Steamy Knitwear: Katya Zelentsova

  • Photography and clothing  Katya Zelentsova
  • Words  Bryony Holdsworth
  • Model  Cheuk Lam Ng

Katya Zelentsova uses her design work and stylistic codes as an expression of national identity. Growing up in a small town in Russia, Zelentsova moved to London six years ago after applying to the University of the Arts London, where she undertook a BA in Fashion and Knitwear. Her move to the UK was not without its limitations as she faced stereotyped misconceptions about her culture throughout the capital – eventually seeing her Russian upbringing in a different light, which has become an endless source of inspiration in her work.

Now ready to take her new collection to a wider audience, the artist has utilised a safe creative space in which she can explore contemporary Russian identity and encapsulate the beauty and vivacity of her culture.

What is the collection about?
The capsule collection is a riff on my graduate collection, It’s Not Easy Being Seductive in Minus 20 Degrees. It consists of around twenty small knitted pieces that explore contemporary Russian identity in a more accessible way. I think the intellectual exploration itself is not necessarily that high-brow or difficult to understand, but the clothes are. For example, a tube top is easier to inject into your everyday wardrobe than an asymmetric cardigan with a built-in shawl.

Which aspects of Russian identity did you choose to explore?
My graduate collection was me trying to find my way as a modern woman in Russia and a Russian woman in the West. It was a way to reject both the notion that everyone in Russia wears a tracksuit and the older stereotype of Russian women as “micro-miniskirt-wearing-blinged-out-Roberto-Cavalli-superfans”. Yes, of course we still like shiny short things – you try wearing grey for seventy years – but now it’s in a much more self-aware way.

One of the most important aspects of Russian identity is how inventive and resilient we are. There’s never really been an ideal time to live in Russia – there’s always something going on, you know. We always say: “hope for the best but prepare for the worst”. I think my storyline for the collection came from a realisation that everything is always going to be a little off, and if the surroundings aren’t that great you need to make it good for yourself. My heroine jazzes up her looks similar to how my nan used to make her dresses from curtains so that they looked a little different from her friends’ clothes.

How did this Russian-ness translate into the garments?
I used some very ‘Russian’ objects like a shawl or mittens and tried to integrate it as much as possible into a modern wardrobe. It follows my on-going research into the line between utility and uselessness. In the context of this collection, my work also took on some grotesque forms influenced by Nikolai Gogol’s novel The Nose, where a nose disappears from a man’s face and becomes its own person – garment details move around in search of a better life. Plackets pop up in places you’ve never seen them before, cardigans become miniskirts, things are overly decorated – dripping in sponsored Swarovski jewels.

How does it relate to your previous work?
The shapes in the capsule were adapted from my graduate collection – the slashed cardigan boob tubes, the puffy raglan sleeve tops, and the micro-miniskirts with lace ruffles. They are the wearable versions of the asymmetric cardigans and ‘barely there’ dresses for anyone who might wish to feel like a sexy Russian. I’ve carried on my obsessive attention to detail, including ribbed trims, mother of pearl buttons and giant buckles collected from my travels on my placement year.

Can you tell me a little more about the materials?
Every single garment was made from offcuts and rejected samples from my graduate collection. I had to trial a lot of different yarns because all the slinky viscose and fragile metallics kept slipping and breaking, so I ended up with a lot of holey samples. Also, never getting the right length of elasticated rib trims leaves you with a lot of leftovers, so I compromised and used some Stoll floral jacquards, extra Dubied ribs and some of my toiling jerseys.

Why did you use offcuts?
I just didn’t want to waste them. I had all these gorgeous fabrics that I couldn’t really use, so I thought I’d make something out of them for whoever was brave enough to wear them. I had to patchwork all the little offcuts directly onto the mannequin or the patterns I was using; it was a lot of trying to match things up. Ultimately, the capsule collection was literally pieced together.

How can people buy the pieces?
I’ve been saying I’m going to work on my website for the past four months and it’s yet to come out. So for now – just drop me a DM.

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