It’s easy to dismiss Elena Perminova as just another spoilt Russian couture customer. As the wife of Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB spy and funder of the Independent and London Evening Standard newspapers, she enjoys front row seats at every fashion show going. In the past month alone she has showcased an array of catwalk-fresh ensembles so exhaustive that she makes Cara Delevingne look lazy. She’s got legs up to her armpits – she’s a model, too – and saunters around capital cities looking nonchalant in Chanel haute couture.
But the 26-year-old mother-of-two has endured her fair share of stress in the past year. Her husband is accused of “hooliganism based on political hatred” after punching Russian property tycoon Sergei Polonsky during a 2011 TV talk show. His trial, which was delayed in Moscow in early February, could see Lebedev jailed for up to five years. Critics have claimed that the charges are politically motivated – Lebedev co-owns the Russian newspaperNovaya Gazeta , famed for its hard-hitting critiques of the Russian ruling elite.
Perminova is tight-lipped when I ask her how she feels about her husband’s championing of the free press in Russia. “I cannot help worrying,” she admits, “but he is doing it for the nation. Sorry for being pathetic.” She won’t be drawn on her own precise political beliefs, saying instead, “I believe in love, as our family’s friend Elton [John] sings, but I also believe in strong independent political institutions, political competition, independent judiciary, free press, free election.”
She is more comfortable describing her childhood in Berdsk, Siberia. “There are lots of bears walking in the street there and it is always -40°C. I’m joking!” Her predilection for feathers marked her out from her peers at an early age. “All the girls at the infant school dressed as snowflakes in for the Christmas matinee [show]. I was a yellow baby chicken. It’s very important to have a personality. I was nine-years-old when I realised my style was different from the rest. Blue hair, fox tail on the bag, jeans with hand-made stars sewn on – people were surprised at the beginning, but by the end they asked, ‘Where did you get this?'”
She met Lebedev, 52, under extraordinary circumstances. At the age of 16, Perminova was arrested for distributing drugs in a disco in Novosibirsk. “She cooperated with the authorities, and she almost got killed,” Lebedev toldTIME magazine in 2009. The police were unable to provide her with protection for aiding with the arrest of local drug barons, so Lebedev, who at the time was a deputy in the Duma and lobbying for a witness-protection program, stepped in. Perminova went on to study economics at Moscow State University, and eventually fell in love with Lebedev. The couple have two children: Nikita, 3, and Egor, 1.
Nowadays Perminova fills the ‘leggy blonde’ role in the clique of glamorous women known by bloggers and photographers as ‘the Russian pack’. Along with Ulyana Sergeenko, a couture designer; Miroslava Duma , a fashion journalist; and Vika Gazinskaya , a designer, Perminova courts the photographers in a series of so-on-trend-it-hurts looks – most of which, she explains, revolve around “feathers and hats”.
“Russians have such great roots,” she says of her compatriots. “We are all so different and everyone has individuality. Now I believe we are attracting the world’s attention by becoming so unexpectedly cosmopolitan. As for me, my nationality is often the last thing I am asked about when I am approached on the street. First of all, it’s ‘What are you wearing?'”