Kyrgyzstan: Reality Fashion Show Spotlights Homegrown Talent
September 6, 2012 - 10:49pm, by David Trilling
On a recent morning in Bishkek’s 12th “microdistrict,” a neighborhood of Soviet-era housing blocks a little past their prime, a small beauty salon was overflowing with chiseled young men sporting carefully cultivated stubble and statuesque women in short shorts.
It may seem an unlikely place for haute couture, but these fashion models are being fitted, and filmed, for Kyrgyzstan’s first reality TV show—devoted to just that. The creators of the program, called, “ProFashion,” believe that Kyrgyzstan, with a blossoming textile industry and a biannual Fashion Week well established in its capital, is ready for a televised fashion competition that will show a new face of Kyrgyz design—neither the “ethno-wear” available to tourists nor the pragmatic garments exported to neighboring Kazakhstan and Russia.
With a wave of her clipboard, Jamila Kulova, one of the show’s producers, ushers models to a tailor with a measuring tape. She and several colleagues have selected seven unknown designers from a pool of 30 applicants. Each is assigned a stylist, a tailor, and a mentor. Unlike its American analog, “Project Runway,” “ProFashion” doesn’t eliminate its contestants. The show’s 30-minute episodes have been airing three times a week since late July and will culminate September 9 in a red-carpet jury event, says Kulova, with judges including local artists and successful Kyrgyz designers like Dilbar Ashimbaeva. The winning team gets a trip to Paris to visit fashion studios and 100,000 som (about $2,100).
The show is as much about showcasing young designers as helping them learn the business and make their work sustainable, says producer Mamasadyk “Max” Bagyshov.
“There’s lots of talent in the textiles industry here, but no market,” Bagyshov says. “The problem with Kyrgyz designers is that they consider themselves artists, not businesspeople. We want them to treat design as a business and fashion as an industry. Designers don't know how to promote themselves.”
In an alleyway outside the salon, designer Jyldyza Toigonbaeva, 25, listens carefully as her mentor – a phone in one hand, a paper cup of coffee in the other, and a filtered Camel dangling from his mouth – offers advice on what to wear for the upcoming finale. In between shoots, Toigonbaeva, a single mom from the northern city of Naryn, migrates between Bishkek design shops selling her skills. She hopes the show will offer her a leg up in what she calls a competitive market, where mass production rules. “The whole fashion industry in Kyrgyzstan is developing quite slowly, but this project is helping a lot” by raising awareness, she says.
Her team’s mentor, Sumsarbek Mamyraliev, like the other advisors, has an understanding of management and marketing, not just design. That was one of the selection criteria. Mamyraliev, a diminutive, bespectacled 30-something with straight, jet-black hair, actually became interested in fashion while studying business management in the United Kingdom. “My mother sent me kalpaks [tall, felt men’s hats] and scarves and I realized people really liked these Kyrgyz products that were so unknown in the West,” he says. Today he runs a small design studio and exports striking silk-and-felt scarves to Europe.
While the designs featured on the show take their cues from high-end couturiers, the program nonetheless has broad appeal, Mamyraliev says, because the down-market end of the industry is so familiar to many Kyrgyz. According to the National Statistics Committee, the manufacturing of textiles and garments in 2011 grew by nearly 50 percent from the previous year, totaling almost 7.3 billion som (about $155 million), or close to 2.7 percent of GDP. In fact, the numbers may be much higher; a large number of those in the industry are believed to be working off the books. Earlier this year, industry groups estimated the number of people working in the sector between 150,000 and 300,000, with one-third to one-half of them in the “shadow economy.”
Mamyraliev says the show “is bringing the industry out of the shadows,” but not in terms of tax inspectors: He simply believes it’s motivating Kyrgyzstanis to wear Kyrgyz designs.
“It’s a paradox, because in Siberia, many people wear what we produce, but we don’t wear our own products,” he says, referring to the exports of prête-à-porter to Russia and elsewhere.
Mamyraliev and Kulova, the producer, both lament that Kyrgyz design is often limited to the kinds of goods found in tourist shops: folksy robes, slippers, felt hats. They worried initially that “ProFashion” participants would simply imitate this sort of “traditional Kyrgyz” aesthetic.
“So-called ethno-design is a problem here,” Kulova says. “I specifically told the designers that an ‘ethnic style’ does not only mean Kyrgyz designs. We gave them a lot of examples from around the world and said, ‘If you make something ethnic, don’t make it a national costume.’ What’s exciting about that?”
By late August, Kulova had relaxed and said she’s excited by the versatility of the outfits.
The show’s creators hope its first six-week run will inspire future funding, but with Kyrgyzstan’s economy struggling, money has been an issue. For the pilot series, the producers raised $6,000 from Coca-Cola and a Bishkek boutique. Aeroflot donated the Paris tickets; a local travel agency chipped in for hotels. But the budget is running over $15,000, with the excess coming out-of-pocket, and much of the labor basically on a volunteer basis: Models say they are making $20 for the whole production – which includes several photo shoots and the finale – but that it’s worth it for the exposure.
Across town from the studio, Jyldyz Ashim, 28, sifts through reams of brightly colored fabrics from China at the Osh market, a lanky cameraman following her every move. Ashim, who is from Bishkek, started sewing as a little girl, taught and encouraged by her mother. “She sews herself. Like the milk of my mother, it passed on to me,” she says, as market vendors, who appear not to have seen the show, stare at the scene. “My first goal is to win,” says Ashim. “But second, to learn things like marketing, to get experience from the show overall.”
Editor's Note:David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.
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