A true constant in the fashion world, model Irina Kulikova may not be a household name, but she owes her start in the industry to one of Hollywood’s finest.
Irina, born on 6th August 1991, can claim one of the most strikingly original discovery stories in the business. In 2006, Irina was having dinner at a restaurant in Moscow. Her meal was interrupted by film star Liv Tyler, who had spotted the 15-year-old whilst dining at the same restaurant. Liv asked Irina if she was a model. Irina replied that she wasn’t. Liv called over her friend and introduced him to Irina: he was a scout from IMG, the largest modelling agency in the world.
Unsurprisingly, this modelling fairytale became the stuff of legend, making Irina – almost overnight – a name to watch. Teen Vogue dubbed her a favourite, using her in several editorials.
Irina made her high-fashion debut at the Autumn / Winter Calvin Klein show in February 2007. She also got the coveted opening slot for the Prada show, making her one of the most talked-about girls of the season.
Also closing shows for Louis Vuitton and Yves Saint Laurent, Kulikova had an extraordinary start for a model that was still, at this stage, an unknown quantity. Prada’s patronage worked its magic: Irina got noted by the fashion press, appearing in V magazine as one of their Top Ten Faces and an editorial in W, photographed by Craig McDean.
In July, Irina got her first major editorial with Italian Vogue, shooting with fellow up-and-comer, Lara Stone. The tail-end of 2007 saw Irina’s career sky-rocket with the announcement of several campaigns. The first to be announced were for Jil Sander and the second for Marc Jacobs’ new fragrance, Daisy.
The fragrance launch was one of the most anticipated of the decade. Jacobs, already a major figure in the world of high-fashion, was now going global with a fragrance. Everybody could now afford a piece of the Jacobs brand. Irina, with her quirky, delicate features, was cast as the campaign girl. Photographed by Juergen Teller, Irina was snapped lying on a field, clutching an oversized bottle of the fragrance. Aimed squarely at girls in their late teens and early twenties, the deceptively simple campaign was a huge success. The shot has since become one of the iconic campaigns of the decade, and nearly three years since its release, the perfume remains a top-seller.
The campaigns kept coming for Irina. She signed up to do an A/W campaign for Pringle and became a fully-fledged Prada girl, when she was selected to participate in the A/W campaign with Sasha Pivovarova and newcomer Anabela Belicova.
In September 2007, show season indicated just how far Irina’s star had risen. Walking for designers like Alexander McQueen, Chloe and Chanel, she also opened shows for Donna Karan, Marc by Marc Jacobs and closed shows for Alberta Ferretti and Rodarte. Doing 67 shows in total, it was a mammoth achievement. In the space of six months, Irina had become fashion’s hottest ticket.
2008 also started well for Kulikova, with another campaign for Prada. Irina did another editorial for Italian Vogue in February (again working with Lara Stone), and one for Chinese Vogue in April. She also landed the A/W campaign for American label Celine. Signed up in conjunction with Karen Elson and Tanya Dziahileva, the campaign (shot by Bruce Weber), was a perfect illustration of fashion’s obsession with quirky beauty, past and present.
In September, Russian Vogue named Irina a top model, and Irina was able to boast another mega show season with 55 bookings. Closing shows for Vera Wang, Giambattista Valli and Sportmax, Irina also appeared for Bottega Veneta, Chanel, Gareth Pugh, Lanvin, Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors.
2009 saw another career highlight for Kulikova, with her first magazine cover. She landed the February issue of Russian Harper’s Bazaar, with her first U.S Vogue editorial following just three months later.
Irina also got a second chance to work with Marc Jacobs, creating the A/W campaign for the label with photographer Juergen Teller. Teaming up with models Natasa Vojnovic and Olga Sherer, the three models worked perfectly against each other, their off-beat beauty a fitting companion to a label that’s made its name by creating beautiful things that are off the beaten track.
Irina also got cast for the A/W Mulberry ad, which like the Marc Jacobs Daisy campaign has become a modern classic. Shot by Steven Meisel, the campaign pairing Kulikova with Kasia Struss, was a dreamy evocation of couture sensibility. The girls were photographed in a forest sporting wildly frizzy hair. The girls oozed bohemian charm. The ad took the ‘fear factor’ out of high fashion, even reintroducing back-combing to mainstream fashion. The frizzy look, which had previously only been seen on couture runways, became a surprise real-life hit, with back-combed ponytails becoming the party staple that winter.
In 2010, January saw Irina star in another editorial for Italian Vogue and a spot in the Chanel Couture show. She also became the face of Philosophy di Alberta Ferretti. The label’s diffusion line was a piece of perfect casting for Irina: the collection’s ethos of youthfully quirky beauty matched Kulikova’s strengths exactly. Irina also got the lead in the S/S campaign for Marc by Marc Jacobs and an editorial for German Vogue in May, working with new Prada favourite Joan Smalls, plus Aline Weber and Elsa Sylvan.
To date, Kulikova’s career trajectory tells a story about fashion’s progress through the final difficult years of the decade just passed, and how the industry is working to redress the balance.
In times of crisis, there are really only two possible moves: play to your strengths or play it safe. Many larger labels have had little option but to go with the latter to ensure their survival. No-one can afford to take big (and expensive) risks at the moment, but the smaller items like shoes and bags are areas where labels can push a little further. Just think back to the Mulberry advert. Shot at the time where rumours of a recession were beginning to break, the ad is a snapshot of creativity selling luxury – and succeeding. In getting people to spend when times are tough, getting them to want, to lust, over that bag is half the battle. It’s forcing brands to think on their feet, and produce some very creative ideas.
Irina’s blend of quirkiness and high-fashion moxie makes her the ideal candidate to spearhead this new age of creative sophistication. Fashion’s best served as a happy medium: boring and bland make no-one happy.
Lines like Marc by Marc Jacobs and Philosophy di Alberta Ferretti are becoming as important as their ‘big sister’ counterparts. Just look at the press coverage given to the revival of Versus, Versace’s diffusion line. Typically aimed at younger consumers, diffusion lines were often considered an after-thought (money spinners at best), but now they are the life-line keeping many brands afloat. These diffusion lines are often people’s first introduction into the experience of buying designer, so therefore it’s vital that the campaign model to be aspirational but also inviting. Irina’s off-beat appeal is perfect for such assignments.
Where this leaves Irina is ideally placed. When the fad for safe-as-houses models comes to an end, models like Irina will be the focal point of the industry. Quirky always sells to the girls who can’t relate to the glamazons, and approachable-meets-quirky is a huge bonus for any model’s CV. Irina’s ability to marry high-street with high-fashion is what will inform the trend for models over the next ten years. Top models are rarely ‘on the nose’ (ie: pure sophisticate, the absolute epitome of the surfer chick). They usually have something that is a little off, but it works.
In the end, fashion is all about numbers. Not only is time money, but aesthetics can cost too, especially if you get the tone of a campaign wrong. What makes fashion wonderful – and able to weather terrible economic storms – is its ability to balance the two worlds. Aesthetics and finance may have little to do with each other in the real world, but in fashion, one needs the other to push it forward. Rather than remain one big negative, the recession has got fashion back in touch with its entrepreneurial spirit. We are now wearing shapes and silhouettes that five years ago were considered strictly avant-garde.
As much as she has already achieved, expect to see Irina’s career flourish over the coming year. Her blend of fashion cool and marketability puts her in pole position to grab the industry’s attention. The way forward will be for models who aren’t safe bets, but thrilling ingénues who will refashion what we think as being commercially viable.
This is about more than detail – it’s the big picture that’s finally getting the biggest transformation of all – and what comes next? Only time will tell.