Since childhood my parents have always told me that designing clothes was not a “real” job. I couldn’t have imagined my life without fashion and so decided to choose the lesser of two evils; I became a fashion journalist.
A journalist turned designer; since launching her eponymous label in Dubai, Katya Kovtunovich has single-handedly changed the way we look at traditional Arabian textiles.
We read numerous success stories which seem somewhat unplausible, they tell us the woes of those who have achieved the impossible and met with the recognition of millions; Coco Chanel, Estee Lauder, Oprah Winfrey, Indra Nooyi to name a few…
Rather than providing inspiration, their successes often seem to overpower us as we struggle to imagine ourselves in their shoes; the shoes of a star who has ‘made it’.
We would like to tell you a different success story – one that you can relate to, as it is taking place here and now. It is about a girl who dreamt about making dresses, studied to become a journalist and wrote about fashion before setting up her very-own fashion brand.
She travelled a very long way from the far-flung Russian island of Sakhalin and arrived upon the sandy shores of the United Arab Emirates. After just four years since launching her label, she was hand-picked to officially represent the UAE as a designer who had embodied a modern interpretation of the bedouin heritage.
Katya Kovtunovich tells her story in her own words.
Sewing vs. Writing
Since childhood my parents have always told me that designing clothes was not a serious job. I could not imagine my life without fashion and so I’ve chosen the lesser of the two evils and became a fashion journalist.
I started making clothes for my Barbie when I was seven years old. I wrote my first articles for the children newspaper “Treasure Island” in my home town when I was nine. At eleven I became an editor of a doll fashion page. Writing about fashion was as exciting as creating fashion. However, I was certain that in order to become a serious fashion journalist I should first become an expert in fashion. And where was the best place in the world to do that?
I have always considered London to be the center of the modern fashion industry and an ideal place to learn about it. London has given the world the talented John Galliano, who was then the creative director at Dior, as well as my idol Alexander McQueen and one of the world’s top fashion journalists – the legendary Suzy Menkes, Tim Blanks, Sarah Mower and my favorite Susannah Frankel. Even the editor-in-chief of American Vogue, the omnipotent Anna Wintour, is from London. Therefore, I have made the choice to come to London very consciously.
I learned about doing internships from an interview with Alexander McQueen in Russian Vogue. In it he said that his father was a taxi driver and his parents could not pay for the tuition at a prestigious fashion school. Young Lee McQueen went to work as an unpaid apprentice, that led him to fulfilling his dream and becoming a professional designer. I was very inspired by his story and I carried it through in my own life.
In 2005 I graduated with a degree in Linguistics Philology from the St. Petersburg State University and I started to realize my dream of going to London. I enrolled in a cheap English Language school, got my student visa and bought a plane ticket. The money I had was just enough to pay for the school fees, the ticket and the accomodation in a student hostel for the first two weeks. I knew that fashion internships would be unpaid (if I was even to get one!) so I immedately started looking for a job.
A Fashion Label in Dubai
I was invited to work in UAE as an assistant at the Kenzo marketing department. At first, the offer seemed absurd: to work as an assistant after being published in Russian Vogue?! But upon reflection, curiosity won over pride. At the time I was already making the first steps towards creating my own label and I was eager to learn about marketing while working for a prestigious brand, to explore a new country and a new culture.
Upon arrival, I found out that in UAE it is relatively easy and not a matter of a million dollars for a foreign national to start a business, get a license and sponsor one’s own work visa. Initially I wanted to do it in London, but the set up prosess was much more complicated and expensive. Having lived in the UK for 5 years, I got used to being in the multi cultural society and speaking all my languages – Italian, German, Russian, English and French – on a daily basis. It became a very important aspect for me when I am choosing a country to live in. Dubai seemed like a very good alternative that ticks both boxes – it is multi-national and it is doable in terms of business set up and its cost.
What does the devil wear in London?
It’s hard to believe but at first I didn’t even know how to correctly pronouce some brand names in English.
Ever since my trip as an exchange student via the ‘Work and Travel’ program in the United States, where I surprisingly managed to find a couple of jobs in a day, I have learned to smile and, rather than asking – offer something to the potential employers. So, instead of going around saying the pitiful “Hi, I am looking for a job”, I approached people with a handshake “Hi, I would like to join your team”, giving out impression of a confident person, ready to do a great job.
Believe it or not, but after leaving my CV at the Prada store on Bond Street I was called back in exactly five minutes. I have signed a contract for the position of part-time cashier then and there. And although I was never good at math and calculations, to my surprise, I did not make a single mistake!
I took another part-time job at a French bakery, so I could also practice my French, and at a restaurant, where I was finally able to eat proper meals. I did not even notice that it was a hard time for me.
“If your dream is really big, every difficulty on the way to it would seem very small. And vice versa.” Robert Kiyosaki
I didn’t know anyone in London, but I was full of enthusiasm, willing to learn and work 24 hours. First thing I enrolled at the Notting Hill district library, where I read all the books they had on fashion. I wrote out all unfamiliar words on separate pieces of paper and memorized them. That way I have enriched my fashion vocabulary.
My first internship happened to be at London Fashion Week. I just sent an email to one of the addresses listed on the official website. Of course, the internship had to be combined with classes in school and all my part-time jobs. At night I was writing my first articles for magazines and sewing new skirts and jackets for myself. I had practically no time to sleep.
With my first paycheck from Prada I bought a ticket to Moscow, where I was invited to intern at Russian Fashion Week. I had been approached by Alexander Shumskiy, the president of RFW in Moscow, who saw me working in the press office at London Fashion Week (the only Russian girl there!) and immediately gave me his business card.
Of course, my family was surprised that I did unpaid internships and worked in restaurants after graduating from a prestigious University. I was very worried that they didn’t understand me and my dreams, but I continued to pursue my goals.
Three months later, due to a happy coincidence, I got into British Vogue. Was it really a coincidence? I believe that we create our own luck. I was walking down the street and saw the Vogue House sign. Out of pure curiosity I decided to pop in and spoke to the very friendly receptionist. Actually, I bombarded him with questions and from my burning enthusiam he understood that fashion is my dream. So he offered to pass my CV to the right person.
Interning at Vogue: how to get closer to your dream
Internships at Vogue are normally booked up several months in advance. The happy coincidence was the fact that another intern, a student from an expensive fashion school, refused to bring the editor her coffee and was dismissed. So I was immediately hired to intern for two weeks as a substitute.
I was incredibly excited about everything I was doing: packing suitcases with clothes for fashion shoots with top photographers and supermodels, getting the insider’s view of the best fashion shows, learning how the most influential editors of the best fashion magazine spend their days. I was overwhelmed with everything I learned about the “backstage” of the fashion industry and I wanted to share my excitement with the people who, like I have before, dreamt about a career in fashion but were unable to do pursue it yet.
At that time Facebook and blogs were just starting, and magazines, portraying fashion from official point of view, were the main source of information. I started sharing my backstage moments with Dress Code, a new magazine that has just launched in St. Petersburg. I did a good job and two years later Evelina Khromtchenko, editor in chief of Russian L’Officiel invited me to write for them. Then came Elle and Vogue Russia.
A Dress For A Princess…
“The very first miracle has taught me that incredible things can happen – you just have to take a few steps towards them.”
I believe in miracles and I think that if you really want something, it will definitely happen When I was interning at Amber Lounge, a colleague who was a close friend with the royal family of Monaco mentioned that Princess Charlene had been in a bad mood lately. Without a second thought I said, “Maybe her mood will get better if I send her gift her my dress?”. The colleague said it was a great idea and insisted that I go and offer the gift to HSH myself! I was very scared as it seemed so unrealistic. But when Her Serene Highness came to our event, I put all my braveness together and approached her secretary.
A month later I received a very touching thank you letter.
This was the first big miracle in my life and it taught me that incredible things can happen – you just have to take a few steps towards them. Later in my career my dresses have been worn by Veronica Berti-Bocelli (the wife of Andrea Bocelli), Lady Gaga and many more very inspiring women and I received many compliments and thank you letters from the royals across the Middle East. I keep believeing in miracles and being very grateful to the ones that already happened!