How Russia is changing the face of fashion

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CNN  — 

In search of distinctive Russian faces, the biggest names in fashion have started turning to one modeling agency in particular – Lumpen. Less than two years after launching, the Moscow-based company has already cast models in major fashion shows for the likes of Vetements, Lanvin and Comme des Garçons.

But Lumpen’s rapidly growing influence stands in contrast to its name. The word “lumpenproletariat” was first used by Karl Marx to describe a low-achieving underclass that was useless to the revolutionary struggle – including criminals, vagabonds and other outcasts. But the agency’s founder, Avdotja Alexandrova, has embraced the term’s historical connotations.

“I really related to the word, and warmed to it even more as I began to discover its origins,” she said during an interview in Moscow.

Lumpen’s model database is comprised of “exclusive Russian faces from all over the world,” according to its website. But the agency employs a seemingly broad definition of Russianness.

“We treat the word ‘Russian’ differently at Lumpen,” Alexandrova said. “Most people in our agency are connected to Russia somehow. It could be that their mother was Russian, or they may have been born in Russia. They all, somehow, have a Russian background. But (they) aren’t necessarily ethnically Russian.”

This approach to diversity may see Lumpen avoid the criticisms levied against some of its clients. Two brands that the agency has worked with, Vetements and Balenciaga, have recently come under fire for their casting choices (the latter’s Fall-Winter ’16 show featured no black models). But Alexandrova claims that race doesn’t come into the question when scouting and casting for Lumpen.

“Skin color doesn’t matter,” she said. “We have some half-African guys; we have European-type looks. Ethnicity is not the point.”

A different model

The agency seems to have a penchant for unforgettable faces. Of the 12 men that walked in Comme des Garçons’ Autumn-Winter 2017 Homme Plus show, eight were provided by Lumpen.

Elsewhere, French brands Jil Sander and Lanvin have enlisted Alexandrova’s eye for scouting, while big names like Kenzo and Nike have gone to the agency for both male and female models.

But Lumpen didn’t start as a modelling agency. Instead, it began as a database to help Alexandrova and her director and photographer friends find unusual looking faces. As a result, it appears to operate differently from others in the industry.

Lumpen did not begin as a modelling agency and instead was started as a database of interesting faces for photographers and directors to cast from.

To begin with, Lumpen charges a mere 20 percent of its models’ fees, compared with the 50 percent cut taken by some top agencies. The company also says that it gives people equal casting opportunities rather than dividing its roster into high and low earners.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the Lumpen’s operation is that its models have a story to tell, Alexandrova posits.

“Everybody in the agency is from the suburbs or the provinces, and has gone through something in life – usually something that is emotionally straining,” she said. “Maybe they were street-raised, or maybe they have done time in prison. (But) ultimately, if we like the face then you’re in, regardless of your background.”