Lumpen is destroying the concept of fashion for the privileged – one ‘common’ face at a time
The term ‘Lumpen’ traditionally has negative connotations: it stands for common folk, the poorly educated, the deprived lower class. And yet, it’s the name of the upcoming modelling agency which has had its talent crop up in shoots for a series of weighty fashion magazines, walk for the likes of French brand VETEMENTS and get set to hit the runway for Gosha Rubchinskiy in Paris this season. Ironically, most of Lumpen’s models would never imagine working in fashion – but their faces offer the industry a unique insight into what post-Soviet youth really looks like.
The state of Russian youth after the fall of the Iron Curtain has always been a mystery to the West – the culture only dates back to the 90s, so has remained largely neglected by international media. But Lumpen is helping to change this, by joining the rise of various movements working to diversify fashion. In the last year, we’ve seen the emergence of sizing champions #DropThePlus, independent agency Lorde Inc – which aims to battle industry racism – and designers like Charles Jeffrey who cast unprofessional kids for shows and campaigns, often part of a community of friends.
It was fashion designer Rubchinskiy however who initially got the Eastern ball rolling. Rubchinsky was the first to show the way that young people in Russia live and breathe: for his campaigns, films and photobooks he shot friends, skaters and street boys from Moscow's urban areas. The designer also happened to be the first insider to hear about Lumpen: “Last summer during fashion week we were in Paris with Gosha,” remembers Lumpen founder Avdotja Alexandrova. “I saw my friend in DUST magazine, and I got upset because he was not credited anywhere, and I knew he didn't want it to be printed. It felt like a violation to me. We talked about it with Gosha, and I said it would be great to create an agency. I had had the idea for a while, but at that point I finally decided that I wanted to do it. I returned to Moscow, and in two weeks with the help of friends, we had put together the first version of Lumpen.”
Historically, Russia and Eastern Europe have always supplied the fashion industry with a great number of internationally successful models. But usually, in the vein of Natalia Vodianova and Sasha Pivovarova. At Lumpen, it’s a very different story: their models are often scouted on the street, in Moscow nightclubs, or on social media. They are not conventionally beautiful – most often they are pale-faced boys with shaved heads and lost girls, with the sorrow of their tower block surroundings permanently reflected in their eyes. "Most of the guys don't really want to be shot that much, they are not obsessed with their own appearance, they never like their own photos on social media or post selfies,” says Alexandrova. Lumpen’s main aim is to challenge the idea that fashion is just for the privileged, beautiful and rich. The agency’s also challenging industry ageism – with their models’ ages varying between 12-40.
Essentially, Lumpen celebrates the idea of being different – a notion that is much needed in today's Russia, which can often prove to be the least tolerant of places. "Once a boy came to me and said: ‘So, the era of freaks is here? You collect freaks?’” recalls Alexandrova, “And I said, ‘I don't think they are freaks, I think they are all amazingly beautiful.’” Regardless of her thoughts, the mainstream standards of beauty in the country are still quite conservative. "There was one girl in the agency who I really liked,” the founder says. "She had an amazing bird-like face with thin lips. And then she just went off and had her lips done thinking I wouldn’t notice. I just couldn’t keep a girl with fake lips in my agency. She suddenly looked exactly like everyone else! All the models in Moscow look exactly the same and it's really sad.”
"Once a boy came to me and said: ‘So, the era of freaks is here? You collect freaks?And I said, I don't think they are freaks, I think they are all amazingly beautiful" – Avdotja Alexandrova
Dasha Selyanova, founder of London-based label ZDDZ, seems to sympathise with Alexandrova. “Everybody's tired of perfect, long-legged women and tanned lads with big smiles, it feels fake,” she explains. Selyanova created a campaign video around Lumpen’s models using not just their faces, but also their stories and personalities. “Shooting the Lumpen guys gave the film a new dimension: you don't just watch them, you have an emotional connection,” she adds, “To me Lumpen boys and girls are more interesting than ordinary models. I believe them. They are the same on camera as they are in life.”
At the end of the day, how are skinny white boys from Moscow or Rostov-on-Don different from the ones from the outskirts of London, Berlin or Paris? According to Alexandrova, even if they are different, it's not because of their nationality – she doesn't think that there is a marketable Russian type. “Lumpen is about original and interesting stories, lives,” she says. “I look for intelligent people, not necessarily educated, but streetwise – the ones who’ve lived through things. I usually can see them straight away, the sorrow in their eyes, and it attracts me. The only difference is that I think in Europe you have more people who had better lives, lived in better conditions, so at the same age they could not be as interesting.” The rise of Lumpen proves that post-Soviet youth does have its appeal, but it also has deeper implications – perhaps the fashion community should look outside of convention, and to the other side of the tracks more often.
Photography Masha Demianova; styling Stacey Batashova; make-up and hair Maria Efremenko. Check out Lumpen’s site here.