Putin, Pussy Riot, homophobia – we hear a lot about the former Soviet state, but not about its fashion. There's a generation of young designers about to change that
Nestled near the bank of Moscow’s river is Druzhba Multipurpose Arena, a beautiful, spaceship-like building built for the 1980 Olympics that feels like a Ghesquière Instagram post waiting to happen. It’s late October, and the arena is hosting the World Cup Skateboarding competition – the crowd of skater boys and girls (looking like the subjects of Gosha Rubchinskiy’s Crimea/Kids zine come to life) cheering on competitors while dressed in a global uniform of Supreme, Vans, Independent and Thrasher. Streetwear and skatewear are proof of fashion’s ability to transcend geographical boundaries. “I like now that young kids from America and Russia look the same and have the same moods and hypes,” Rubchinskiy, famously inspired by Russian youth and skate culture, previously told Dazed. Stocked in Dover Street Market and showing in Paris, the photographer, filmmaker and designer’s exceptional talent has ensured he’s found acclaim, but Russian fashion remains low on the international radar.
Moscow’s past can be read in the contradictions of its streets. Tsarist, pre-Revolution architecture is elaborate and bourgeois, while bleakly Soviet municipal buildings stand in pointed contrast to glittering modern malls. From Kandinsky to Eisenstein, Russia has a record of producing pioneering figures in the visual arts, and yet in terms of fashion, its history is remarkably absent. “We tried to create our own designs, at the same time looking to the West,” says designer Anton Galetsky (who heads up brand Galetsky) of Soviet-era Russia, “but we always were guided by our own rules of consumption.” It wasn’t until 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union that Russia’s fashion-minded saw the possibilities that had been hidden by the iron curtain. Now, more than 20 years later, spurred on by the possibilities of the internet, there’s a new wave of young designers. Inspired by the unique energy of Russia’s youth, they are boldly proclaiming their visions for the country’s creative future.
October saw Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia return to Moscow for its 29th season, just a few steps from Red Square, where Lenin lays entombed. Throughout the week, more than 100 designers put on shows and presentations. Standouts included Cap America, where the story of a female scientist was translated into boxy work jackets and 60s shifts covered in lab coat-style pockets; CSM grad Yasya Minochkina, who took her cyber sportswear collection’s references from sculpture and architecture; and Ria Keburia, who pushed gender boundaries with a show which saw male and female models alike transformed into overgrown babies, complete with Björk hair twists, made-up rosy cheeks and pastel, genderless clothes. “When you’re a baby you don’t think too much about borders, limits – you’re free, you’re happy,” Keburia said backstage. This ethos extended to the runway, where models sat and played with toys before dashing them across the ground in faux-temper tantrums.
Galetsky’s eponymous collection reflected on Russian consumerism and culture through a colourful, almost Warholian lens. “After the collapse of the USSR, everything changed. This is what my collection about,” he explains. Referencing the influx of American brands like Coca Cola and McDonalds to the country in the 1990s through graphic logos and lettering, the designer channelled the aesthetics of the sportswear-clad “gopnik” – a working class stereotype comparable to the British chav, which he regards as “the most authentic Russian subculture”. One pattern looked back at the country’s fashion history with a print of the first-ever Vogue Russia cover in 1998, an image Galetsky says is strongly associated in the cultural consciousness with the beginnings of the native fashion industry (despite having been created by Mario Testino and Carine Roitfeld, featuring Kate Moss and Amber Valetta).
Since then, a flood of international fashion magazines have set up shop in Russia. Andrey Artyomov was fashion director at L’Officiel Russia for six years, started Russian Tatler and worked on the first and, sadly, only issue of Dazed Russia with Nicola Formichetti. Now a designer, his brand Walk of Shame was established three years ago, and has since found fans in the likes of Elle Fanning and Humberto Leon, who picked it up for Opening Ceremony last year. His presentation took place in a gutted top-floor apartment; the bare concrete offset with a giant pepto bismol coloured shag rug, green ferns and a floor-to-ceiling WALK OF SHAME sign. Oversized denim jackets made to look like they’ve been stolen from boyfriends and slinky slip dresses for making a morning getaway riff off the brand’s name, but most covetable are the pieces with Walk of Shame in Cyrillic lettering – in one case, embroidered on a maximum security prison-style bright orange denim shell top (with matching trousers, of course).
Fashion is inextricably linked to politics, and the arrest and jailing of Pussy Riot, anti-gay laws and military involvement in the Ukraine have made Russia unpopular within Europe, as the damning boos ringing through the Eurovision arena this year showed. From an outsider’s perspective, the country seems to be becoming more socially conservative, but this isn’t a point that designers – many motived and truly inspired by their country – seem to agree with, instead finding hope in Russia’s younger generations. “I feel this incredible energy coming out of the Russian youth,” says Artyomov. “This vibe is a bit crazy and wild and that’s what’s cool about it.” It has to be said – in Moscow, Putin felt a world away from the kisses glimpsed between women in the red, pulsing lights of a party in a smashed-up penthouse, the nightclub with a toilet cubicle full of bondage gear, and the bar with a giant, X-rated anime mosaic mural.
As for homophobia, president of both Fashion Week and the newly created Russian Fashion Council Alexander Shumsky is quick to dismiss the international attention drawn by Russia’s recent law as “propaganda”, and points to the fact the government began supporting fashion (including openly gay designers) this year as evidence that, for the design community, it’s “business as usual”. Can it really be so straightforward? In an interview earlier this year, although Russian designer Tigran Avetisyan (who showed his SS15 collection at VFiles' New York show) admitted the issue had been “blown way out of proportion,” he argued that this was because “the gay community in Russia historically has always been deprived of declaring their sexual preference publicly.” It was simply nothing new. As Isabella Moore’s recent photoseries documenting LGBT youth in Russia shows, things certainly aren’t getting any easier. Just this week, a sculpture of an iPhone in St Petersburg was dismantled after Apple CEO Tim Cook came out as gay, with the company behind the piece calling his move a “public call for sodomy.”
With Russian fashion relatively low-key on an international scale, will designers have to leave the country that so inspires them to find success on a global level? Artyomov, who had a Paris presentation this season, thinks that the internet is the key to crossing boundaries and generating exposure. “I think if you do the right thing and people love it, they are going to find you no matter where you are! Thank God we live in the digital world.”
“There are a lot of problems to create things in Russia,” admits Galetsky – the cost of exporting goods, for instance. “(But) on the other hand there is a lot of space to create in your own way.” There’s a DIY feel to the industry that’s something of a cultural inheritance. “Our mothers used to know their way around a sewing machine to make the clothes for themselves,” says Artyomov with admiration. “That's what was amazing about that time: women had so little opportunity and so much willpower to look beautiful and fashionable.”
Whether drawing inspiration from Moscow’s city girls or skater boys, being Russian is a big part of what drives this crowd of promising individuals. Their vision of Russia is self-aware, reflecting not just on nationality and history, but also the unique energy of the country’s youth. Fun and rebellious, they have the same ability to see beyond political and national boundaries as the rest of the global internet generation, and in 2014, there’s no iron curtain to stop the rest of the world falling in love with what they produce. “They want to be the voice of their people and spread the word that they are creative and can make cool music and art,” said Rubchinskiy of the country’s new wave in Dazed’s summer issue, and now his words seem more pertinent than ever. “This movement keeps growing. It’s a new Russia.”