When approaching an election, few political leaders would employ the tactic of issuing official portraits of them stripped to the waist, clad in nothing but combat trousers and a canvas hat. Yet that was the move made in August 2007 by Russia’s Vladimir Putin (then nearing the end of his second presidential term), after being photographed entertaining international dignitaries on a fishing holiday in Siberia. The holiday snaps were posted on the official Kremlin website and reportedly earned him the nickname Alpha Dog among US diplomats.
Three years later, in another pre-election stunt, he led a bikers’ rally astride a three-wheeler Harley Davidson. Cruising along to the hard-rock anthem of the Russian motorcycle gang, the Night Wolves, Putin rode sans helmet in a sporty black nylon blouson; he was one of the guys – yet still the leader of the pack.
Equally at ease in all-terrain utilitarian garb and a sharply tailored suit, the third-term president is no stranger to Action Man activities – staged or otherwise – with the attire to match. Tabloid-baiting antics have included boarding a Mir I deep-water submersible to explore the bottom of Lake Baikal in the Tuva Republic in Syria, wearing an electric-blue boiler suit; clipping a radio transmitter onto a Beluga whale while sporting a wetsuit; and flying with baby cranes in a motorised hang glider, wearing white overalls, black aviator goggles and helmet.
Licence to thrill?
Such escapades echo Putin’s strongman, some would say strong-armed, approach to politics; the compact, diminutive leader likes to keep himself in peak physical condition. Tellingly, while such showboating wouldn’t seem out of place from a hubristic Bond villain, Putin actually sees himself in the opposite, heroic role – his choice of wheels is a custom-made black Audi with the licence plate 007. His buff physique and ice-blue eyes perhaps mean he could pass for Daniel Craig’s evil twin, but he’ll always be more Blofeld at heart. When doctored Casino Royale posters were plastered around Moscow, depicting Putin as Bond, gun in hand, the Russian government was reported to be displeased, but it’s hard to imagine Putin wasn’t a little flattered. The same could hardly be said when pro-Pussy Riot posters took aim at his so-macho image, with one Pop Art-style design transforming Putin into a platinum blond transvestite with Day-Glo make-up.
In a 2009 BBC News feature entitled Ten years at the top for Vladimir Putin, Sergei Karaganov, an advisor to former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, described Putin as a “street boy turned into a very sophisticated political functionary and manipulator.” While moving swiftly up the social strata from street level (then a working-class lad with self-confessed thuggish tendencies) to KGB agent and then Russian president, Putin developed a voracious appetite for sartorial status symbols, albeit conservative ones. In terms of dress codes, he foregoes the typical oligarch’s ostentatious Russian bling for ‘stealth wealth’ symbols that have resonance in elite circles. Instead, he favours bespoke power suits in classic cuts, dark colours and fine fabrics from Brioni – the upscale Italian tailor famous for dressing Bond from GoldenEye to Casino Royale.
A touch of colour is injected at the neck, with rich woven-silk ties in classic shades like Bordeaux, although the overall effect remains cooly immaculate. Dressed as if braced for daily inspection, the suited, booted and buttoned-up Putin could never be accused of slovenliness, unlike predecessor Yeltsin; his is a look that emits a clear message: control. If persistent rumours of Botox jabs and minor cosmetic surgery are to be believed, the 60-year-old seemingly extends his self-discipline to his wrinkles, with one Harley Street surgeon interviewed by the Daily Mail attributing his fixed, fish-like expression to muscle paralysis, due to “too much work to the eyes”.
A 2012 report in the Moscow Times (citing information gleaned from Watches of a Kleptocrat, a video posted online by opposition group Solidarity) estimated the value of Putin’s collection of timepieces at roughly 22 million rubles – around $682,000 at current exchange rates – almost six times his declared annual salary of 3.6 million rubles ($110,000). One piece alone, a platinum A Lange & Söhne Tourbograph with hand-stitched crocodile strap, has a reported value of $462,000; Putin’s suit sleeve rode up to display the premium arm candy during a handshake with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin last June. Putin is said to be fond of peeling off his luxury watches and handing them out to common folk, with a folklorish flourish – the Moscow Times reported one lucky shepherd’s son in Siberia is said to be roaming the hillsides with a $10,700 Blancpain on his wrist.
A 2008 Vanity Fair profile of Putin, ominously entitled Dead Soul, claimed his KGB career was, in truth, a bit of a flop, with him operating for the most part as an agent in the German city of Dresden, “very far indeed from where the action was”, before being moved to “Leningrad, not Moscow, which means he had been written off by his superiors.” “Used up and all but spat out by the KGB, Putin had nonetheless been shaped by the agency. So it is not surprising that, 10 years later, when the KGB colonel suddenly got a chance to reshape his country, he remade it in the likeness of what he had known and loved best: a rigidly hierarchical, tightly controlled system closed to outsiders,” wrote Masha Gessen. Putin’s wardrobe certainly mirrors this synopsis. Be it military-issue camoflage gear or tailoring – sharp, structured suits, stiff white shirts and tightly knotted ties – the president is not one to lower his defenses. If, as Mark Twain said, “clothes make the man”, then such a self-made man surely treats his wardrobe like an arsenal.