Last October in Paris, days before Demna Gvasalia was to present his first collection for Balenciaga, the 32-year-old stylist Lotta Volkova was in the house’s design studio, trying out looks on models—and on herself. She wrapped the seemingly endless straps of a pair of diamanté sandals high up her leg and attached them around her waist. The shoes wouldn’t make it onto the runway, but Volkova was smitten nonetheless. “These are amazing,” she cooed before moving on to an oversize trenchcoat and a pair of thigh-high metallic boots. She was working but also shopping. Her enthusiasm was infectious.

Volkova’s arresting appearance—sharp black bangs, pale skin, and forward-sloping ­posture—has by now become familiar to fashion insiders: In addition to styling the past four runway shows for the buzzy design collective Vetements, which Gvasalia also fronts, she’s modeled in them. And while Volkova herself didn’t walk in his debut Balenciaga show, ­Gvasalia’s sui generis casting came across as a procession of whey-faced Volkova clones.

Indeed, Volkova is, to a degree, the archetypal Vetements woman. “For our first presentation, we didn’t have any money to pay her, so I couldn’t ask her to work with us,” Gvasalia says. “Then she passed by the showroom to see the collection and said, ‘I love the pieces; I hate the styling.’ So we hired her from the second season on.” He laughs. “She got involved because she wanted to—and I thought we needed someone who wasn’t just Vetements. She loves Prada and things that I don’t relate to aesthetically—that was the interesting part.”

Volkova, on the Vetements fall 2016 runway

Kay-Paris Fernandes/Getty Images

More than a Vetements poster girl, Volkova is the embodiment of a particular moment in fashion, not only as a mannequin but also as a creative catalyst shaping the vision of a designer who is currently influencing how the world looks. It’s not a unique role, but it is rare. You can tick off half a dozen individuals who have had similarly symbiotic stylist-designer relationships: Yves Saint Laurent and Loulou de la Falaise, in the 1970s; Tom Ford and Carine Roitfeld, and Helmut Lang and Melanie Ward, in the ’90s. Those women helped define each designer’s distinct style—and helped define a fashion era.

So to call Volkova a stylist is an understatement. She’s present at every fitting for Balenciaga and Vetements. She weighs in on fabrics and tweaks details. The clothes are sometimes even fitted on her body—and she ends up wearing them better than anyone else. “I’m really interested in product,” Volkova tells me shortly after the Paris collections, as we sit in a restaurant near where she is staying with friends in Dalston, London’s answer to Brooklyn’s Bushwick. She’s wearing tight black track pants and a fitted hoodie. They could have been made for her—indeed, perhaps they were.

“I’ve always spent all of my money on clothes,” Volkova continues. “So, for me, fashion has to look like something you can actually wear; it has to be desirable.” A week after our interview, at the shoot for the Balenciaga resort lookbook, Volkova is sporting a baseball cap, a sample she had helped herself to at the design studio. That easily overlooked accessory would later wind up on the head of every model and, consequently, become a key feature of the collection. Volkova didn’t give hers back.

Volkova, in West London, 2000s;

Courtesy of Volkova

Her influence can also be discerned in the collections of Gosha ­Rubchinskiy, the men’s wear designer of the moment, whose model lineup, like Vetements’ and, now, Balenciaga’s, is unusual-looking and mostly street-cast; not coincidentally, the clothes are a Lotta-esque mishmash of oversize and undersize pieces, trailing sleeves, and clunky boots. Volkova is also working with other new talents, like the designer Sies Marjan, and styling an ever-increasing number of editorials for small but impactful magazines like Dazed & Confused, i-D, Document Journal, and 032c. Simply put, there’s a whole lotta Lotta going on.

Volkova grew up in Vladivostok, a Pacific port city that’s the last stop on the Trans Siberian Express. “It’s not like Moscow,” Volkova says. “It’s very suburban, very far away. It’s a big place, but still…” Her father was the captain of a cargo ship, and her mother was interested in art and fashion. “I was quite lucky in terms of my family. My dad traveled all over the world. We always had access to music, to clothes. He would bring us presents like cases of Coca-Cola, because we didn’t have it back then. Also Tina Turner videos, Depeche Mode tapes.”

A late-’90s postcard of Vladivostok, her home town;

Courtesy of Volkova

Hers is not a stereotypical tale of post-Soviet deprivation—she even had a computer and access to the Internet. She was only 7 when the U.S.S.R. was dissolved, in 1991, but it registered in her mind as a seismic event. “I remember it as a burst, an explosion of energy. Afterward, there were all these crazy articles about nightclubs, about drug culture, about youth movements, fashion. Fashion being something else—not just a Christian Dior coat, but belonging to a movement. My mother always encouraged me to be different from everyone else. That was very anti-Socialist, anti-Communist, and it really affected me. Even now, I want to do something creative that will make me feel free.”

Magazines began to trickle through following the fall of the Iron Curtain, and her mother started wearing labels like Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood. “And there was pirate television,” Volkova says, referring to the ’90s phenomenon of illicitly broadcasting Western films and programs via satellite. “Extracts of MTV. Extracts of…Beavis and Butt-Head!” With these came the fashion-heavy images of ’90s music videos and the anarchic British television show Eurotrash, presented by Jean Paul Gaultier and the French comedian Antoine de Caunes. “I’ve been quoted as saying that was my first real fashion experience—and, in a way, it’s true.” It was her mother who suggested fashion as a career path. At 17, Volkova was too young to enroll for a full degree at an English university, so she took three-month courses at Central Saint Martins. “Life drawing, silk-screen printing, photography…a Saturday fashion course. Random classes,” Volkova recalls. She had been to London before with her mother, but this time she was left to her own devices.

Volkova, at 15.

Courtesy of Volkova

“That’s kind of where my whole life began,” says Volkova, who eventually studied photography and fine art. “While I was at Saint Martins, I hosted a club night called Kashpoint.” Which leads us down the rabbit hole of the London club scene of the early 2000s and the tinny, ’80s-tinged, synthesizer-heavy soundtrack of the time, known as electroclash. The fashion designer Gareth Pugh—then obsessed with inflatable clothes and gimp masks—staged an early show at Kashpoint; Volkova, with her Russian accent and outré ensembles that bordered on sartorial performance art (think disco balls on her head), was the scene’s de facto muse. She was even photographed by Wolfgang Tillmans.

Soon she had her own line of clothing based on what she and her friends wore to go out. She called it Lotta Skeletrix, because she wanted it to sound more like the name of a band than a person. “It was very basic. Studded T-shirts, distressed jeans. My friends and I would make them ourselves,” Volkova says. The designer Nicola Formichetti, who at the time worked as a stylist and buyer for the boutiques the Pineal Eye, in London, and Side by Side, in Japan, sought her out and purchased the clothes for the stores. And then one day, when Volkova was shopping at London’s Dover Street Market, Rei Kawakubo approached her. “She really liked the way I looked,” Volkova says. Kawakubo gave her nascent line a corner in the store.

Volkova, with friends Yu Masui and Simon Grey in Kashpoint, early ’90s

Courtesy of Volkova

Volkova did a couple of shows in London and Paris focused on “unisex men’s wear.” In 2006 she staged a video presentation as part of the London talent showcase MAN, and held a runway show in Paris later that year. “She was a living subculture all of her own,” says Lulu Kennedy, whose nonprofit Fashion East initiative underwrites MAN. “I used to see her and her friends stomping around London looking superfierce and amazing.… They were these beautiful kids.” Volkova shrugs and grins at the compliment, saying, “Funny times.”

In 2007 Volkova moved to Paris, where she met the photographer Ellen Von Unwerth, who would become a good friend. “I styled my first shoot with Ellen and really enjoyed it,” she recalls. “I realized that was the part I liked the most: art-directing the pictures. Even when I had my label, the point was really to produce an image. That’s what I’m best at. That’s what comes easy. And I believe that things in life should come easy!”

“Easy,” “natural,” “coherent,” and “organic” are also words Volkova uses to describe her working process—specifically with Gvasalia, whom she thinks of more as a “sculptor” than a designer, for the way he works with fabric. “We’re very close, in general, but especially in the way we think,” she says of the Georgian designer. “We come from a similar background.” The same is true of Rubchinskiy. “We were born the same year,” Volkova says. “Exactly the same references. Same timeline!” That complicit outlook is what has made Volkova’s work with Gvasalia and Rubchinskiy so influential. There’s honesty to it, which goes a long way to explain why so many people are responding to the clothes. “For us, what we do is just a reference to something that we saw when we were growing up and found interesting,” Volkova says. “We know that there are still people who dress like this in Russia. And we want to show another point of view.”

Wolfgang Tillmans’s portrait of Volkova, 2002.

Courtesy David Zwirner, New York, Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin, and Maureen Paley, London

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