Karina Bondareva goes to the ball
A year since her Met Gala Challenge look went viral, Central Saint Martins' fashion print final year student, Karina Bondareva, looks back on the unexpected opportunities that followed
When last year's Met Gala was cancelled due to the pandemic, Pose star Billy Porter and American Vogue launched the #MetGalaChallenge on Instagram, inviting people to recreate their favourite celebrity looks at home. For Russian native, Karina Bondareva – who was days away from flying to New York to assist celebrity stylist, Jason Rembert, during the run-up to the Gala– participating in the challenge was the next best thing. It turned out to be more valuable than she could have ever imagined.
During her three-month internship at British bespoke men's tailor and retailer Gieves and Hawkes, Bondareva applied for internships in New York City to see her through the remainder of her placement year. It paid off; the 25-year-old's enthusiasm and portfolio worked their charm on Jason Rembert, who counts Rita Ora, Lizzo, and Winnie Harlow as clients. "I was set to travel to New York on the 11th of April,” but then the Gala got cancelled and the UK went under its first national lockdown. A couple of weeks later – when Porter announced the Met Gala Challenge on Instagram – she jumped at the opportunity to get involved.
"It's one of my dreams to dress Billy Porter, so recognition from him meant a lot to me"
"I knew I needed to recreate a look that was impressive and eye-catching, so I chose the quilted, feathered gown that Thom Browne made for Cardi B in 2019," she explains. With only one week to get her recreation from concept to the final outcome, Bondareva psyched herself up for six, 12-hour days of manually intensive work. Determined to use unconventional materials, she based her recreation on the large stash of A4 red paper she already had in her home studio in Oundle, Cambridgeshire. For the dress’ foundation, the designer settled on industrial cling film as it was the "cheapest, easiest, and most accessible option." After freehand drawing the original design onto her cling film structure, Bondareva spent an entire day cutting out 10,000 paper feathers for the dress' train.
Eager to build an audience to help get her dress noticed by Vogue and Porter, the designer documented the entire process on TikTok. Her first video (above) went viral and now has over half a million views. What took 35 people, 2000 hours to make, Bondareva recreated by herself in 72 hours. Not to mention, her materials – 500 sheets of paper, 120 hot glue sticks, and two rolls of industrial cling film – cost under £30.00. That's quite the bargain in comparison to the $500,000 ruby-encrusted nipples custom-made for Cardi B's gown.
"BILLY PORTER MENTIONED ME IN HIS INSTAGRAM STORY!" read an enthusiastic group chat text she sent shortly before midnight on May 3. The actor went as far as to say that he was "gagging" over the designer's paper creation. "It's one of my dreams to dress Billy Porter, so recognition from him meant a lot to me." A couple of hours later, Vogue reposted Bondareva's images on its Instagram account and website. "This might sound arrogant, but I actually drafted the caption I would use if Vogue featured my look because I believed it would happen," she admits. Just when she thought her dress had peaked in the media, the Met Museum sent her a direct message on Instagram to request an interview for its website. Unsurprisingly, this was her reaction: "Holy f*ck guys, the Met f*cking museum!" That same day, costume designer June Ambrose invited Bondareva to participate in her virtual Met Gala red carpet show. Of course, she wore her dress and headpiece for the occasion.
"This might sound arrogant, but I actually drafted the caption I would use if Vogue featured my look because I believed it would happen"
Days passed, and the press fizzled out, but Bondareva wasn't finished yet. Missing the high from being interviewed, the ambitious designer sent emails to newspapers and magazines to get the momentum going again. The first time around, nobody answered her. “Of all the media outlets I emailed, the BBC replied, asking me to record a video of myself talking about my dress and the process," she tells Plaster. Shortly after her BBC interview went live, Bondareva received a call from a publicist, enticing her with more press, money, and a possible interview with This Morning's Phil and Holly. Cautious not to undervalue or give up her rights as a designer, she asked her friend – a qualified lawyer – to review the contract. Together, they successfully negotiated a 50 percent share of the total press fee and the return of full image ownership after three months. In the end, the publicist got Bondareva one exclusive story with the Metro, which seemed insignificant in the context of all the press she generated through her own merit. "The experience was a massive learning curve. It taught me a lot about PR and the benefits and sacrifices you might need to make when working with a publicist," she says with hindsight.
Ultimately, Bondareva upcycled her dress into a permanent piece of wall art, which impressed the team behind the global youth platform, Junk Kouture. Last September, they commissioned her to make a series of paid, online fashion masterclasses for 12–17-year-olds participating in their international design competitions. Since then, the designer has given tutorials on paper crafts, DIY screen-printing, handmade lace, and techniques for overcoming design blocks from her eclectic flat in Euston, London.
Keen to retain and grow her TikTok audience, Bondareva's latest video series takes her 18,000+ followers behind-the-scenes of her graduate collection for Central Saint Martins, launching on June 7. It's not uncommon for fashion students, like Fredrik Tjaerandsen, to gain overnight success after showing their graduate collection at Central Saint Martins' annual BA Fashion show. However, Bondareva’s strategy should prevent her from falling off journalists' radar once they shift their focus onto the next emerging designer.
Even though the second half of her placement year didn't go as planned, Bondareva is grateful for the way things worked out. Maybe she will attend the Met Gala in the future – not as an intern, but as an established young designer with her own celebrity clientele. Billy Porter, prepare to gag again.