“A Night of Fashion – Russian Style” featured models, vodka and maxillofacial reconstructive surgery. However, the surgery this fashion-week charity event supported wasn’t for the models; it was for children in Russia.
On September 15 in the black and gilded Ana Tzarev Art Gallery, “A Night of Fashion” burst with an auction, raffle and a runway show by Russian designer Randi Rahm. All of this was to support “Let’s Give Beauty Back to the Children” a program that funds surgeries for Russian children with severe facial deformities.
The fundraiser was hosted by the General Consulate of the Russian Federation in New York and the Russian Children’s Welfare Society, a not-for-profit organization that raises money for orphanages, education and medical projects in Russia.
The event, a first for the Welfare Society, was a night of juxtapositions. Despite the charitable cause, A Night of Fashion had a strictly guarded VIP section. The guests too were split between older, Russian émigrés in tuxedos and equally extravagant, though much younger, Russian immigrants wearing snakeskin boots and floral cravats. Even the event’s theme – a night of beautiful people – likewise contrasted with the cause it supported: facial surgery to correct abnormalities like cleft palates.
Nowhere was the macabre irony more palpable than in the minutes leading up to Rahm’s runway show.
Guests with non-VIP tickets bustled through the VIP section. Rows of chairs were pressed against the gallery’s paintings. Sometimes-Russian sometimes-English voices cooed over their multiple drinks and the arrival of super-model Sasha Pivovarova. And meanwhile, projected against the sidewalls of the room, a documentary on deformed and rehabilitated children flashed, largely ignored.
The video estimated that each year in Russia 30,000 children are born with deformities, with another 20,000 developing defects after birth due to trauma or illness. The Welfare Society calls these birth defects a “wretched burden” that leads to social cruelty and stigma, with 10% of untreated children abandoned by their parents.
However, Anna Sergeeva, the director of the Society’s New York office, says the group’s goal is more than just creating a prettier child. The surgeries improve overall health, she said, allowing the children to perform daily activities – like eating.
The Society has a healthy staff of volunteers and specialists, both in New York and Russia. While the affiliates in Russia run orphanages and conducting surgeries, the volunteers in New York help in other ways. Natalie Baronina has volunteered at several of the Society’s fundraisers, believing that even though she couldn’t help with her money, she could help with her time.
Still, for some, A Night of Fashion is just a party in a different language. “At most fashion-week charity events people don’t really seem to care,” says Pasha Kalachev, a volunteer and current student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “They come for the freebies and it makes them feel good to throw around some money for a good cause.”
On the other side of the spectrum are guests like Hayden Gwynne, a leading actress in the Broadway run of “Billy Elliot.” Wearing a Randi Rahm dress, she says that she showed up just as ‘moral support’ for the designer. “But to learn it’s for a fabulous cause makes [the event] even more exciting.” Despite not knowing much about the Welfare Society at first, Gwynne and her companions each bought one $20 raffle ticket as a pledge of support.
Sergeeva acknowledges that a fashion show is an odd choice for the Welfare Society’s fundraising. It has, however paid dividends. The night raised about $70,000 in total. After costs, approximately $42,000 will be donated to “Let’s Give Beauty Back to the Children,” said Sergeeva. The rest will cover incidentals like equipment rentals, printing costs and labor. All the catering, make-up, alcohol – even Randi Rahm – were supplied pro bono.
Two less obvious benefits of A Night of Fashion were the introduction of a younger generation of Russian immigrants to the Welfare Society and building philanthropy in the Russian community.
The Society has often appealed to the older set, but edgier and less conventional fundraisers like A Night of Fashion cater to the largely untapped set of younger, New York Russians. Beatrice Fekula, a Society board member, was enthusiastic about the cravat-ed, snakeskin boot-ed demographic at the event. Fekula and Sergeeva see them as the future of the group, with events like A Night of Fashion helping to connect the old guard with the new.
Her hope is that the collaboration is building a philanthropic spirit both in New York and in Russia. The Welfare Society has partnered with organizations like the Russian Aid Foundation and Kommersant newspaper in Russia that raise funds and awareness for Russian charities. Many Russians who grew up in the Soviet Union distrust not-for-profit organizations, as they were often quasi-government institutions lacking accountability, said Sergeeva.
A Night of Fashion hopes to be a small step toward dissolving some of that animosity and rebuilding principles of philanthropy in both Russian-Americans and the old country alike.
Photo – Zachary Sniderman