People are already calling it the fashion moment of 2016. In Galeries Lafayette, an upmarket department store in Paris, cult label Vetements, purveyor of elevated streetwear, is staging its latest rule-breaking collection. The brand is opening staid old couture fashion week with a show featuring genuinely unexpected collaborations with various other fashion labels – waist-high Manolo Blahnik boots, rejuvenated Juicy Couture tracksuits – and models with a haute level of scowl. But it is when stylist Lotta Volkova strides past on the catwalk, modelling a floral white and blue Vetements dress, with a dismissive hand holding the corner of a white clutch bag, that the front row’s iPhones are raised in unison. Because that’s the picture. Lotta Volkova modelling the Vetements dress that self-consciously references the Vetements look. In an industry that constantly seeks to label things “cool”, Lotta Volkova has just been crowned as the coolest woman in the world.
Volkova is arguably fashion’s most in-demand creative. She is stylist and muse for the Vetements collective, the Paris-based group of designers currently subverting the barriers between streetwear and high fashion. She consults for fashion houseBalenciaga – on the casting and catwalk shows – where Demna Gvasalia is creative director. She also works with her friend, the menswear designer, Gosha Rubchinskiy and a raft of other labels. She somehow squeezes in editorial shoots with the likes of Juergen Teller and DJs at her friends’ fanzine launches. Volkova’s is a seven-day working week.
A few days before her Vetements fashion moment, I’m sat in a cool-but-you-have-to-know-it’s-cool-to-realise-it’s-cool cafe in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, not far from the Gare du Nord, asking Volkova how she, as a 32-year-old woman, feels about appearing as a model on the catwalk. Since starting work with Vetements, Volkova has walked in every show alongside kids cast from Instagram and regular models with an edge. Between swigs of Perrier and sips of black coffee, she laughs fast and loud before snapping into her brusque-sounding answering mode.
“It came about really spontaneously and out of the blue. When we were prepping for the first show, we did not have enough models, so Demna was like, ‘Oh, you are gonna model’ and I was like, ‘OK fine.’ Of course I was flattered. But for me it was like a friendly gesture. ‘Try this black turtleneck and sweatpants, and I just want to see you in it’ and I put in on and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is the opening look.’ I was like, ‘Nawwwww….’” Her speech is peppered with a Baltic-accented vocal fry that is too compelling not to mention.
“Spontaneous” and “out of the blue” are phrases that Volkova returns to regularly. Those and the fact that she and her gang are “just doing what we laaaav”. Volkova’s rise to the pinnacle of high fashion was neither exponential nor intentional, but not wholly surprising either. Born in Vladivostok, Russia, in 1984, Lotta was exposed to rebellion early on. Her father had jumped on a train from Siberia when he was 16 to captain a ship. Her mother, a professor of physics at medical school, instilled in Lotta the idea of doing things her own way: “For her that was a rebellion against communism, against this pre-packaged life.” It is her mother, too, that she has to thank for her Led Zeppelin-inspired name (she’s named after the song Whole Lotta Love). “She liked the whole post-punk, early 80s, alt-rock era, so I grew up sucking in all those references.” It was also her mother who fuelled her love of fashion, taking 12-year-old Lotta on shopping trips to London and Tokyo. “I had Prada shoes and Dior by Galliano jumpers, she was wearing Galliano herself. She is tiny and has really big boobs and is blonde, but then she pretty much looks like me.”