Connect to share and comment

Betting on young clubbers

Entrepreneurs think their new store selling hip American fashion can flourish despite the free-falling Latvian economy.

Dressing the part: Club-goers mingle at Moscow's Solyanka in January 2008 (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

RIGA, Latvia — What do you do when your country’s economy is disintegrating before your eyes — all around you businesses are closing down and tens of thousands are being hurled into unemployment?

If you are Valery Matsulevich or his business partner Vladimir Fonarev — two middle-aged textile entrepreneurs — you might think it is the perfect time to open a boutique selling hip American clothes to 20-something Riga club-goers.

On a winter night not long ago, the two men opened the doors of “Extreme,” their venture into the world of youth fashion. While temperatures in Riga plunged well below zero, and empty storefronts along Alexandra Caka Street reinforced the chill that enveloped the city, Extreme's windows burned bright. Patrons sipped champagne and grooved to the sounds of a hip-hop DJ next to a semi-psychedelic wall mural while perusing T-shirts and distressed jeans with labels like “Smet,” “Kowboys and Co.” and “Bejeweled.”

The disparity with what was happening around them could not have been more striking. Latvia’s economy — as well as its overall confidence — is in a free fall. Gross domestic product is now expected to drop 13 percent this year, the biggest contraction in the European Union. A 7.5 billion euro rescue program instituted by the International Monetary Fund has forced the Latvian government to slash its budget and introduce extreme austerity measures. Official salaries have shrunk by about 20 percent, and all across the ex-Soviet Baltic nation of 2.3 million, people are tightening their belts and hunkering down for what appears to be a long economic freeze.

None of this fazes Matsulevich. While he acknowledged that it is perhaps incongruous to open a business on a street where half the stores seem to be shuttered (“Strange, isn’t it?” he simply remarked), he insisted that his timing could not be more perfect. Even in an economic crisis, there are those who want to live life to the fullest — and party on weekends. He said his store offers something completely different, and therefore will attract buyers.

“Clothing is like art — and aren’t great works produced during crises and even war?” Matsulevich asked. “We live such gray lives. My clothing is for those people who have not lost their interest to live.”