Who’s that girl? Magazine editor, fashion icon, gallerist, socialite, art patron…30-year-old Dasha Zhukova has everyone from Moscow to London to New York wanting to know more and more about the elusive beauty. Born in Moscow, the only child of a molecular biologist, Elena Zhukova, and an oil magnate, Alexander Zhukov, Dasha Zhukova moved to California with her mother after the end of her parents’ marriage. She spent 12 years in Los Angeles, then moved back to Russia after graduating from UC Santa Barbara. Clearly at home across international society, Zhukova now lives in London with her son and her billionaire boyfriend, U.K.’s Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich. The two met at a friend’s dinner party in Moscow soon after he separated from his wife (to whom he handed a cool $300 million divorce settlement) and had just sold his stake in private Russian oil company, Sibneft, to the tune of $13 billion.
As the daughter of a wealthy Russian family, then as an international “It girl” who is a regular in the pages of Vogue with pals like stylist Giovanna Battaglia, Margherita Missoni and fellow Russian beauty, supermodel Natalia Vodianova, and now as the romantic partner of Abramovich, Zhukova has found herself measured in relation to those around her. One could even speculate that Zhukova’s rise is a direct result of her relationship with Abramovich, but she is clearly keen to carve out her own success—proven by her CV boasting an impressive list of professional achievements: founder of the IRIS Foundation, which works to promote the understanding and development of contemporary culture, fashion designer with her own label, Kova & T, and head of The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture.
Her days of appearing on the pages of magazines as a model (and editing for Pop magazine) have gracefully faded into running her own fashion and art magazine. Garage magazine, founded in 2011 as a companion to the art gallery of the same name, immediately caused a flurry of media interest through a controversial cover image featuring a butterfly-tattooed labia. The butterfly tattoo was designed by possibly the only artist capable of making the statement: the always naughty Damien Hirst. In fact, several prominent artists created tattoos for the first edition of Garage. The Chapman brothers, for example, tattooed each other and the magazine itself handed out temporary tattoos across New York City. Garage, now in its third installment, most recently featured a gay pregnant rabbit on the cover and is a paean to the cause of same-sex marriage. Pinar Yolacan, a photographer and video artist, created a fish-themed spread for the issue. Clearly the publication has no desire to play things safe and, much like Zhukova herself, Garage has positioned itself somewhere in the interstitial territory between notoriety, fashion and art. Of course, these links between high fashion and art are being increasingly explored with the work of fashion designers such as Alexander McQueen presented in museum shows and artistic prints informing the collections of newer design stars such as Mary Katrantzou. In this case, as with much else, Zhukova appears commendably in step with the times.
Back in June 2008, Zhukova hosted an event to celebrate the opening of the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow. The gala itself lay somewhere in between the glittering but elegant excess of War and Peace and the voluptuous degeneracy of Dmitri Karamazov. The late Amy Winehouse performed for three hundred international guests at a rumored fee of $1 million in the Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage, a cavernous architectural landmark in Moscow roughly the same square footage as the Tate Modern. The only work of art installed in the gallery was a massive light installation, by the artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, resembling a ghostly inverted Christmas tree, which pulsated light throughout the space. In suitably lavish Russian fashion, the revelers drank vodka and champagne and dined on a mix of Piri-piri shrimp and steak. The guest list offered a similar surfeit of delights as celebrities mixed with art-world luminaries; Ronald Lauder and Princess Caroline of Monaco mingled with Jeff Koons and his hugely influential art dealer Larry Gagosian as they celebrated the opening of the new heart of contemporary Russian culture.
An event of this nature could perhaps be seen as a product of our particularly consumerist times, a 21st century extravaganza reflecting celebrities and celebrity artists. Yet a similar approach was far from unheard of in the annals of the art parties of Moscow. In fact, that evening in June represented more of a return to the norm for a capital that has repeatedly been the home of the world’s greatest art collections over the past two centuries. Little more than a hundred years ago, the Morozov Palace on Smolensk Boulevard, home of the art collector and textile tycoon Misha Morozov and his stunning 18-year-old bride Margarita, opened its doors every weekend to lavish brunches for the city’s intelligentsia, artists and glitterati alike. The bonds between wealth, art and fashion are historically powerful and remain undimmed today—especially with Zhukova (and Abramovich) on the scene.
“Basically everything she touches becomes a success,” says Nicolas lljine, a prominent expert on Russian contemporary culture, referring to Zhukova’s detailed involvement in the running of Garage and her essential capability of bringing the most interesting and versatile people together. Although her entry onto the slippery stage of the international art scene appears to be rather sudden and a range of interests could be seen as masking a lack of focus, the culture of the industry tends to forgive a lack of experience, if it is coupled with a talent for clever delegation, heavy spending and sophistication. Her interest in fashion and style has evolved to take on and succeed in the daunting task of creating a cultural institution, which not only makes a national impact and provides patronage for a local art scene, but one which is noted by the international art world. In a similar fashion to her 19th century predecessors, Zhukova has followed the lead of well-known experts and art-world insiders to help her realize a functioning and organic art museum. And Zhukova’s youth, beauty and bank account certainly doesn’t hurt.