion centre designers says, “It was a sort of fashion empire. Artists came up with ideas and drew sketches, but the rest of the work was done by other teams. Each floor served its own purpose: there was a show room on one floor and an experimental workshop on another one. There was also a floor with a fur shop and a tailor. On the ground floor, there was a salon where accessories were sold: belts, wigs, and artificial flowers. The administration offices were on the fifth floor.”

Dispassionate statistics testified to the amount of work done: in the 1980s, the production association of Rīgas Modes served 350,000 customers a year, which was half the population of Riga! Mind, that was in the USSR, at the time when heaps of identical products of mass production gathered dust on store shelves.

Both the fashion centre of Rīgas Modes and the Riga Fashion House ceased to exist in 1992, following the change of state and economic system. Today, you will not find major manufacturers of designer clothing in Riga; but there are bright and recognizable designers, even those recognized abroad, and there are small salons which specialize in making clothes, shoes, bags, hats and accessories for fashion followers who are looking to purchase something special. Come to Riga, where you could wander the streets of the Old (but always young) Town, drop in at small shops and stop by large shopping centers, and witness that the art of creating fashionable and original clothing is definitely alive and well