During the early rounds of Wimbledon, the tennis ace Serena Williams wrote on her Twitter page that she "didn't really recognise anyone" with regard to her competitors. When asked in an interview to explain, she said: "Everyone is from Russia. Sometimes I think I'm from Russia, too. I feel like, you know, OK, all these new 'ovas'. I think my name must be Williamsova."
By the third day of the haute couture season in Paris, I knew exactly how she felt. As one high-cheekboned blonde model after another sashayed down the runway, I began to get confused. Hadn't she just emerged? Was that the identical twin of the last girl? Or, her sister, perhaps? In some shows, the models looked so strikingly similar it was as if they were clones made in the same Siberian factory.
One of the guarantees of haute couture is not only that you will be treated to extraordinary fashions but they will be paraded a hair's breadth away from you by models who are the key players in the global modelling superleague. Which is why you can spot leading photographers such as Patrick Demarchelier, Mario Testino and Steven Meisel sitting in the front row taking notes. Haute couture shows are like an upmarket model casting for the next round of designer ad campaigns.
As the week drew on, it was clear the superleague had undergone a bit of pruning since the last ready-to-wear shows. A number of older girls had disappeared (Agyness Deyn? Lily Donaldson?). A couple of newbies had joined and others had seized the opportunity to move up the ladder. Clothes aside, the model story to emerge from the season was... The Attack of the Clones. Included in the new line-up was a small army of green-eyed, blonde-haired, high-cheekboned girls who could have marched straight out of a James Bond movie and who are dominating fashion.
There was also a sprinkling of superglamorous Brazilians, a few beanpole Poles, an American teenager and one very important Brit. The star of the week, who clocked up more shows and more opening and closing outfits than anyone else, was the goofy Moscow-born Sasha Pivovarova. Ever since her first modelling break, opening the Prada show in Milan in 2005, she has ushered in a new wave of elfin Eastern Europeans, many of whom look strikingly similar.
Having set the compass in terms of model trends, Pivovarova has since moved on and is considered something of a chameleon when it comes to her look. In Paris, however, she was expected to take her position as the chief clone. Having only just learnt how to spell Pivovarova and Natalia Vodianova (the other Russian supermodel), I quickly put myself on a crash course to swot up on other Slavic names.
At Christian Dior the roll call went something like this: Sasha Pivovarova, Vlada Roslyakova, Tatyana Usova, Denisa Dvorakova, Natalia Polevshchikova (also known as Natasha Poly), Anabela Belikova, Georgina Stojiljkovic, Tanya Dziahileva, Yana Karpova, Michaela Hlavackova, Laura Blokhina. When I asked the person next to me if she knew who this or that particular blonde, long-legged creature was, the reply was always the same: "No idea, another Russian fembot."
After three days of shows, I did, however, begin to familiarise myself with the faces. This week, as I examined the July issues of the glossies, many of which include the fall/winter 2009/2010 ad campaigns, I was able to name them. Here goes. Anna Jagodzinska is a 21-year-old Polish model who is the new face of Stella McCartney Nude fragrance, Calvin Klein and Bottega Veneta. She's one of the hottest models around.
When a grainy 30-second Calvin Klein TV advert shot by Meisel and featuring Jagodzinska was banned in the US in January for being too risqué, it got more YouTube hits internationally than any television commercial could have hoped for. A little bit of notoriety never hurt anyone, certainly not a model. Whereas previously she had lurked off the supermodel radar despite walking 250 runway shows on the international circuit, including Marc Jacobs in New York, Prada in Milan and Chanel in Paris, the Calvin Klein campaign helped her secure the cover of US Vogue in May.
Anja Rubik is another Polish-born model and one of the new faces of the Gucci campaign. The former face of Chloé has notched up an immense number of campaigns, from Estee Lauder and Jimmy Choo, to Dolce & Gabbana, Tommy Hilfiger, Gap and Giorgio Armani. Since cutting her long hair short last year, she's bounced back into the top 10. Who else? Vlada (real name Elena) Roslyakova is a 22-year-old Russian who had to change her first name when she discovered that she shared it with (at least) one other model.
Born in Omsk, Siberia, the petite-framed blonde appears to have been cloned from Pivovarova. Since her catwalk debut in 2004, this girl has walked for everyone from Prada to Chanel. Karl Lagerfeld chose her to be the look-book model for his haute couture 2008 show. He recently replaced the baby-faced Australian Gemma Ward with Vlada for his own brand, Karl Lagerfeld. "Russian girls are made to model," says Jane Duval, the influential British scout who discovered Alexa Chung at the Reading music festival when she was 15.
"Their bone structure is balanced. Their bodies are perfect for clothes fitting. Photographically, they look great from every angle and they are really calm and professional." Many also look younger than their years, which is not a bad thing in a profession that chews you up and spits you out by the time you are 24. One leading fashion editor told me she had run into a Russian model she had worked with during the haute couture shows in Paris. The model was blowing out candles on a birthday cake.
"How old are you now?" asked the editor. She was shocked when the model replied that she was 18. "If she was telling the truth, it meant when I first worked with her, oh at least four years ago, she was only 14." Russian models start young. Take Natasha Poly, for instance. She is 24 and has been on the catwalk for years. Poly is one of the faces of Gucci for autumn/winter 2009/2010, photographed by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin.
In 2004, the stick-thin Poly wowed the audience at the Victoria's Secret fashion show (famous for using all-American girls with curves) with her sultry sashay. She has since clocked up campaigns for Fendi, Bottega Veneta, Dolce & Gabbana, Roberto Cavalli, Givenchy, Jil Sander and Gucci. She has just appeared on her fifth French Vogue cover and recently had an entire issue of Russian Vogue dedicated to her.
But it's not all about the East. Caroline Trentini is an elfin-faced Brazilian blonde who could pass for a Russian
if it wasn't for her bust. In March, she proved that Brazilian girls could match those skinny Russians at high fashion by posing on the cover of the March issue of Elle Brazil in Russian-themed clothes inspired by the pre-autumn Chanel collection. Then there's Lara Stone, the gorgeous gap-toothed model who is the body of the luxury swimwear label Eres and the Italian brand Dsquared2, created by Madonna's great buddies the Canadian twins Dan and Dean Caten.
Despite being considered a veteran at the age of 25, she was one of the brightest stars of the recent fall/winter Paris haute couture season, chosen by Lagerfeld as the innocent bride in Chanel. Two non-Russians who stood out at the couture shows and were chased by paparazzi were the 17-year-old Karlie Kloss, an American who looks like a young Jane Birkin, and Jourdan Dunn. Kloss is Marc Jacobs' latest muse and will star in ads for his new Lola fragrance. Dunn is a 19-year-old black British model and Italian Vogue cover girl who is being booked for her sense of individuality.
"The look is moving on to something a little bit more unusual and individual," says Duval, who works closely with agencies including Storm, Select, IMG and Zone. "I recently found a six-foot Russian girl called Olga who is a quarter Japanese but very fair. She looks like a wolf. Clients are going mad for her. "The trend for Asian-looking girls is good at the moment," Duval says. "Jourdan Dunn can look slightly Asian. I am working with a model who is half-Indian at the moment who has been scouted by every agency but is still very shy about going into the industry. It's inevitable after a period where models all look the same - the next era will be models who have mixed parentage and look unique."
Ruth Edwards runs the small agency Zone in London. It has around 70 models on its books, many of whom could be working anywhere in the world. "We see a move back to fresh-faced English-rose type girls. One of our most successful girls at the moment is Gergana Popova, who happens to be Bulgarian but looks fresh-faced and different from all the rest." Zone's newest model hope is simply known as Lizzie. She was scouted at an indie music festival on the Isle of Wight in the UK.
"She's an accomplished singer, has a high academic standard and amazing grace and poise. She's an all-rounder and will appeal to the younger generation. This will be a very real trend. It's not enough simply to be blonde anymore." (Lizzie is brunette.) "We see the music industry as being the biggest influence at the moment," Edwards says. "The next batch of models will all look like indie rock chicks."
Could the Russian model revolution soon be "ova"?