Our relations with Moscow may be at their lowest ebb since the Cold War, but it’s difficult to imagine a sanctions regime that could contain Miroslava Duma. Last month the impeccably dressed Russian media mogul was one of the star speakers at the Vogue Festival; in February she was being endlessly photographed at Fashion Week.
Duma is the most elegant of the rich Muscovites who frequent the front row. Resisting the attention-grabbing outfits of her peers, she dresses in demure looks from Louis Vuitton and Valentino and flies the flag for Russian designers including Vika Gazinskaya and Vilshenko. She’s a master of social media, with more than 660,000 followers on Instagram – 286,000 more, incidentally, than the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev – which means she shifts product as well as any conventional celebrity. Not content to be a mere clothes-horse, however, in June 2011 she founded a digital news platform called Buro 24/7. It updates – you guessed it – around the clock, covering, in Duma’s words, “all the most important news on fashion, architecture, art, lifestyle, music, cinema, social life”.
In January Buro 24/7 published an interview with Duma’s friend Dasha Zhukova, a fellow rich Russian and the partner of Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich. The accompanying photograph depicted Zhukova perched on a chair made from the tied-up, half-naked mannequin of a black woman. It happened to be Martin Luther King Day. The internet went ballistic.
“Chairhead” was the headline The Sun chose for its front page splash – arguably as distasteful as the image itself. Allen Jones, whose 1969 artworks of white women’s bodies as furniture were cited as the inspiration for the now-trending “racist chair”, called the picture “tacky and distasteful”. Zhukova and Duma were forced to apologise as they faced accusations of racism, misogyny and straightforward idiocy from an outraged Twittersphere.
Duma is still surprised by the backlash. Her immaculate English goes up a notch from hasty to rapid-fire: “We were very upset because we hurt someone’s feelings – that was never what we were aiming to do. We very much respect Afro-American people. It has nothing to do with racism, or discrimination. And it was absolutely by coincidence that it happened on the Martin Luther King Day. Our aim was to post an interview on the day that couture week started because it was something about fashion.”
Duma in a cardigan coat by Russian knitwear label Tak Ori and a Vionnet belt; in a dress by Russian designer Vika Gazinskaya; in a Missoni dress with a scarf tied Babushka-style. Photo: REX
Can she understand why people might have taken offence at the image? “This work that Dasha is sitting on is a piece of art. It was created precisely for this purpose, to engage and call our attention to how racist and misogynist it can be. But this reaction towards Dasha and me is very misguided. People don’t want to dig deeper. They just saw the picture. So maybe this explains how people today ‘get’ contemporary art – they don’t really get it.”
From this outpouring you will have gleaned that Duma is feisty. She was also naive; if she wanted to unpack the controversy caused by Jones’s original sculpture, and this obvious, crass pastiche by the Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard, then popping a beautiful and fabulously wealthy white woman on top of said work was not the most astute way of going about it.
But don’t write her off just yet. Those who know Duma praise her as a prolific fundraiser for charities – she set up her own, Peace Planet, in 2005 – a champion of young Russian fashion designers, and a highly impressive businesswoman. Buro 24/7is updated 30 times a day by a team of 35 in Moscow; Duma has brokered advertising deals with big brands such as Chanel and Armani for the site and sold licensing in Europe and the Middle East. Add to that her role as the digital media director at the Moscow department store TsUM; and constant events to raise money for Peace Planet, which funds educational and medical initiatives in Moscow, and the poor little rich girl stereotype begins to wear a bit thin.
Duma was born in the oil-drenched Tyumen region of Siberia in 1985. Her parents had moved there from Ukraine in search of a better life. “They had nothing, they knew no one,” Duma says. “They worked super-hard.” Her father, Vasily, got a job in oil, her mother worked as a seamstress. “My mother was always dressed up beautifully. The stores were empty. All the clothes were the same – grey, black, dark blue. So my mother made money making original things.” They moved to Moscow in 1991, where somehow her father became the head of an oil company and later a senator in the Federation Council until 2011.
Duma’s Moscow in the Nineties sounds like an interminable episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The wealthy elite heralded the fall of the Soviet Union in an exercise that makes Mariah Carey’s wardrobe look refined. Duma recalls how, as a teenager, an older woman advised her: “Don’t buy expensive clothes if they don’t have a logo, otherwise it’s a waste of money.” She laughs. “The ‘bling-bling’, the logos, it’s funny, in a good way. I don’t blame it, because it’s just the way it worked economically. Those people had nothing, then they received everything.”
Miroslava Duma at NYFW in February, at the Vogue festival in March wearing Valentino, and at LFW in February. Photo: REX/Bridget Fleming
Duma’s preference for jeans without a prominent D&G logo marked her out. Her career in fashion began at Harper’s Bazaar Russia as special projects editor, aged 20. After two years she left to go freelance – “I was styling for one magazine, writing a column for Vogue , doing fundraising projects, trying to make as many connections as possible” – before setting up Buro .
Now she uses fashion as a tool for promotion as well as a means of self-expression. Her diminutive frame (she’s a smidgen over 5ft tall) lends itself to tiny dresses from Valentino and Chanel paired with clompy platform heels, but she says her height isn’t a factor in getting dressed: “I’m very open-minded and love to experiment.” She alters most of what she wears, such as trouser suits from Stella McCartney and Chloé. Chunky necklaces used to be her thing but, now that everyone’s wearing them, she sticks to a Perspex Chanel handbag in the shape of a perfume bottle, or an Hermès scarf secured Babushka-style with a brooch by the Russian brand À La Russe.
Most of all, though, she loves going home to her husband Alexei Mikheyev, who works at the Ministry of Industry and Trade, and young son George. “At home I wear jeans and a T-shirt with a Buro 24/7 logo on it,” she says. You can take the girl out of Moscow …
Questions & Answers
Must-have beauty product?
Bamford Jasmine Pebble soap.
Best packing tip?
For Fashion Week I usually pack at night, when everybody’s sleeping and nobody’s calling.
Favourite destination for accessories?
I love jewellery by a talented Russian, London-based designer, Natasha Zinko.
Are Russians really obsessed with fur?
The designer Vika Gazinskaya does not use fur, leather or exotic skins, but the majority of people do wear it to stay warm during the harsh winter.
Toffifee caramel candies.