Wardrobes full of couture, endless priceless jewels and never-ending shopping trips. It’s the kind of fashion scenario dreams are made of, isn’t it? For Countess Alexandra Tolstoy, the fantasy became reality when she met billionaire Russian banker Sergei Pugachev in 2008 and left her then-husband, an impoverished Uzbek horseman called Shamil Galimzyanov, for a life of unimaginable luxury.
‘I went into this whole other world. I remember the first time I arrived in Paris in jeans and a pair of Ugg boots. I went to the Plaza Athenee hotel and I thought, “oh my gosh I don’t fit in,”’ she tells me over the phone from her parents’ beautiful Oxfordshire home where she is seeing out the lockdown, and where five star hotels and all the other trappings of her time with Pugachev are now a distant memory. ‘I felt like Bridget Jones, so awkward. I’d never felt like that ever before, I was normally quite confident about the way I dressed.’
Her first taste of the oligarch life soon followed.‘That evening, President Sarkozy was giving a friend of Sergei’s the Legion d’Honneur, and there was a party at the Elysee Palace, and obviously I couldn’t go in my jeans and Uggs. So we went to Chanel and bought a dress. Of course, I’d never even set foot in a Chanel shop before, so it was exciting.’ Back in Russia after that Paris sojourn, ‘we went to the opera in St Petersburg, it was all these oligarchs and their wives. Where I would usually be wearing some sort of boho embroidered dress before, it just wasn’t formal enough, you needed couture.’
Alexandra Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s country estate, wearing Vika Gazinskaya
Until then, dressing up for Tolstoy had been more about style and craftsmanship than touring designer boutiques. As the eldest of author and historian Count Nikolai Tolstoy and his wife Georgina’s four children, her childhood in the countryside was as wholesome, homespun and Mitfordian U as they come.
‘My mother comes from a big family of seven and they made all their own clothes, bread and yoghurt. It was definitely not an extravagant mentality,’ she says. ‘My mother was amazing, she made me all these Laura Ashley things which were very special and my aunts knitted Fair Isle jumpers. I remember having a fantasy about feeding the chickens and I would be wearing something really, really pretty.’
She had – still has – the English Rose looks to match; subtly tanned from hours of outdoor pursuits, rosy cheeks and often wearing her blonde hair in Heidi plaits or tied up with a scarf. After teenage years spent living mostly in one army surplus shirt and a pair of jeans, Tolstoy’s style horizons were expanded when she began her adventures in Russia, living like a heroine conjured from the imagination of her distant relation, the Nobel Prize-winning author Leo Tolstoy.
Alexandra Tolstoy wearing vintage Eponine
‘I obviously didn’t have a very big budget, but when I lived in Russia, there was this amazing flea market on the outskirts of Moscow and I used to go at the weekend and hunt for antiques. I was always scouring around.’ Images from the time show her looking the bohemian ideal, wearing romantic blouses whilst leading horseback tours through the wilderness.
Her life with Pugachev took her away from all that, and transported her into a life where designer trainers were in, collections of Chanel handbags were vast and vintage market buys were out. But the eventual dramatic unravelling of their liaison was laid bare in a documentary which aired last week on BBC, The Countess and the Russian billionaire.
Their gilded life of globe trotting with a small army of staff evaporates as Pugachev falls out of favour with Putin, eventually holing up at his chateau in the South of France with Tolstoy and their three children, Aliosha, Ivan, and Maria, left to fend for themselves. Now she still has use of their home in Chelsea, a converted artist studio, but she could be thrown out at any moment by the Russian government. In the film, she bursts into tears as she considers what she’ll do when that comes to pass.
Alexandra Tolstoy horse riding in Kyrgyzstan
The pinnacle of Tolstoy’s new fashion life was dressing for Prince Albert of Monaco’s wedding in July 2011, an occasion which called for two new couture dresses: a yellow Fifties-style ‘Princess Grace look’ dress by Giambattista Valli for the day ceremony, followed by Valentino for the evening. ‘They’re just beautiful and I’ll pass them on to my daughter. They’re really works of art, some things I didn’t do totally wrong.’
Tolstoy is alluding to the discomfort which these indulgences eventually came to signify for her, leading her away from her instinctive style and appreciation for tradition towards a struggle to fit in and conform to being the sort of woman Pugachev and his circle expected.
Like how she began wearing blingy designer trainers. ‘I went quite “street”. Subconsciously, I got quite in awe of all those Russian girls in that world. And when you’re in an abusive relationship like that it makes you completely and utterly lose your confidence, you don’t even realise it’s happening. I thought I had to be someone else, I thought I had to be like those girls. I completely forgot that I’d done these amazing riding documentaries, that I’d been this adventurous person and those things suddenly seemed not very important because he kept telling me that they weren’t important and they didn’t mean anything.’
Alexandra Tolstoy cooking in a white embroidered dress
Since splitting from Pugachev, Tolstoy has been rediscovering not only her sense of adventure, but her true style. For her almost 50,000 Instagram followers (@alexandratolstoy), these memories of oligarch-style trophy buys will be impossible to conflate with the idyllic look she now encapsulates. Tolstoy has been spending lockdown at her childhood home, posting glorious shots of herself baking cookies in a folkloric dress by Ukrainian designer Vita Kin and perched on the steps of a handpainted gypsy caravan in a dress by German label Horror Vacui, which specialises in delicate, super-feminine florals. She’s a pin-up for authentic prairie chic.
‘I slightly lost myself thinking [the Pugachev-era clothes] were beautiful and actually it’s extraordinary how your vision can get warped and distorted. It took me two years to really look at these things, and think this was really not you and I don’t even like these things,’ she explains, switching in a breath from cheerfully recounting her incredible memories to her voice crackling with the stress and anxiety of rebuilding her life. It’s the reason she’s been selling off many of the fashion relics of her old life, first with a sale at her Chelsea home, and now with a newly launched website where her own cast-offs will be sold alongside those of other stylish women including stylist Martha Ward and creative director and store owner, Alex Eagle.
Alexandra Tolstoy wearing a Dolce & Gabbana dress now listed for £290 on her website
‘I wanted to cleanse that whole phase of my life and get back to who I really was,’ she says of her decision to sell off her designer wares. One woman’s confidence-shaking luxury purchases are another’s treasure. At the time of writing, there are dresses and jewellery by Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci shoes, Saint Laurent trainers, Hermes scarves and Valentino jackets available to buy. Tolstoy also wanted to show support for the small labels she loves to wear now, so there’s also a section with exclusive discounts for Alex Gore Browne’s knitwear, Pink City Prints’ Indian-influenced cotton pieces and O Pioneers’ Laura Ashley-esque dresses.
Alexandra Tolstoy buying textiles in Bishkek market
Tolstoy will donate 20% of the proceeds from her sales to St Gregory’s, a charity which helps poor families in St Petersburg. She sent a cheque for £5,500 from her last clear out. ‘I thought I’d just sell a few things but it went quite viral. I felt it was quite symbolic, it was out of Russia that this crazy life had happened and now I was giving something back which felt good.’
But she’s honest that it’s as much for her own family’s welfare that she’s doing it, too. Her travel business leading expeditions through the former Russian empire is on hold at the moment because of coronavirus and she has no help from Pugachev. In the chaos, she even lost jewellery she’d been planning to sell. ‘Someone who worked for us stole my jewellery and at first I was devastated because it was jewellery that I could sell to look after my children, I just thought “this is the end”, but actually you know I’ve managed to survive and it’s fine. They were symbols of a bad time so it doesn’t matter.’
She’s kept a few special pieces. Those Monaco wedding couture commissions and a tweed Chanel cardigan (‘they did a Scottish collection which is the kind of thing I love because it’s all about the countryside, so I’ve kept that’). But really she’s happiest in clothes which reflect her passion for tradition, craft and travel, mixing Hungarian textiles repurposed by Eponine London with Romanian shawls found on Etsy and Brora’s British knitwear.
‘I did really lose myself in that period and I’ve started dressing in a way that just wasn’t me. I lost myself, I lost my confidence.’ Tolstoy’s future might be uncertain but whatever it brings, she’s bound to do it in her own inimitable style.