However, none of the women recognize the reason for these limits on their luxury purchases: the war in Ukraine. And none of them mention the discrimination based on nationality that underlies Russia’s attack on Ukrainians. As millions of Ukrainian women flee with barely any clothes on their backs, mourning the loss of their home, their country and their deceased loved ones, these Russian fashionistas are raging against a luxury company’s attempts to limit their wearing chic handbags.
There’s irony in the specific brand that sparked all this outrage on Instagram. While the house of Chanel originated in France, it has come to represent widespread European luxury and elegance. And so, to destroy a Chanel bag in the name of Mother Russia is to destroy, in a way, a symbol of Europe itself.
Chanel also has a particularly deep but little-known connection to Russia, particularly to pre-revolutionary Imperial Russia. Coco Chanel’s affair with an exiled Romanov king, Grand Duke Dmitri, cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, profoundly influenced her aesthetic in the early 1920s. Chanel No. 5, the cornerstone of the entire brand, was created by Ernst Beaux, former perfumer to the Tsars (to whom Dmitri introduced Chanel). His famous costume jewels — strings of pearls, Byzantine crosses — are inspired by Russian imperial jewelry.
Chanel even hired Duke Dmitri’s sister, Grand Duchess Marie, to create Russian embroidery designs for textiles. To this day, many design elements considered quintessential Chanel are actually derived from Russian Imperial motifs. To attack Chanel as anti-Russian ignores the company’s long-standing Russian ties, just as Russians who attack Ukrainians as traitors ignore the deep, often familial, ties between the two groups.
The final ironic twist is that Vladimir Putin’s war seems to stem from his fantasy of restoring Russia’s imperial past – and becoming the dying czar of an expanded empire – but few luxury brands contain so much imperial nostalgia. Russian than Chanel.
Perhaps for wealthy and glamorous Russian women like these influencers, being deprived of the full use of their handbags constitutes discrimination. Maybe that alone drove them to make those angry videos. But consciously or not, their performances have exploited and re-enacted many of the deeper issues at play in the current war their country has unleashed.
Fashion doesn’t exist far from the grim realities of the world and serious politics. On the contrary, fashion and the events it inspires function as a kind of symptomatic dreamscape, a screen on which society projects and replays its greatest fears and turmoils. Watching these members of Russia’s elite rip apart their prized handbags, straining to push razor-sharp blades through thick leather – which is, after all, the skin of once-living creatures – it’s hard to miss the analogy with the disaster unfolding in Ukraine. And it’s hard not to shiver.