Dubbed the “Soviet Christian Dior” in the 1960s by the French press, the designer achieved global success with bright dresses adorned with the flower patterns found on traditional Russian shawls.
Despite this, Zaitsev wore a simple black suit for an interview with AFP at his 10-storey “House of Fashion” in central Moscow.
The designer looked back at his eventful career, from a modest childhood in Ivanovo, a town of 400,000 people to the north east of the capital, to the catwalks of Paris, New York and Tokyo.
“When I was a child, my mother taught me embroidery so I wouldn’t roam the streets without purpose. In the evenings I would pick flowers with girls on Lenin Avenue to draw them and recreate them in embroidery. That’s how I began my adventure in art,” said Zaitsev.
Born into a poor family with a mother who worked as a cleaner, Zaitsev initially was barred from attending a top-flight university because his father, taken captive by the Nazis during World War II, was, like other former prisoners-of-war, labelled an “enemy of the people” by the suspicious regime of Joseph Stalin and sentenced to 10 years in a labour camp.
Zaitsev studied at a vocational college until the age of 18 and then went on to the unglamorous Moscow Textile Institute.
“During my studies, I lived with a family whose children I looked after. The apartment was tiny and I slept on the floor under the table,” he recalled.
– Under KGB surveillance –
In 1962, Zaitsev’s first collection of clothes — a uniform for female workers that featured skirts with the flower patterns of traditional Russian shawls and multicoloured boots — was rejected by Soviet authorities.
“The colours were too bright and contrasted with the greyness of Soviet everyday life, where an individual should not differ from the rest of society,” he said.
But the collection nonetheless attracted international attention. In 1963, French magazine Paris Match became the first Western media outlet to describe Zaitsev as a pioneer of Soviet fashion.
Watched closely by the KGB because of his contacts with Western designers and his flamboyant character, Zaitsev was initially refused permission to leave the Soviet Union and his first collections were shown abroad without him.
“I did not understand. What sort of state secret could I pass on to my foreign colleagues? Thank God this era is long gone,” he said.
Zaitsev, who turns 80 in March, remembered his first trips abroad where “everything was different,” including the way people dressed: “no greyness, no sadness and no cliches.”
– Dressing Putin’s ex-wife –
Zaitsev said he finds happiness “working with people every day” in creating designs for his individual clients, rather than for catwalk shows.
Between 2007 and 2009, he presented a popular television show called “The Verdict of Fashion,” in which stylists dressed participants in the latest street looks.
At 79, he says he only sleeps five hours a night and works with the latest software to create new patterns for his materials.
Zaitsev counts several Russian movie stars, singers and the ex-wife of President Vladimir Putin, Lyudmila, among his clients.
Last November, he presented his spring/summer 2018 collection in Moscow for which he used new textile technology to create materials inspired by the shawls of Pavlovsky Posad, a small town east of Moscow.
The second part of his collection pays homage to the New Look of 1940s Dior, with retro high fashion designs in velvet and silk.
During his career, Zaitsev produced more than 1,000 designs.
“I can dress a whole Red Square parade with my clothes,” he joked.
Asked what fashion advice he would give to the modern woman, the designer said they should “throw their ripped jeans and trainers in the bin” and put on skirts and high heels.