By Vanora Bennett
16 June 2013
Everywhere the moneyed of the east of Europe shop, from Chelsea to Palm Beach to the Urals, you’ll find an Irfe boutique.
Since 2008, the Paris-based Russian luxury clothing label, with clothes praised by style maven Alexa Chung as “clever, fluid and architectural” has been expanding its empire and is now sold in 80 outlets worldwide.
Its owner and creative director, Belarussian ex-model Olga Sorokina, is often snapped at parties in Cannes, Milan, Paris, Moscow and in LA for the Oscars.
She describes the signature look of Maison Irfe as ‘aristocratic romanticism’. A slim silhouette on the lower body is typically offset by a voluminous upper half. Designs are inspired by Russian ballet art and culture – the intricate styling of Faberge jewels, the firebirds of Russian folk tales, traditional embroidery and Tsarist double-headed eagle motifs – and reworked it with a modern ‘baroque ’n’ roll’ feel.
It’s a look which appeals to a smart, rich, young Moscow set yearning for a closer connection with Russia’s pre-Communist heritage.
But it’s not just the designs that are a hommage to Russia’s imperial past. The brand itself was born in that era, founded in the 1920s by one of the country’s most glamorous and notorious aristocratic couples. Irina, Princess of Russia, was the beautiful niece of the last Tsar, and her handsome husband Felix Youssoupov, once the richest man in Russia, was the playboy prince who’d murdered the peasant mystic Rasputin. In exile in after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the pair embarked on a career in jazz-age Paris fashion, with a dress design business – Irfe – called after the first two letters of their Christian names.
Irfé’s first incarnation was a hit with American and British customers in Paris during the arty annees folles, when fashion started following the modern agenda set by Coco Chanel.Punters flocked to Irfé as much to look a murderer in the eye as to buy clothes designed and modelled by a princess. They wanted to hear first-hand how Felix and fellow-conspirators, including his friend, the Grand Duke Dmitri, had lured Rasputin to the cellar of his St Petersburg palace, in the vain hope that by killing the Empress’s unpopular favourite they could save Russia from revolution. (Youssoupoff’s story about that night often changed, but always included details of how the conspirators plied the monk with wine and cakes laced with cyanide, then shot him, then, finally, drowned him in the river Neva). The ineffectual Tsar punished Youssoupoff and Dmitri with a weak slap on the wrist by sending them out of town). Irfe’s customers also wanted to gawp at the killer’s wife, married at a shy and innocent 18 to a charming cross-dresser – too young, as one of the Imperial family’s many biographers note, to understand the word ‘homosexual.’
But anyone hoping for the tears of a fallen princess left disappointed. In the many photographs of Irina in Irfé designs, or out and about on her husband’s arm, her expression is always utterly serene. Russia is the land of the big story.
People today still enjoy gasping over Felix’s legendary murder plot. But in a country whose richest citizens today all worry about being exiled themselves (a fate that has befallen several oligarchs at odds with the modern Kremlin) it is Irina whose story will resonate most. She also became a symbol of gallantry in hard times: refusing to take ill fortune lying down.
Nothing about Irina’s early life suggested she would prove so adaptable.
Until she married Felix, she was desperately shy. Her big clan of Romanov cousins had been dominated by their paterfamilias – the huge, red-faced, and repressive Alexander III. His son, the ruling Nicholas II, remained a timid soul. Still, ‘Nicky’ tried to crack the autocrat’s whip, exiling any relatives who stood up to him or married non-royals. Romanov family members seethed, but in silence. As one observer noted, “They spoke six languages but nobody ever said anything, so they were always referred to as being silent in six languages.”
Irina’s family were among the exiles. She spent her early teens in the South of France after her father fell out with his Imperial brother-in-law. After six years the family returned and Irina’s painful shyness stood out even among her tongue-tied relatives. So it astonished everyone when, in 1913, she suddenly announced that she wanted to marry the scandalous Felix Youssoupoff, eight years her senior, whom she’d met only met once as an adult after his recent return from studying at Oxford.
Felix didn’t know the meaning of timidity. From a rich, blue-blooded family, Felix had never gone into the army. He preferred opium dens, nightclubs and orgies. As a child, he’d liked dressing up. The dressing up continued into adulthood. He took to singing in nightclubs wearing his mother’s fabulous jewels. Yet Felix found himself attracted to Irina’s dazzling beauty and uncoquettish shyness. “I was sure that she was my fate,” he wrote. He confessed his past amours to her. He said in his memoirs later that she forgave him everything. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Irina’s parents breathed a sigh of relief when Felix’s inseparable friend, the more eligible Grand Duke Dmitri (unlike Felix, a proper royal, an Olympic athlete, and a dashing soldier ) suddenly also proposed to Irina. But Irina insisted on Felix.
The Tsar gave in and they married before the First World War broke out. They had a single daughter – also called Irina, known as Bebe – in 1915. The Youssoupoffs’ happy marriage lasted half a century.
Commentators can seldom resist calling this “somewhat surprising,” but Irina’s background explains a lot. To have married Dmitri would have been to stay in the tongue-tied royal misery all Romanovs knew too well. Her escape into Felix’s energetically playful life was a vote for adventure and – possibly – fun.
With Felix, Irina immediately found new courage. She knew all about the Rasputin murder plan. Their letters show they both thought Irina would join the conspirators on the murder night (at the last minute she cried off, with nerves).
After the first of two 1917 revolutions, the Youssoupoffs went together from their southern estate to St Petersburg so Irina could boldly complain to the new Provisional Government that they were mistreating her family – while Felix, even more boldly, sneaked off and bagged various family treasures (including two Rembrandts which he cut from their frames) from homes that were now under revolutionary surveillance, to take away from Russia in case there was more revolution.
Irfé, run on a wing and a prayer, was more of this scary sort of fun.
The Youssoupoffs remained better off than most of their fellow exiles in Paris – including Dmitri who had begun an affair with Coco Chanel, persuading her to employ several Russian princesses, among them his sister. In return, Dmitri brought her luck. In 1921, she brought out Chanel No 5, a revolutionary perfume based neither on the flower scents worn by ladies nor on the musk odour favoured by tarts. Legend has it this was Dmitri’s inspiration – that he’d described the Russian notion of a “deceitful” scent, defying definition, and she’d promptly had one made.
We can’t know whether Dmitri’s dabbling in fashion was what prompted Felix and Irina to go one better and set up a couture house. Although Dmitri and Felix had plotted together to kill Rasputin, their friendship – once so close it was whispered they’d been lovers – had soured into rivalry after Felix’s marriage to Irina. Certainly, the Irfe perfumes were in bottles with faceted corners, dangerously like Chanel’s.
The Youssoupoffs had lost most of their wealth to the Bolsheviks, but they’d left Russia with the two Rembrandts, Marie-Antoinette’s earrings, a black pearl once owned by Catherine the Great, a Knightsbridge flat, a house and car in Switzerland and other precious odds and ends which they gradually sold off. Like the rest of a class raised with no idea of what to do with money except spend it, they had little business sense.
Felix, whose life was one long party, got Irfe off the ground with a mob of pretty, unemployed Russian princes and princesses modelling, doing front-of-house and hand-sewing the beaded clothes, along with the freakish servants he hired because their antics amused him. Felix’s memoirs describe Irfé’s rise and fall as one big joke. But in the middle of that joke is Irina, calm and forbearing despite all his pranks, lending the enterprise her elegance and quiet seriousness.
There was no money for publicity. So, still sewing the first collection, Irina and her princess-model friends rushed to a ball at the Ritz where there was to be a fashion show, and, at the last minute, joined in.
Paris loved the clothes. One French reporter wrote: “Originality, refined taste, meticulous work and an artistic sense of colour immediately placed this modest atelier in the ranks of the great houses of fashion.” Irfe moved to rue Duphot, in Paris’s fashion centre. Felix decorated the atelier pale grey, while Irina gave socially aspiring punters the impression they were wandering into her boudoir by adding touches from unusually-shaped crystal bottles to Irfe shawls draped on armchairs, as if left there by chance.
Slim and boyish, Irina was glamorous epitome of the Twenties look. Irfe clothes reflected Irina’s taste. Recalling her signature style, Russian-born Princess Tatiana Metternich – a childhood friend of Bebe’s in Paris – recalled: “Ephemeral, draped in silk dresses trimmed with fringe, with an ageless face like her husband’s, she reminded one of a cameo. But sometimes, losing her usual restraint, she dispelled her charm with a dry remark uttered in a low and squeaky, purely Romanov voice.” The 1925 collection consisted of painted silk batik dresses, cut like a Russian peasant shirt. The next season it was bead-embroidered evening dresses, sportswear, perfume, and fabric belts. Although the cut and patterns were old-fashioned for the short-skirted art deco period, the fluid and unusually long silhouettes and elegance of Irina’s styling were popular. Irina became famous and was much photographed.
Felix handled the clients and opened three new branches of Irfe, in Le Touquet, London and Berlin (his friend, Princess Thurn-und-Taxis, aka Titi, ran this unpredictably; even Felix was taken aback when Titi took him trawling transvestite clubs for models). He also opened three restaurants and a porcelain shop. “We knew nothing about sewing but the business flourished,” Felix wrote, gleefully. His eccentric servant Andrew Bull, a half-English, half-Russian refugee, did the admin, “unconscionably carelessly, so that it was always chaos.” Bull forgot to deliver the invitations to Irfe’s first show on rue Duphot. No one turned up. Yet soon Irfe had so many orders that Felix rented more space.
But trouble was in store. In 1927, the overstretched business had a financial crisis, after Felix’s first book detailing the killing of Rasputin turned the Russians of Paris against him.
That time, Irfe was saved by a cheque from an American friend – Rosamund, the new Mrs William Kissam Vanderbilt II. She had been living discreetly in Paris while her millionaire husband-to-be divorced his first wife in New York. Now that she’d finally married her man at Paris’s city hall, she was feeling generous.
But, in 1928, a libellous article about Felix’s financial and sexual affairs caused more damage. The simple, well-cut dresses Irfe produced for 1928-29 were still featured in Paris Vogue. But Irina was depressed by the death of her grandmother, the Dowager Empress of Russia, and by the Bolsheviks auctioning off some of their former belongings in Berlin, while Felix had got swept up into unruly Bohemian Paris.
For a while, Irfe was kept afloat by Mrs Hannah Whoobee, a vast and comically uncouth Egyptian-born millionairess. She bought the Youssoupoffs’ house (they moved into the annex), giving them enough cash to stagger on. But even that didn’t last. Irfe was wound up two years after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, unable to survive without its American clients, who had vanished. Felix would later joke: “After this total defeat, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t cut out for business!”
But it wasn’t quite total defeat. In creating a narrower, elongated feminine silhouette at the end of the 1920s, Irina had predicted the lines of the next decade. Soon after Irfe’s collapse, the Youssoupoffs also made a big financial gain. In 1934, they successfully sued MGM over a film about the murder of Rasputin. Its suggestion that the mystic had seduced a royal princess was, Irina said, a libel against her. They made enough money to live on for the rest of their lives. They never saw Dmitri again.
In later life, Irina didn’t always appear happy. As Felix grew more outrageous – (Noel Coward sniped that Prince Youssoupoff wore so much make-up that bits kept cracking off into his soup) she retreated into herself. She chain smoked and became painfully thin. She did, however, enjoy parts of the unexpectedly Bohemian, free life her eccentric husband had opened up for her. She liked their summers in a tumbledown Corsican house. She kept open house for the arty guests who kept coming until Felix’s death in 1967.
That Irina loved her husband is clear from the touching final glimpse of her, in the French film that Felix finally allowed to be made about the Rasputin murder just before his death. Gaunt but composed, she sits beside her blind husband, who’s wearing a Blues Brothers-style black suit and sunglasses. They’re describing the long-ago killing of the peasant. “Princess, did you know in advance about your husband’s plan?” the interviewer asks. Rather wearily, she replies, “I knew.” It is only with the next question that she livens up. “Did you support it?” comes the French voice. Suddenly glowing with utter loyalty, she gives the firm answer, “Yes.”
The new Irfe, which opened eight decades after its predecessor, is a testament to the strength of the Youssoupoffs’ marriage as well as to their fashion house.
Olga Sorokina runs Irfe with the blessing of the Youssoupoffs’ granddaughter, Bebe’s only daughter Xenia Sfiris. Having stumbled on the story of Irfe in a book in 2006, so enthused was Sorokina that she approached Sfiris offering to revive the “family firm”.
“This introduction to the Youssoupoffs’ grand-daughter,” the Irfe website says, “became the turning-point in Olga Sorokina’s life.” It brought the story of the Youssoupoff family full circle too. Russian design based in Paris; style, but this time without the scandal.
Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett is published by Century.