Keeping their feet warm in winter is something Russians mastered centuries ago – with the help of valenki, traditional winter footwear. Few, howevever, would have predicted that this piece of woolen history would become a high street hit.
“Our store offers models for men, women and children – all decorated by hand,” designer Yulia Yurova told RT. “Flower designs are very popular. Also, valenki decorated with painted pictures look very nice. Men like various emblems and symbols, and motoring fans often order models with Porsche and BMW signs.”
Their name means “made by felting”. Felted out of sheep’s wool, valenki have been worn by generations of Russians. Warm and 100 per cent natural, they are even said to have healing qualities, helping cure back and joint pain. Down the centuries, valenki have adorned the feet of peasants and tsars alike.
These days you are more likely to find them gracing the pages of fashion magazines, championed by designers like Yulia Yurova. She makes sure fashion lovers can have them made to their taste.
“When I started four years ago, very few designers saw valenki as a product worth working with,” Yurova told RT. “Traditional plain-looking models were considered to be country footwear. But when they are decorated, valenki can become a true work of art!”
Fur, lace, beads, sequins and even jewels – anything goes to make the traditional fashion-forward. While basic manufactured models can be bought for around 600 roubles, the exclusive one-of-a-kind designer versions will set you back a whopping 15,000 roubles.
Far more than folk heritage turned fashion hit of the moment, valenki are seen as part of the Russian way of life and even of the Russian national character – at least if the display at this museum is anything to go by.
Opened in 2001, Moscow’s “Russian Valenki” museum not only traces the history of the boots but also teaches you how to make them and tells you everything there is to know about valenki.
“Valenki are often dubbed ‘the Russian miracle’ – because they don’t have a single seam, and no scissors, needles or threads are used when making them, just felting,” Elvira Garaeva, director at the Russian Valenki Museum, told RT. “They are not just part of our national winter costume, they are a true felted sculpture we can be proud of.”
The old footwear has proved to be extremely versatile. Now, instead of putting them on your feet, you can carry valenki on your arm – as a handbag. Designer Ksenia Sheleg decided the old traditions needed a little bucking up and has produced an accessory that she says is sure to put you one step ahead of the crowd.
“I like bold and unusual looks, so I made myself this handbag as an experiment,” Sheleg told RT. “But then people started asking me where I got it and where to buy one, so I started making them for sale. I take ordinary boots, add a chain and a lock, and decorate them. Such a bag can suit any woman and fit any style.”
So if you want to keep the cold away in style, valenki prove that the best things never go out of fashion.