The Russian-American Princess

Photo: Michele Asselin

Kira Plastinina, who will turn 16 next month, likes to tell people that her first ambition was to be a princess. It was, she explains, “when I was little.”

Kira, a tenth-grader at the Anglo-American School in Moscow, became a fashion designer instead. She was in New York in early May for the opening of her first U.S. store, on that hyperactive strip of Broadway between Houston and Prince Streets, and was staying at the Gramercy Park Hotel with her thirtysomething aunt Olga. Both Kira and Olga were wearing sweatshirts Kira had designed: Olga’s had three sparkly stars on the chest; on Kira’s, a large X was filled in with words lifted from the text-message log on her BlackBerry Curve: SWEETIE, it said, and GORGEOUS, and then HE DOESN’T DESERV—. Both were wearing jeans and high-heeled shoes and carrying shiny patent-leather bags. Kira’s father, Sergei Plastinin, the multimillionaire juice-and-dairy king of Eastern Europe, would be coming for the opening itself, but on this afternoon, it was just Kira, Olga, and Kira’s U.S. PR team drinking tea on the roof.

“When I grew up, I stopped wanting to be a princess. I always said I wanted to be a designer,” Kira explains. “Or do something that has to do with fashion.” Her English is perfect, with only the slightest Slavic weight at the ends of sentences and words. She has long pin-straight brown hair and round brown eyes, and says “like” with the same frequency as an American teen. She has a Paris Hilton accent on the word cute, so that it comes out “cyut.” She loves ponies, puppies, and the color pink. She talks a lot about her best friends and says that her social life consists mainly of sleepovers. She’s met Hilton twice—the first time was when Kira’s dad reportedly paid Hilton $2 million to attend one of her shows. “She’s just really sweet,” Kira says. “She wears my clothes, I really like her, she’s fun. We sort of talked about people writing stuff that’s not true. I would get upset, I would be, like, why, it’s not true. But now that I’ve talked to Paris, I feel better.”

What did Paris tell you? I ask her.

“Try not to read it.”

By the time Kira finishes the tenth grade next month, seven more U.S. shops will have opened, which, combined with the 49 Kira Plastinina shops that dot Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, brings the grand total to 57. Fifty-seven spangly, vinyl, magenta-and-mirror temples to teenybop, clubland fashion in the form of capri-length neon-green lace leggings, white faux-fur shrugs, metallic motorcycle jackets, and endless iterations of the bubble-shape mini. Robyn on the sound system and massive, co-branded Dylan’s Candy Bar pinwheel lollipops for sale, too. “It’s not just like a regular lollipop,” Kira says. “It’s pink. But, like, Kira pink.” She already does shoes and bags and has a signature scent. Kira is the artiste-in-chief, but she definitely has help. “This lady came with a huge box of smells,” she says of the creative process by which her perfume line was created, “and I picked stuff out.” The end result is, she says, “beachy.”

Kira Plastinina was born on June 1, 1992, less than three years after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and nine months after Boris Yeltsin faced down the August putsch. She arrived in a world flooded with Western ideas, images, and products and a culture desperate to absorb them. One of these ideas was orange juice, because not long after the wall came down, Sergei Plastinin, from a region north of Moscow, tasted OJ from concentrate. He found it delicious and was thrilled to discover that it cost one-sixth the price of regular juice. Russian juice, at that time, was widely available only in three-liter unbranded bottles.

Imported foods were starting to hit the market, but they were expensive. Plastinin decided that his role in the new Russia would be to bring this genius concentrate to the people. He’d brand it as if it were foreign. He came up with the name Wimm-Bill-Dann, which he thought sounded (think Wimbledon) quite English. (Never mind that it said made in russia right on the package; it just didn’t say it in Cyrillic.)

The juice took off, and Plastinin expanded. In 2006, he shrunk his role in what is now a $5.6 billion business and went hunting for new opportunities.

The luck and the timing of Kira’s birth put her in a perfect position to be a walking, talking, dressage-competing poster child for what the Russians are now calling the zolotaya molodezh, or “golden youth.” These MTV-watching kids are the first generation of post-Soviet superrich Russians, and theirs is a hyperluxurious world of private planes, fast cars, and an unembarrassed, unironic relationship with their extreme wealth. According to Forbes Russia, there are 110 billionaires in Russia, which makes Moscow the most billionaire-dense city in the world. (And then, of course, there are the millionaires … ) And they’ve moved out from Moscow to conquer the West: They vacation in Saint-Tropez and the Italian countryside (where Kira insisted that her father take riding lessons, so they could gallop through a forest together), and to London and Paris (where Kira met Vivienne Westwood, who told her to spend some time at the opera and the ballet).

Left, the Kira store on lower Broadway, like all the other Kira stores, is anchored by a pink pouf. Right, the Kira wall in her stores commemorates - who else? - Kira. Photo: Jennifer Graylock/AP Photo

Kira officially became a brand when she was 14 years old. She had always liked sketching dresses in her notebooks during class and dispensing fashion advice to her friends on the weekends. “Also,” she says, “when I was little I loved to go shopping.” She would buy adult clothing and enlist people to tailor it to size. And then there was the time she took one of her mother’s scarves and refashioned it as a dress for her Barbie.

It’s pretty standard teenage fare, but Kira Plastinina has something most teenagers don’t: a superrich Russian father.

“My dad asked me to show him the sketches of what I really liked and what I think is cool, and then I think he showed it to some professional people, but I don’t know because I wasn’t actually there. And then my dad said, ‘Are you willing to do this?’ I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Kira wriggles up and down a bit in her chair, beating her thighs with her fists. Yes, he was serious, and, yes, she was willing. “I was really happy,” she says. “I have, like, the best parents a girl could wish for.”

Sergei Plastinin arrived in New York several days after his daughter to attend the opening of her shop. He was with a dark-haired, blue-eyed woman: his wife, Olga, who is Kira’s stepmother. They would stay for the opening of the store and then fly to Miami for a weekend at Casa Casuarina, the flashy new hotel in the house where Gianni Versace was killed. It was vacation, that trip, but he conceded that they’d check out a retail location or two as well.

“I was interested in diversifying,” he explains, with his wife translating. He is not confident in English, and his wife, with her clean-scrubbed face and serious demeanor, is. “In terms of fashion, there was no one player in Russia with a significant chunk of the market share. It was very much like the food-production business was fifteen years ago. So it was a segment that I considered very interesting for investment.”

His interest moved fast. He hired an entirely Russian design team, and the company launched in February 2007. After that, the openings came fast and furious, with twelve in Moscow in the first six months. A large Russian advertising agency was hired to bring Kira’s life story, and her fashion tastes, to the Russian masses. “The interest was huge,” Sergei says. “We knew right away we should go worldwide.” Sergei smiles and shrugs a little. He is wearing a white shirt, jeans, and a dark blazer and looks pleasantly rumpled. “She is very good, Kira,” he says. “She even picks out my clothes.”

“You have to understand,” says Bob Higgins, the president of the company in America, “that Sergei is a businessman who looked at Kira not as his daughter but as a prodigy. She is the story. She is a 15-year-old girl, and she is the brand.”

The brand still goes to school full-time. Afterward, she’s driven to her office. Mondays and Thursdays, she presides over what she calls “the Style Council,” where fit models parade before Kira and her design team in muslin realizations of her notebook sessions. Kira & Co. then tweak. “I say what would be cooler and better,” she says of her role. There is a Russian stylist, a woman in her thirties, whom Kira calls “my right hand,” who is with Kira through each and every fitting.

The line is all about Kira, and Kira is all about pink, but not just any pink. There’s a certain shade of bright, nearly magenta pink that Kira calls, alternately, “my pink” or “Kira pink.” “I love pink,” she says. It was her idea that the stores all have a signature piece of Kira furniture: a round pink vinyl couch that Kira calls “the pouf.” After working four, five, or six hours, Kira is chauffeured to the house she shares with her mother, Sergei’s first wife. There is a lot of traffic in Moscow, so she does her homework in the back seat.

“She has always lived in a very intense way,” says Sergei of his daughter, describing a life of piano and dance lessons, after-school clubs. Since launching the business, though, she’s given it all up. All, that is, except for her horse, which she cannot bear to quit.

“His name is Baloven,” she says, clasping her hands beneath her chin, “and I just love him so much. His name means someone who is spoiled and treated too well.”

I ask Kira if Russian teenagers are any different from Americans.

She stares at me blankly, and wrinkles her nose. “I think teenagers are all the same everywhere,” she says.

Left, with Paris Hilton, an important role model. Right, Kira's father, Sergei, made his fortune in juice concentrate.Photo: Maxim Shemetov/Itar-Tass/Newscom

More than ever, she’s right. A generation ago Russian teenagers were trading for jeans on the black market and listening to hopelessly out-of-date Billy Joel. But there’s no lag, anymore, between the culture that European and American teenagers consume and what makes its way to Russia. Kira and her friends vacillate between punk and pop and R&B with the same immediacy as their counterparts in Orange County or Leeds. They study photos of Lindsay Lohan’s leggings, Nicole Richie’s hair. Kira’s friends wear Abercrombie & Fitch, Topshop, and Hollister, bought during trips abroad or ordered on the Internet. Kira’s on MySpace every day. Her favorite movies are Cruel Intentions and Mean Girls. She watches Pimp My Ride and likes Hilary Duff because “she does a lot for charity.” “I wouldn’t say my design is really Russian,” says Kira, seemingly confused to be asked. “It’s not Russian like red dresses and things like that.” To Kira, to be Russian is to tap into a folk tradition from the past, to dress like a patriotic matryoshka doll. “It’s just really girlie, sweet, and, like, it is a little bit of a princess world, but like a stylish princess.”

“You start out thinking, Oh, she’s Russian so it’s going to be really different,” says Higgins. “But then you realize that she’s truly a modern teenager. The way teenagers work now, what they’re influenced by, the trends they’re following, are all over the globe.”

Sergei, too, finds it pointless to assess the Russianness of the brand. “It’s global,” he says.

“The customers are girls who are similar to me,” says Kira. “They’re girlie, they’re cute, they’re sweet.” She looks down. “They’re sexy, too. But, well, they’re sporty.” Each collection is organized around a theme, but there is a consistency to the Kira Plastinina look. Although there was an equestrian show (riding hats), that was also quite heavy on pink tulle tutus.

The most recent collection featured the “more edgier side of Kira,” she says, explaining that she’d been listening to Blink-182 a lot. But always, the clothes are undeniably, inevitably poppy. There are belly-baring T-shirts with cats’ eyes on the chest. There are shiny motorcycle jackets, brightly colored leggings, and short, short skirts. There are tiny skintight T-shirts splashed with the loopy cursive logo (a heart dots the i in Kira). They are kind of like doll clothes, but doctored up to pre-hips human size.

And as for next season, Kira has already begun to think: “On the eighth of March is the women’s holiday, and one girl wrote me a letter that was a really nice letter,” she says. “There was this one phrase in it: ‘I hope that the prettiest butterfly would sit on your hand.’ That just inspired me so much. It was such a good present, to give a butterfly to someone, and then I thought, What if the theme for my next show would be butterflies?

Kira Plastinina is wandering around her first New York shop less than 24 hours before its opening. “I said I wasn’t going to come till it was open,” she says. “But I couldn’t wait. I was so excited.” She looks around. Armies of sales assistants are steaming stubborn creases out of shiny satin minidresses. “Tomorrow, I’m going to get the pinkest ribbon and the pinkest scissors,” she says.

On a flat-screen television are scenes from Kira’s brief career: Seven girls are aggressively mugging and vamping down a runway. “They’re the girls from Star Factory,” she explains. Star Factory is a Russian television show similar in content and popularity to American Idol. Kira designed the costumes for the girls and was a regular guest on the show, which, she says, was great for the brand. The runway show ends, and the video cuts to Kira holding a microphone. Her shyness is gone, and she is flipping her hair, tucking her chin coyly, and interviewing Paris Hilton.

Kira starts moving around the store, touching all the clothes and smiling absently. The vice-president for merchandising for Kira in the U.S., Ron Barajas, a middle-aged guy in jeans, sneakers, and hair gelled into a modified faux-hawk, follows closely behind her. She holds up a short, tiered miniskirt. “I love this,” she says. “But I can’t wear it to school because of my dress code.”

“It’s very directional,” says Rod.

“I like this vest,” says Kira. “It looks like a rainbow.”

“She expertly tailored the vest,” says Rod. “It’s masculine and feminine, so you’re like, Oh my God, wow.” He gestures to the seam. “I mean, where else are you going to see something like that?”

“See?” asks Kira. “A rainbow.”

On opening day, Kira made the store’s very first purchase, which she does every time she opens a store, for good luck, and then she climbed into the Escalade that had been squiring her around town all week and went to the airport: In Moscow, she had exams.

As befits a Russian girl with an American dream, Kira is planning to move to Malibu for the summer. By August, there will be twelve Kira Plastinina shops in the U.S., and Sergei Plastinin thinks it best that his daughter spend some time in her new frontier. (By October, there will be twenty more U.S. stores.) She is, after all, the brand, and how do you market the story of a 15-year-old girl when she is stuck in school in Moscow? Kira’s Russian staff will come to help out if necessary, but Higgins is currently interviewing American designers to fill out the Los Angeles design studio that Plastinin is setting up.

A stable has already been hired as well as a house on the beach. In between launch parties and work, Kira plans to work on getting her driver’s license, learning to surf, and perhaps navigating the precarious adolescent transfer of love from horses to boys, preferably surfer boys, which are in short supply in Moscow. She has already met Audrina from The Hills, who was “very sweet.”

“And I’m going to get a pig,” she says. “A potbellied pig.” She lifts up her shoulders and buries her chin. “Like a miniature pig.” She hugs herself for a minute and sighs. “It’s so cute.”

Her arrival in L.A. will be announced with a launch party and runway show two weeks after her 16th birthday.

A portion of Kira’s New York visit involved a serious planning meeting for the event at the midtown office of her publicists, who have laid out platters of cookies and fruit for the occasion. Kira munches on a chocolate-chip cookie and pays rapt attention.

“We’re inviting tastemakers, media elite, daughters of,” says one of the publicists.

“And sons of,” Kira says quickly, and then she blushes. Her phone goes off, with a loud, poppy ringtone. “It’s Mariah Carey,” she says of the song, digging sheepishly through her bag.

The party will be set up like a closet, a huge white-and-pink fantasy closet. Kira’s closet. Kira in Wonderland. Does Kira know about Alice in Wonderland?, someone wants to know. Of course, she says. “But my favorite part is the ‘kiss-kiss’ wall,” she says. The kiss-kiss wall is a place where Kira’s friends can write good-luck notes in pink marker. Pink lipstick will also be provided, in case her friends want to kiss the wall too. The party’s really big event will be a performance by the dimpled R&B star Chris Brown. “I want to watch,” Kira says, “ ’cause in Russia one of my favorite Russian singers sang at my fashion show and I was backstage working and I didn’t get to watch.”

“You’ll get to watch,” says one publicist.

“We’ll make a special spot for you, right on the stage,” says another. “Your grand entrance.”

“I want to come down from the ceiling,” Kira says, laughing, “into Chris Brown’s arms.”

She’s blushing again, but determined. It’s going to be the Sweetest 16 ever.

The Russian-American Princess