Alice catches up with Nadja Solovieva, the designer behind the niche luxury scarves brand Vassilisa.

'I always had a desire to produce things which women adore. Things which are a source of beauty.’ So starts my interview with Nadja Solovieva, the esteemed designer behind the niche luxury scarves brand, Vassilisa, inspired by Russian mythology. Stocked by Harvey Nichols since 2007, worn by devotees such as Kate Moss, Charlize Theron and Cate Blanchett (bought not borrowed), it is an example of a thriving online business. But in the dog eat dog world of fashion, not to mention the vast miasma that is the world wide web, how does a new brand reach its zenith and survive? That’s what I’m here to find out as I visit her Knightsbridge studio, a beautiful mews house nestled off a quiet tree lined square.

Solovieva comes from a decidedly artistic background having trained at Central St Martins. ‘I see my scarves as a form of decorative art,’ she says. The design process starts with a scrapbook of inspiration, the modus operandi learned by designers the world over at Central St Martins where she studied. Then it’s choosing fabrics, an eye always on sustainability, indeed Vassilissa scarves are made from a mix of cashmere and modal, and are known for being decidedly larger than average, thanks to Solovieva’s decision never to cut off the fabric’s excess but to incorporate it into the scarf itself, hence their unique frayed edges. ‘I love beautiful things and sustainable things, goods which one does not necessarily need but which have so many usages per item. Modal is made from a beech tree, it has incredible thermogenic qualities; it’s cool in summer and warm in winter. I’m now looking into more innovative fabrics made from eucalyptus and bamboo.’ Needless to say Solovieva is a trained member of The Centre for Sustainable Fashion.

But design and materials aside, it is navigating the web that has been the designer’s greatest challenge. ‘I had a website for a long time, but I didn’t really do anything with it, I just wanted people to see the identity, the spirit of the brand, but then I knew I had to look at e-commerce seriously.'

After ten years of wholesaling, it is the only way to maintain a consistent dialogue with my customers. Hence Solovieva found herself an early adopter of the myriad Google apps fit for purpose (she still uses them for free as a result). She immersed herself in the digital world, consuming tutorials at a furious pace, attending sessions at Facebook and keeping abreast of all the latest technology. She realised she had to develop her skills in tech as well as in business. ‘I perceive the internet as an alternative reality in which I feel very comfortable. I had an account on Second Life where I used to shop and make dresses and build things,’ she laughs.

When the website launched, sales came in almost immediately, ‘But that’s because I had a core list of customers who transferred to online, but the digital cost per sale of establishing the business is high.’ To counter this, Solovieva does pop ups where she can directly engage with her customers. ‘I want to be inspired by them, to know what their wants and desires are.’ She is still flummoxed however by Instagram. ‘It just doesn’t convert for me. Also I am a little annoyed by the amount of freebie requests from bloggers. Especially pay per wear, for this product which is so expensive to make.’ For her valued devotees, there is a rewards programme now in effect, a points system for customers, but also rewards for recommendations.

The vast and forever changing ad words conundrum is her bete noire. ‘You need to have experts to do ad words and Facebook ads because it is a separate art. With my category, which is luxury scarves, it is almost impossible to compete in search results. I’m lucky that I started out very niche and exclusive and there was a lot of word of mouth. Something beautiful has an effect on people, they want to share it and they want to help, that was very lucky for me. I also have a business partner in Japan so I also get quite a bit of traffic from there.’ Another challenge for Vassilisa is that major affiliate programs want traffic and to get that traffic one needs serious capital. That is the designer’s catch 22.

So what would she say to other designers hoping to follow in her footsteps? To launch a brand sold online, the distribution managed by them and them alone (all the Vassilisa stock is shipped from London). ‘Unless this is your life, I don’t know that it’s really possible to do it,’ Solovieva says wistfully. ‘I have been offered jobs in banks and funds and I didn't know what to say. It’s a small niche, art driven brand. That’s the life you have to want.’

Solovieva does two collections, per year. Mythology is her greatest inspiration, often drawn from her research into folk personas. ‘Vassilisa (the beautiful) is a fairytale mythological character, it also means the Queen in the Greek language. She was turned into a frog, She had to find true love to become a woman again….’ The designer looks up to strong women like Carmen Busquets, the pioneering Venezuelan fashion investor and entrepreneur and board member of Net-A-Porter until 2010. ‘She’s a real artist. I love women with individual substance in their own way.’

I ask her one final question, ’I don’t have any leadership quotes!' She answers with an infectious laugh, ‘I don’t have any mottos!’ But she does have a beautiful product and a burgeoning business, no small feat in the world of online retail.

December 2017

Alice Kahrmann