Moscow: Valenki Boots
Posted by Kris Roman on January 5, 2009
James Hill for The New York Times
In Russia, a land of cruel winters and even more unforgiving strong drink, legends of homemade hangover cures are treated with an air of great seriousness. Peter the Great is rumored to have favored a steaming bowl of cabbage soup and a walk around the palace in a pair of his favorite valenki — thick wool boots long popular in the wilds of the Russian countryside for their supposedly restorative properties.
These days, valenki are making a stylish comeback in Russia’s capital, with Moscow’s young and fashionable wearing them out in the city’s cafes and nightclubs. Some of the most popular are made by Olga Chernikova, an accidental designer who began making valenki as a hobby five years ago, when she returned to Russia after spending several years in Nigeria.
Now she produces a few hundred pairs of the boots a year, which she makes by hand at her apartment in downtown Moscow, and her first collection, at Russian Fashion Weekin 2007, sold out in a few days.
“At first, a lot of people think that they’re something for the village or the collective farm,” Ms. Chernikova said of the boots. “But why shouldn’t we remember that we’re Russians? The Scottish have their kilts, and we have our valenki.”
Her cramped, four-room apartment, just steps from the Belorussky train station, doubles as both a workshop and showroom, with dozens of pairs of valenki in varying stages of completion scattered around on shelves and on the floor. Ms. Chernikova has help from her uncle, who supplies the wool from his village about 280 miles from Moscow, and from her mother, who sits at the kitchen table and knits patterns on the boots.
A pair of Ms. Chernikova’s plain boots in grey felt sells for 2,000 rubles (about $70, at 29 rubles to the dollar), and more intricate designs, like a pair stitched with the 1960s-era insignia of the Soviet Navy, cost from 2,000 rubles and up.
“They’re great for when your legs are tired and dragging,” Ms. Chernikova said, as she slid her feet into a pair of cream-colored boots that came to just below the knee. Many clients, she said, have developed something of a dependency on the wool boots and their supposed healing powers. Ms. Chernikova said she couldn’t sit down to eat at the dinner table without a pair of valenki on her feet. “My body needs them, you could say,” she said.
Ms. Chernikova’s wool valenki are sold in clothing boutiques throughout Moscow, and by appointment at her apartment near the Belorussky train station; firstname.lastname@example.org.