For the world’s largest landlocked country, Kazakhstan is making some big waves in geopolitics. Ancient trade routes between China, India, Russia and “the West” positioned this nation as a keystone puzzle piece on the map of Central Asia. Now its intermediary prowess is stronger than ever. The last weeks saw visits from the French President Emmanuel Macron, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and the US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu, three stakeholders in ongoing European security negotiations.
Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has also just welcomed the tenth anniversary summit of the Organization of Turkic States, a crucial alliance in the region. Beyond politics, Kazakhstan has been successfully branding itself as an economic and cultural hub with innovative initiatives like building its capital Astana as a smart city or hosting the World Expo focused on Future Energy. The country understands the power of design as a tool of global advocacy as well. As early as 2015, as part of my ongoing research on emerging markets, Kazakhstan rose as a prominent case study on the successful application of fashion diplomacy tools.
The Great Steppe Style
Since 2019, Visa Fashion Week Almaty has been growing as a creative business platform to showcase domestic talent for foreign buyers and media as well as to connect local market with international trends and trendsetters. The latest edition had a theme fitting the zeitgeist: Metamorphosis. “It’s hard to imagine something more constant, and more changeable, than fashion. In fact, variability is exactly what defines fashion today. We invited our participants to reflect on the topic of variability, cyclicality, and tireless development,” notes Bauyrzhan Shadibekov, event’s General Director and Producer.
Out of ten designers presenting spring-summer 2024 collections on the runway, seven were Kazakh brands and three invited from Ukraine, Turkey, and the neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The Ritz Carlton Ballroom was redesigned exclusively for the special occasion to resemble a vast white cocoon within which artistic and social transformation could safely take place.
Out of ten designers presenting spring-summer 2024 collections on the runway, seven were Kazakh brands and three invited from Ukraine, Turkey, and the neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The Ritz Carlton Almaty Ballroom was redesigned exclusively for the special occasion to resemble a vast white cocoon within which artistic and social transformation could safely take place.
As the Official Payment Technology Partner for fashion weeks in major hubs like New York and Shanghai, Visa has been steadily expanding its fashion footprint with a focus on small business initiatives in emerging markets such as Central Asia. Technology is another tried and true element of a strong soft diplomacy strategy. It is exciting to see Visa’s continued commitment to becoming a titular sponsor of industry tentpole events worldwide. Edition after edition, this helps position Kazakhstan on the fashion map and supports local access to global e-commerce. As part of the agreement, Almaty is now the home of the Next Designer Award Empowered by VISA.
Designer Asel Shingisova is the 2023 Winner. Her collection was inspired by water conservation, a pressing subject for a landlocked nation with a history of environmental disasters: the tragic Aral Sea saga, the urban encroachment onto the Taldykol lake system, the pollution of Lake Balkhash. To convey her emotional message in a sustainable way, the designer uses only recycled or natural textiles such as linen, hemp, or nettle.
Designer Victoria Nadeina is this year’s finalist. A Marangoni London graduate, she excelled at styling before launching her “conscious consumption” brand. She describes her ethos as a mix of elegance and audacity, an upcycled grunge vibe infused with an interest in metaphysics. All fabrics for Vilemore garments are crafted from textile scraps making each pattern unique. As part of the prize boost, the brand now retails at Saks Almaty.
From upcycling and high-tech textiles to preservation of rare and unique craftsmanship, here are additional highlights from Visa Fashion Week Almaty:
Tatyana Yan is perhaps one of the most recognized Kazakh names on the international design scene. Her whimsical jewelry is a fixture of glossy editorials throughout China, Hong Kong, and other Pacific fashion destinations. Her ready-to-wear vision relies on the dynamism of our physical performance in sports, on stage, in everyday life. There is joy in unapologetically free movement. The message resonates with post-lockdown consumers worldwide.
It’s a tale of two Zhannas, an entrepreneur and a stylist, bringing their “particular set of skills” to a common task of manifesting bold fashion dreams. “Where there is a dress, there is always a reason,” said show notes. The Armaniya collection is a play on words: the Kazakh term for “dream” and an homage to Giorgio Armani. Ambition is the throughline connecting the desire for preservation of handmade craftsmanship with the trendiest aspirations.
Designer Liliya Mamiyeva draws inspiration from the intergenerational bonds that characterize Kazakh family dynamics. Her collection is called Ainalaiyn. More than a term of endearment, its literal translation means “I circle around you” and in 2018 the expression was voted “the most beautiful Kazakh word” in a nationwide poll. Her garments reveal multiple layers, fascinating textures, complex traditional elements upgraded for the proverbial here and now.
To celebrate fifteen years in the business, fashion entrepreneur Saltanat Begaliyeva dedicated the collection to the designer’s mother. It serves both as an anti-ageist manifesto and study in timeless design elements inspired by nomadic minimalism. “Eco-shedding, eco-leather, organic cotton, innovative Scuba fabric will marry each other right on the catwalk,” said the show notes. It’s easy to see what made the brand one of the biggest success stories in recent years.
Designer Gaziza Shabdarbayeva perfected her bespoke tailoring skills for fifteen years before launching a premium label during the prêt-à-porter week in Paris in 2022. The current collection builds on her signature eveningwear silhouettes executed in festive taffeta, lace, and crepe in rich shades of gold, pink, and turquoise. The looks are accented with traditional handmade embroidery. This marks the new brand’s first foray into menswear as well.
International Guest Brands
Fresh off taking Dubai Fashion Week by storm, the “Serbian-born designer of Bosnian-Albanian origin” Emina Skrigel Sabutaj (or simply @The_Emina) continued her fashion conquest with a well-received collection made of her signature mix of denim with custom-designed textiles and knitwear. The designer’s ambitious idea is “to transform you into the person you want to be with self-acceptance embodied in clothes, accepting oneself, declaring oneself.”
Cut A Dash (Kyrgyzstan)
Sisters Aizhan and Saya are third generation Kyrgyz artists. Such rich creative history informs their commitment to promotion of traditional Central Asian crafts in their contemporary designs. “Only by remembering and honoring our roots is further development possible” is a fine modus operandi. In alignment with the collaborative spirit of nomadic ancestors, the brand teams up with different artists for original prints. The result is “immediately recognizable” wearable art.
Since 2000, Kristina Bobkova has become a bona fide Ukrainian fashion ambassador. This status is affirmed by the fact that First Lady Olena Zelenska chose her looks for a visit to Canada last month. A regular at European fashion weeks, the brand is venturing into the emerging Central Asian market with its mix of gender-neutral aesthetics, Japanese tailoring, and traditional Ukrainian elements like the mallow flower woven into hair or garments for protection.