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Originally published Tuesday, July 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Russian label Irfe, founded by exiled aristocrats, rises from its ashes at couture week in Paris

The history of Russian fashion label Irfe reads like a rollicking best-seller, but for designer Olga Sorokina, it's a fairy tale come true...

The Associated Press

PARIS — The history of Russian fashion label Irfe reads like a rollicking best-seller, but for designer Olga Sorokina, it's a fairy tale come true.

Almost eight decades after the original house of Irfe shuttered its doors, Sorokina presented her first collection for the label during couture week in Paris, with the hope of restoring it to its former glory.

Models paraded on the steps of the Palais de Tokyo contemporary art museum in bias-cut silk gowns and rich astrakhan fur jackets inspired by the sleek fashions of the 1920s and 1930s.

"The story of this house is a part of Russia's history and heritage," Sorokina, speaking through an interpreter, told reporters at the presentation late on Monday.

Founded in Paris in 1924 by Prince Felix Yusupov and his wife, Irina, the niece of the last Russian Czar Nicholas II, Irfe rapidly conquered a following amid chic European and American customers who were dazzled by its aristocratic founders.

The fact that Yusupov had played a part in the murder of the self-declared holy man Rasputin at his family palace in St. Petersburg added a frisson of excitement.

But the prince had little business sense, and two years after the 1929 Wall Street crash ruined his most prosperous clients, Yusupov was forced to shutter Irfe.

Only two of the house's original creations survive, as many American clients used to clip the labels out of the dresses they bought in Paris in the hope of evading customs duties.

Sorokina said she was drawn to the label after reading "Beauty in Exile," fashion historian's Alexandre Vassiliev's account of the artists, models and nobility who fled the Russian Revolution and influenced the world of fashion.

She contacted Xenia Sphiris, the granddaughter of the founders, who agreed to relaunch the brand.

"We thought about it and we talked about it and the idea was fantastic, and I know that my grandparents loved that house," Sphiris, who was born Sheremeteva, told The Associated Press.

She said the label was financially backed by Russian businessman Andrei Strukov, but Strukov declined to comment on his involvement or to detail the shareholder structure of the new firm.

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The relaunch of Irfe is testament to the growing purchasing power of Russia's new rich, who have joined the exclusive coterie of haute couture clients in recent years.

Sorokina, a 23-year-old former model from Belarus, is riding on the coattails of this meteoric rise.

She confessed she was nervous presenting her creations in Paris, where prestigious houses like Chanel and Christian Dior are unveiling their latest made-to-measure creations to wealthy clients this week. Nonetheless, she was confident of making her mark.

"Paris is definitely still the capital of fashion, but in a few years Russian designers will break out in the international market," predicted Sorokina, who was dressed in a closefitting cream silk trouser suit of her own design.

Irfe has bold plans for a fledgling firm. It expects to open its first store on Moscow's exclusive Stoleshnikov Lane this winter, with further shops planned in Paris, Milan and New York.

Irfe also plans to introduce a perfume range and a line of jewelry based on the legendary jewels of the Yusupov, Sheremetev and Romanov families.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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