Olga Vilshenko learned to sew by her mother’s side in a tumble of fabric and yarn at her home in the Ural region of then Soviet Russia. Under communism, clothes were born out of necessity and conformity but in her mother’s hands they would come to life with rich folkloric embroidery...
“My grandmother taught her and then, in turn, I learnt from my mother,” Olga says. “I would not be where I am right now in both my personal and professional life if it was not for her. She taught me how to be a mother, a woman and a businesswoman.”
Now with three boys of her own (“I am still trying to understand this ‘man’s world’ I now find myself in!”), she has channelled that craftsmanship into a luxury brand sold in 15 countries. Her embellished designs on clean silhouettes – printed silk chiffon or embroidered linen dresses, folkloric capes and jacquard wide-leg trousers – make light work of summer dressing, especially when it comes to weddings and occasions. Gwyneth Paltrow, Rose Byrne and Maggie Gyllenhaal are all fans of her particular take on feminine cool.
Balancing her time between her family home and studios in both Moscow and London, next month will see the launch of her e-commerce site.
Olga tells us how she juggles it all, her top Russian beauty tips and how to stay focused as a working mother…
What do you remember about your childhood?
Being raised in Soviet Russia there was a lack of variety in stores then, especially for women’s clothing, so most women were either making their own (like my mother) or having their clothes made. Our home was more of an atelier as my mother used to make clothing for all of our family and friends; my father used to say ‘This house is no longer a house!’. I loved it and growing up with my sister we were fascinated by the process and always volunteered to help.
Tell us about your mother?
She was so creative and my biggest inspiration – I definitely share my love of fashion with her. She was always making beautiful garments and would design, cut and sew all of our clothes – the entire process. The intricate detailing and embroideries have been a huge source of inspiration for my work.
What do you remember about what you wore?
I was always in feminine clothing, mostly floral print and polka dot dresses or a blouse and skirt, all of which were made by my mother. Now I still love to wear a feminine dress (always Vilshenko) and it has to be comfortable with two young boys. If I’m dressing down I will wear a Vilshenko blouse with jeans and a tailored coat.
Did you know you wanted to be a designer when you were growing up?
From a very young age, I was always so intrigued by the design and making of clothes that when it came to choosing my career, it was the obvious path. Unfortunately, there was nowhere in my town to pursue my dream after I left school, so I followed in my mother’s footsteps and went to university to study accounting and finance.
You studied in Russia and then came to London to the Istituto Marangoni – what did you love about the city?
I was so happy to move to London and I still find it one of the most inspiring, vibrant and diverse cities in the world. Being in London, I finally understood the process and bigger picture of what it would take to become a fashion designer. I found my first studio in Soho where I started creating my collection. It was a step-by-step process. Soon after, I opened another studio in Moscow for sampling and production. I started with just one member of staff and we are now a team of 30. We are set to launch our own e-commerce site next month, which is another exciting milestone.
Many amazing women have worn your dresses- do you have a particular favourite?
It has to be when we were presenting the collection at Le Bristol hotel in Paris three years ago and Alexa Chung just walked in after seeing our sign in the lobby. I’m so lucky that she has been a fan and supported Vilshenko from the beginning, it was such a pleasure to meet her.
Do you have a career highlight?
It would have to be in the very early days when Florence Welch [lead singer of Florence and the Machine] wore Vilshenko for a concert on the BBC. I couldn’t believe it – it was my first ‘wow’ moment.
Tell us how you manage your time?
It has always been difficult to structure my days and diary and to keep the balance at the same time. I go into the office every day but try to keep Fridays for family time. I am busier than I expected in London but I love living here now. As a family, we feel like we don’t need to travel too far as it still feels like a holiday here.
Do you have any tips on remaining focused?
To follow your gut feelings and stay true to yourself. Always remember why you started and what the dream was.
What is it like raising three boys?
They are very different and there is a big age gap between my eldest and two youngest. It is nice being friends with my eldest son and great to have fun playing with my little ones – we’re a team.
What has motherhood taught you so far?
It can be challenging but I think if you decide to become a working mum you need to accept help from your relatives, husband or nanny if you are lucky to be able to do so.
Do you find it hard to switch off?
I feel I never do, even on holiday, I am always in contact with the office – if I’m not I feel guilty. I think as you get older though it is important to be able to switch off from time-to-time.
How do you keep a healthy relationship with social media?
I post my children and family, but only on my personal private account.
Running around after three boys must keep you fit but do you exercise as well?
I do yoga every morning for 20 minutes and go jogging on a Saturday morning. I do also try to mix it up sometimes and do more cardio. I think it is important to listen to your body and so some days I will just take the time to relax.
How else do you take care of yourself?
I like to try and treat myself to a spa treatment on a Friday if I can, although this isn’t always possible!
Do you have any Russian beauty tips you could share?
I always use ice cubes in the morning and evening on my face and décolletage for blood circulation. I also use a hard brush for my body and after showering use a natural oil.
What do you love to eat?
I love to cook and try to be creative by creating my own recipes. I like to be healthy and use only organic produce. I am almost vegan, I stopped eating dairy, and I don’t eat meat but will sometimes have fish and seafood. I also think it is important to detox every so often.
What are your secrets for a strong marriage?
My husband is very supportive in everything I do and I am appreciative of everything he does for us, I can’t praise him enough.
How would you describe your interiors style?
We now live in London and also have a country house just outside of Moscow. I keep the same modern and minimal style in both homes and it is important they are homely and comfortable with good quality furniture. I worked with Design & That on the interiors for the London flat who introduced me to amazing brands like Monologue London, SCP and Pinch. My favourite homeware stores are The Conran Shop and Heals for larger pieces, but I also like to find one-off treasures at Kempton Antique Market. A little industry secret is Edit 58 – I love the paper mache animal heads for the children’s bedrooms.
And is there anything at home you would never part with?
My new Mr Jago artwork.
Olga Vilshenko’s little list of loves:
Daphne’s Italian restaurant in London
Christian Dior lace-up boots
JW Anderson’s Pierce bag
Nicholas & Alexandra by Robert K Massie
The film the Phantom Thread
Akasha Spa at the Hotel Café Royal
Hotel Costes Eau de Parfum