As a name to know in fine jewellery, Alina Barlow has melded two seemingly opposite halves: her rich Russian roots in extreme climes with a bright Australian optimism. By Alice Birrell.
People said to me: ‘Are you all right?’” Alina Barlow recalls on a glaringly bright day from her newly opened boutique for her jewellery label Alinka in Sydney’s Double Bay. She is recounting her fellow students’ reactions to her wardrobe as a 19-year-old economics undergraduate, newly arrived from Russia. “I would wear high heels to university. Then they wear very short shorts and T-shirts and thongs and that’s in?” she says, laughing.
Leaving her native country behind, she found herself easily seduced by the Australian people and lifestyle – and was convinced to downgrade from heels to something more casual along the way. “I’m very big on exploring the culture when you are in a country and just being open. I just fell in love with Australia. It’s a beautiful, magical place.”
Today, as head of her own four-year-old label, she prefers footwear to be comfortable, owning up to a taste for Golden Goose sneakers and Dior slingback kitten heels. “Actually, I’m wearing them right now,” she says of the heels. “I have a busy family life and a busy, busy work life. And then also I love being social, so for me the shoe has to last from early morning until 7pm.”
Commanding 10-plus staff members and now working with overseas stockists like Harvey Nichols, she can trace the happy derailment of her corporate career to her childhood in Saint Petersburg, where a paucity of necessities spurred her to create. “I grew up in Communism, as in the form you read about in books where you go into stores and the shelves were empty. I still remember rations,” she says. She would plait and twist lengths of wire into jewellery she could trade for toys and chewing gum. “I would express my creativity through that.”
Her designs now, black and white diamonds in white or yellow gold, are deliberately minimal, focused on no more than one or two contours so as to slip seamlessly into a signature wardrobe. It is an interesting direction, given she takes inspiration from Russian literature and the elaborate characters they conjure, like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, a book she has read several times. “I like that French minimalistic chic. I find Russian culture and Russian architecture have a lot of French influence, and when you think of Russian aristocracy in the beginning of the 20th century they all spoke French, and communicated in French. Perhaps the minimalism comes from that modern take on things,” she says.
Water too is a constant touch point, the way it transforms from lake to ice to snow in the extreme Russian seasons. “Walking along the banks of the Neva in Saint Petersburg I feel inspired by the closeness to nature. I find all the water’s edges and angles inspiring.”
That Russian sparkle is still there, just subtly refracted as the glint of snow. In her own wardrobe it features on her own Alinka bracelets with stars and an evil eye. Heels too have made a return, although this time for another purpose: “My favourite thing to do would be to have a dinner party with friends, and probably finish it with a bit of dancing.” You can take the girl out of Russia … ”I just think it’s your heritage, for me I just respect and love it. It’s my everything.”
Alina Barlow outside the Alinka boutique in Sydney’s Double Bay, wearing a Christian Dior dress, $35,000, bra, $1,900, belt, $1,850, and briefs, $1,400. Alinka necklaces, bracelets and rings. Her own Cartier bracelets and Rolex watch. Louis Vuitton shoes, $2,130.