Alla Verber, a retail executive who paved the way for the arrival of Western luxury brands in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and helped modernize the country’s leading department stores, died on Aug. 6 while on vacation in the seaside town of Forte dei Marmi in Tuscany, Italy. She was 61.
The cause was complications of blood cancer, which Ms. Verber learned she had a decade ago, a spokeswoman for TSUM, Moscow’s leading department store, said.
Ms. Verber, who lived in Moscow, was the fashion director for both TSUM and the historic DLT department store in St. Petersburg, both holdings of the Mercury Group, Russia’s largest luxury retail goods distributor. She was a vice president of the company.
At times called the most powerful woman in Russian fashion, Ms. Verber was a fashion industry veteran of 40 years and a flamboyant front-row fixture at international runway shows. In 2008, The Guardian quoted the Condé Nast editorial director Anna Harvey as calling Ms. Verber “the most important buyer in the world right now.”
A regular visitor to Paris, New York and the South of France, Ms. Verber was a boldface name in Russia, with 422,000 followers on Instagram tracking her lavishly outfitted jet-set lifestyle and her regular tongue-in-cheek video posts. Several of her signature catchphrases — among them “Going to a fashion show” (or “faah-shin,” as she pronounced it) and “Guess where I am?” — inspired T-shirt collections.
Ms. Verber was credited with persuading big-name brands like Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana and Armani to start operations in the fledgling Russian retail market in the 1990s and 2000s. She helped Russian consumers develop a fashion consciousness that had largely been lacking over seven decades of social uniformity under Communist rule.
“During the Soviet Union, people didn’t have much choice at all,” Ms. Verber said in an interview with The New York Times in 2007. “That’s why there is still a tendency in Russia for some wealthy people to be overdressed, especially women.”
She catered to a clientele that included oligarchs as well as members of an emerging middle class, offering them products by global titans like Chanel, Prada and Louis Vuitton as well as young local brands like Vika Gazinskaya and Viva Vox, part of a domestic fashion industry that would soon flourish.
“Alla was the fairy godmother of fashion in Russia,” said Masha Fedorova, editor in chief of the Russian edition of Vogue. “She was one of the first to bring European fashion to Russia and to teach women how to love fashion and to present themselves in a new era. She had an amazing eye and generous heart, but was also a tough and highly respected businesswoman. Alla knew what would be the next big thing in Russia before anyone else did.”
Alla Verber was born on May 21, 1958, in Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was known during the Soviet era. Her only access to fashion as a child was through tatty German mail-order catalogs.
In 1976, when she was 18, her parents emigrated to Montreal. A delay in obtaining her visa initially prevented Mr. Verba from joining them, so she spent a year in Rome. The experience there, she later said — being exposed to European luxury brands, observing the styles of Roman women — inspired her to pursue a fashion career. (Her father had wanted her to be a dentist, like him.)
Eventually making her way to Montreal and reuniting with her family, Ms. Verba graduated from college in Canada; married a businessman, David Averbakh; and worked as a retail buyer before opening her own boutique, Katia of Italy, in Toronto.
Her survivors include her daughter, Katia Verber; her mother; and three grandchildren.
In the early 1990s Ms. Verber was recruited by a Canadian company to help it open Trading House Moscow on the fashionable Kutuzovsky Prospekt, where she took an executive post. She joined the Mercury Group in 1995.
“When I first came to TSUM, it was already famous,” Ms. Verber recalled in an interview in 2017. “It was Russia’s first department store and had been opened in the 18th century. But it was not fashionable at all. It was just these very boring Soviet, or sometimes Chinese, products.”
As a Mercury Group executive she was tasked with creating fashionable, world-class department stores for a modern Russia, supplying them with the best brands and introducing an elite customer base to the latest trends. Her aim, she said at the time, was to build a Madison Avenue of Moscow.
With her flamboyant personality, charm and high-profile position in the buying world, she soon became Mercury’s public face.
She also worked to attract tourists to her stores, particularly those from China.
“Her dreams came true,” Alexander Reebok, Mercury’s general manager, said in an email. “Moscow became a fashion capital housing the most demanding customers in the world.”
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