By Grace O’Neill
It’s a comic twist that Rozalia Russian’s life arc could be straight out of some epic Slavic novel. Born in Tashkent in the former USSR, Russian’s family emigrated to Melbourne when she was a child “with $250 and one suitcase”—in the early days, her mother had to work two jobs to put food on the table. In keeping with trajectory of a young Russian girl destined for greater things, Russian (nèe Demb) developed a keen interest in ballet as a child, a pastime in which she was so talented the Australian Ballet School offered her a spot in their illustrious student program on sight. She trained aggressively six days a week for years, until suddenly, aged 17, she realised she didn’t want to be a career ballerina—“my heart wasn’t in it,” she says now. She dropped out of ballet school, finished her VCE and began working as a PA to a property developer, then later at a children’s modelling agency. Then she met her husband, the nightclub mogul Nick Russian, at one of his clubs (“Rozalia Russian the Russian” was his opening line). Their 2012 wedding caused a frenzy, largely due to Russian’s wedding dress, a bespoke creation by J’Aton Couture that inspired countless copycats and blasted the newly-wed Russian onto the radar of every fashion-loving Melbournian.
Nearly a decade on, Russian is considered one of the country’s most preeminent social media influencers, with more than a quarter of a million followers and partnerships with names like Louis Vuitton, Armani, Dior, and Tiffany & Co. In 2020, she turned her sights to creative direction, co-designing sell-out collections with the Australian brand Attoir (Kylie Jenner wore pieces from the Rozalia x Attoir loungewear capsule, if you want some idea of the reach of Russian’s influence). When we speak in November, her partnership with the shoewear brand Billini is going gangbusters on Instagram. Those collaborations solidified a lesser-discussed fact about Russian, one more interesting than her hysteria-inducing fashion choices: she is a highly astute businesswoman. Russian was, for example, one of the first influencers in Australia to sign with a talent agency and begin monetising her social content. That was in 2013, and she was the agency’s first social media hire. “It actually started with clothes for my daughter,” she says. “I was being sent all of these gifts for her and I would upload something saying ‘Thanks so much for this jumpsuit’ or whatever, and then I’d hear from brands that they’d completely sold out pieces because I’d posted about them. My husband said ‘I think you should be charging for these posts’, and I started thinking that this might actually have legs.”
But in the early days Russian suffered, as so many women in her profession did, from being underestimated or not taken fully seriously. Influencers occupy a strange no-man’s land between modelling and marketing, and while the most successful ones display a deft ability to navigate both, it took the fashion industry a protracted minute to see their full potential. “We were one of the first teams to actually go out to market and pitch different content ideas to brands,” Russian says. “At the time, people couldn’t get their heads around it. It was like, ‘Why would a brand pay someone that isn’t a model to wear their clothes?’ But now you look at all the modelling agencies and they have social divisions.” The early years were a period of trial and error, as budding social media stars figured out how to craft a career with longevity. “It’s taken us a long time, and we didn’t always get it right,” Russian admits. “At the very beginning it was all so new and exciting, I had all these different brands wanting me to promote their products. I was pushing everything from you know, luxury clothing to a mop,” she laughs. “It was a matter of whatever job comes through, we take it, but obviously that wasn’t the right way to work. We saw very early on that my audience would stop believing me if I was using a skincare product one day, then an entirely different one the next day. Now I can say genuinely, hand on heart, that I only work with brands on a long term basis, and brands that I genuinely believe in and actually use. We’ve worked very, very hard to have that privilege.”
Still, as one of the country’s sartorial north stars, Russian is inundated with clothing from brands desperate to dress her. It was in the spirit of reducing waste and extending the lifespan of her favourite pieces that Rozalia first began working with Pre-Loved Closet. “When it comes to event dressing, it’s often the case that I’ll wear something once and very rarely get to wear it again, but those clothes are too beautiful to sit in my wardrobe collecting dust,” Russian says. “I love the idea that other people will get to experience them. I remember one year Viktoria & Woods made me the most beautiful Melbourne Cup outfit—it was made out of scarves—but it had already been photographed everywhere so I wouldn’t really get the chance to wear it again. I sent it to PLC and Lisa [Anderson, PLC’s founder] told me a customer had bought it and worn it to a wedding and absolutely loved it. I saw a picture and she looked amazing in it. And the team at Viktoria & Woods saw it and thought it was amazing that the dress got another outing.” Promoting the circular economy and a more considered approach to shopping has become increasingly important to Russian. “As I get older, the more I steer away from that fast fashion idea of buying a new outfit every single weekend,” she says. “I try to invest in pieces that I’ll wear to death: beautiful blazers, great denim, a great pair of black pants.” She namechecks Wardrobe NYC, the brainchild of stylist Christine Centenera, as a current favourite, drawn to their masterful tailoring and ‘capsule’ approach. “I’d much rather invest in quality items that are timeless.”
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