Countess Alexandra Tolstoy
We’re excited to be offered a peek into the world of Alexandra Tolstoy. She is an adventuress who has travelled the Silk Route by horseback and explored different cultures, uniquely, as host of BBC’s Horse People. Alexandra is passionate about Russia; her lifestyle, home and wardrobe reflect as such.
Her Instagram account provides glimpses into her exceptional life, how she has chosen to live it. Alexandra’s story is uplifting; she shares how being fearless has propelled her forward, to new pursuits like The Tolstoy Edit.
Alexandra has travelled the Silk Route by horseback.
How has your sense of dress evolved over time?
As a child, I was greatly influenced by my mother’s family – she’s one of seven children and their mother, my grandmother, was the ultimate homemaker. She baked her own bread, made the yogurt, milked the cow, sewed and knitted most of her children’s clothes. She was very artistic and made wonderful patchwork collage pictures.
This ethos was passed to her children, and I gained an early appreciation for all things handmade, whether it was fair isle jumpers, smocked dresses or embroidered pieces. I grew up in the country and read lots and lots of nineteenth century literature, so I also loved the romantic, floral look.
When I was 18, I went to Russia for the first time, followed some years later by Central Asia, where I rode the Silk Road on horse and camel for nine months. Here, my eyes were opened to the extraordinarily rich patterns and folk traditions of these countries. I began to weave them into the way I dressed and decorated my home, antique ikat coats from the bazaars in Uzbekistan, and Russian printed floral scarves from the flea market on the edge of Moscow.
In my thirties, I met the father of my children, a Russian oligarch; my style took a radical – and perhaps sadly predictable! – turn. I began shopping in designer boutiques and wearing much more glamorous and on trend clothes. It took me several years, even after the collapse of this relationship, to realize that I had completely lost my identity in every sense. The clothes merely mirrored what was going on inside and the faith I had lost in myself. I decided to sell all these remnants of this unhappy life. It was incredibly liberating getting rid of the Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana and Balenciaga, to start replacing my wardrobe with folk-inspired pieces, continuing the style path of my early years.
What are the most treasured pieces in your wardrobe?
I have a padded jacket with embroidery detailing, with paisley lining from the Moscow flea market, bought twenty years ago. During the tumult of the last decade, I completely forgot about it. When I was moving house over the summer, I suddenly rediscovered it in a dusty corner and was thrilled to be reunited with this old friend.
I have two fabulous treasures from my oligarch days. For the Monaco royal wedding, I was fortunate enough to commission two couture dresses, Giambattista Valli for the day and Valentino for the evening. Fortunately, my style stayed on track for these pieces and I am keeping them for my daughter.
As a creative influencer, how do you remain true to yourself?
I’ve become more confident, inevitably experience counts for a lot, but I think the mistakes that I made have helped me to identify my true identity. I do occasionally look at what other people are doing but not too often. I’m not particularly affected by others – I certainly don’t like copying.
How has your heritage shaped your living space?
A lot! I have so many Russian influences in my home, as well as English.
"I like making unpredictable mixes of my heritage" - Alexandra
I love antiques, but also color, layers and textures with touches of whimsy and humor. Coziness is a huge factor; I have seen some of the coziest interiors in remote Siberian wooden villages. Russian fairy tale illustrations are another influence, such as the decorative borders; the rich, earthy colors and rustic motifs.
I like making unpredictable mixes of my heritage, through juxtaposing English and Russian luster porcelain; Uzbek silk coats hung next to floral chintz curtains and enamelware on an Irish wooden dresser.
Who do you feel is the most iconic Russian designer?
Historically, Natalia Goncharova. Her extraordinarily creative costume designs for the Ballets Russes are unrivalled and will always be current. In today’s world, it is Tatyana Parfionova. She specializes in the most exquisite embroidery and beadwork, influenced by the natural world.
As an equine adventurer, a role right out of a bygone era, are there any explorers you admire?
It has to be those of the Great Game*– Captain Fred Burnaby, Captain Arthur Conolly, Peter Fleming, etc. – they were so brave and truly from a different era.
* The Great Game was an intense rivalry between the British and Russian Empires in Central Asia, from 1813 to 1907, over Afghanistan and neighboring territories.
Which destination proved to be the most memorable?
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan is unrivalled in her physical beauty. The Tian Shan Mountains are home to the most beautiful alpine meadows and ancient walnut forests, peopled only by nomadic shepherds in their yurts. Uzbekistan only opened up to the West relatively recently.
When I first travelled there in 1999, it was the most exotic and colorful place I had ever come across, with such an ancient and fascinating history.
Central Asia’s relationship with Russia also fascinates me; they are so near geographically and politically, and yet so far apart culturally.
What are the five essential items for your travel adventures?
Rab sleeping bag: it is so warm and cozy, almost as good as a duvet!
Head torch: essential for the dark mountain nights with no light pollution.
Swimming costume: the mountain rivers are crystal clear and so refreshing after a long day’s riding.
Good jodhpurs: I use an Australian brand, Hyland, that caters for adventurous riders.
Camera: Central Asia has some of the most magnificent scenery to be encountered on our planet.
You recently launched The Tolstoy Edit. How did you come up with this idea?
I wanted to share some of my favorite pieces for decorating - antique painted furniture and textiles - with my followers, and this seemed the best way.
What do you want The Tolstoy Edit to accomplish in the next year?
I look forward to The Tolstoy Edit expanding. I have found beautiful antique textiles and rugs from Central Asia and Russia that we will be sharing. I'm also excited to start producing tablecloths from vintage fabrics, as well as hand embroidered linen ones.
What is the most important lesson you have learned to date?
To pick yourself up and dust yourself down after a disaster. Nothing is insurmountable and as boring as it is to hear: learning from mistakes makes us stronger!
Alexandra at her happiest when she is with family.
Movie The Russian film, Quiet Flows the Don
Actress Audrey Hepburn
Book War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Art piece Sargent portraits
Song Anything by Abba!
Scent I don't wear scent, so the smell of baking cakes!
City No city is timeless, but I suppose Paris is the closest, or St. Petersburg
Restaurant Café Pushkin, Moscow
Style Icon Grace Kelly