Russian twin sisters Elena and Ekaterina Popovy meticulously handcraft perfectly imperfect, posable dolls that combine unique elements of fantasy, fashion, and fetish. Coming from fine art, sculpture and fashion design, the Popovy Sisters work as a single mechanism with extraordinary attention to detail to create such masterpieces, from hair and makeup to photography and the printing process. Each year, the multifaceted doll artists present a small conceptual collection of dolls that is then exhibited around the world, a brilliant body of work that contributed to numerous awards and exclusive collaborations with artists such as Yolandi Visser from Die Antwoord.
With just a glance at your creations it’s easy to see how much effort, work and creativity you put in every single one of your dolls. How did you start with this project?
In the beginning, we were making static dolls, but with time, their bodies started to look more and more like BJD (Ball Jointed Dolls). MOD, the last static collection we did, had fake ball joints. We loved the way it looked, so after that, we made a decision to make real BJD dolls.
“Our symbol is a butterfly moth and our main character is a teenage girl: a moth girl.” How would you describe your dolls to someone who has never seen them? What character do you want to create?
Our protagonist is a child-like woman. She is perfectly imperfect (with a tooth gap and many other small details) and has a childish character. She does not try to hide or fake her emotions. She is absolutely real and confident. Some people ask why our dolls look so sad. Well, they’re not sad. If you take a look at children's photos, you may notice that many of them look serious and sort of sulky. They’re not hiding their emotions. It’s not like those pretty family portraits that you may see on toothpaste or milk commercials. It is how our dolls look like, they’re real.
We are trying to convey thoughts and ideas to our audience through our dolls. For us, the doll and the costume (or the outfit, or however you prefer to call it) are something holistic. We don’t think of the costumes as something different from the doll, like a separate part; for us, it’s like the doll’s second skin. They’re inextricably linked together. We are looking for a sophisticated means of expression. Often, we bring a wild animal beauty or some surrounding objects onto a female image.
We always ask ourselves, ‘does this idea impress us?’ If not, then we throw this idea away. Our main criterion in image creation is: it has to be unreal, even have some weirdness, at first sight. We create something that can make one stop and think, to question and examine in order to understand the idea behind each work. The doll has to be unusual and make people wonder.
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I’m fascinated by the alluring fine details and characteristic facial features that border with reality. The freckles, eye colour, the features. The dolls look so real that they are almost creepy. Where do you find the inspiration to create such a unique look?
Nature is the main source of our inspiration. Nature is the world's most creative and inspiring designer, so we learn from it. But also, we are inspired by music, movies, and history.
Did you play with dolls when growing up? What does the Barbie doll mean to you?
While growing up, we used to make our own dolls. We used to draw them, created different outfits to dress them up. We never had a real Barbie doll, but once we won one in a competition. We were so impressed by her face but we didn’t like the body, so we customized it by putting extra plastic to make her look more real and human-like.
The doll bodies are dressed in elaborated, often aggressive haute couture costumes and extravagant shoes that collide with the gentle girl aesthetic. Being fashion designers by profession, how did you learn to work on such a small, intricate scale?
Since childhood, we learned how to sew outfits for our dolls, so we are used to small scale. In fact, it’s even better because, on a small scale, we can implement all our fantasies much faster than if we were making them in real size – but this doesn’t mean that we’ll never make a human size outfit.
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How important are fashion and trends in your creations? Do you pay attention to what other fashion designers are doing?
We never follow trends. We just do what we like and what we feel is right for us, and by some magical force, it is always a trend. Quite often, when we emphasize one specific colour, hair or outfit style, we start seeing it on fashion shows.
It is clear that this type of art includes many professions. From fashion design to hair and makeup, from photography to the printing process, the Popovy Sisters are among a small group of artists who can quite literally do it all. How does the creation of a doll start? What’s your creative process like and how much time does it take to create one of them?
In order to start a new collection, we spend a lot of time on preparation and research. First, we need to choose the theme, find materials, read historical literature, and learn as much as we can about this specific theme. Then we start sketching. We sketch a lot, so we have a wide selection of materials to choose from. For each collection, we have an enormous number of sketches and ideas on paper – each collection we’ve made could have easily been a lot bigger if we had had the time to make everything that’s on our minds.
After the sketching stage, we start looking for the proper materials, fabrics and so on. All the materials we use are absolutely unique. The limited-edition fabrics, antique silk, laces… everything must be the best quality possible.
Working as a single mechanism to craft each and every doll by hand, do you carry out together all aspects of the creative process, or does each of you have distinct roles?
We work as a team, fulfilling each other when we develop a collection. We always sketch together but sometimes can get in a fight because of a pencil. Working together is a lot of fun. When we work, usually we have no roles. Sometimes we split tasks but it is not planned, it just happens organically.
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The hair certainly is another meaningful aspect of your creations. Your wigs have been tried to copy by many and your hairstyles have been reproduced by several professionals in the industry. What’s the significance of the braids we see in several designs? And what materials do you use to achieve such a realistic look in your wigs?
Indeed, our wigs have been recreated by so many from all over the world. Some designers even receive prizes and awards for it. We wish they credited us. It does take a humongous amount of time to create each wig. We use some special techniques, and it is one of our top secrets. Through hairstyles, we have the ability to portray emotions, and it fulfils the whole image, it can speak. Our wigs are totally connected to the theme and the concept of each collection we make. For materials, we only use the finest Japanese silk and lama wool as the main materials.
You recently made the second coming of Yolandi from Die Antwoord, out of polymer and porcelain. She has this exceptional image that truly suits your philosophy. Her handcrafted hair floats around her shoulders, accentuating a kind of fetishistic attention to form. This doll wields beauty while celebrating imperfection. This creation is no longer an incarnation of a socially acceptable mould, what’s the message behind it?
Difference and confidence. Being comfortable in your own skin, to stand out and be who you want to be no matter what.
Each year, you present a small conceptual collection of dolls, which are then exhibited around the world. You have embodied the art of dolls evolution by expanding your repertoire in a variety of mediums, ranging from fine art photography to video art. What is your greatest ambition for Popovy Sisters?
Hopefully, one day, we will be able to start our own fashion brand. And also, we would love to collaborate with the fashion house of Alexander McQueen.
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