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Anita Stalidzane, Phyllis Cohen, Artis Dzerve, Andrew Logan and Sandra StraukaiteCourtesy of Bruno Birmanis

The radical fashion festival in 90s Latvia where the avant-garde reigned

The Untamed Fashion Assembly was a riotous celebration of non-commercial fashion and wild freedom with a DIY spirit

Forget London, Paris, New York, and Milan (at least for a minute). Some of the most exciting things in fashion are happening outside the perimeters of the industry’s so-called capitals right now: just look to Athens, Lagos, and Tbilisi if you’re in need of proof.

Proving themselves particularly worthy of keeping a close eye on are many of the countries that lived under Soviet rule for much of the last century. Propelled forwards by the likes of Demna Gvasalia, Gosha Rubchinskiy, and Natalia Maczek and Thomas Wirski of MISBHV, Poland, Russia, and Georgia are establishing themselves as fashion’s new big players. But while the industry’s capricious gaze might now be focused in their direction, the creative communities at their heart are no new thing.

One place with a particularly rich heritage when it comes to fashion is Latvia’s capital, Riga – home of the little-known Untamed Fashion Assembly. Taking place between 1990 and 1999, the annual Untamed Fashion Assembly saw designers from around the world descend on the city for seven days of fashion shows. But if you think this was your typical fashion week, think again.

The Assembly was a riotous celebration of the avant-garde, with conceptual presentations and performances in place of runway shows, and participants hailing from all four corners of the globe. It was the brainchild of artist and designer Bruno Birmanis, and offered a direct antithesis to the minimalism that was infiltrating the catwalks at Calvin Klein, Jil Sander, and Helmut Lang.

“In the late 80s, my friends and I – many of them costume and fashion designers themselves – started working on these kind of fashion theatre productions that were as much about the show as they were the clothes,” Birmanis explains. “Eventually we organised a huge production that was over an hour long and was full of these strange costumes and actors wearing them. It was really popular in Eastern Europe and we ended up touring it: we went to Moscow, France, Italy, and London. People loved it. And then, a few years later, the Fashion Assembly came from that.”   

Having returned to Riga with his ‘travelling fashion extravaganza’, Birmanis’s first Fashion Assembly took place in 1990, and, perhaps slightly surprisingly, given its location and its diminutive size, it drew some pretty big names. Making an appearance were designers Zandra Rhodes and Red or Dead’s Wayne Hemingway, and later, in 1994, Paco Rabanne, who flew in to judge the competition. It is also rumoured that Alexander McQueen flew out to Riga in the mid-90s, after his name appeared on a register of Central Saint Martins students who attended the Assembly.

“The only thing I wanted to see on the stage was free feeling and free creation from free designers” – Bruno Birmanis

It was by no means exclusive, though. The only requirements for entrants was that the collections on show were as far away from ‘commercial’ as it was possible to be: “the only thing I wanted to see on the stage was free feeling and free creation from free designers,” says Birmanis. “There was a sense of freedom in the air at the time, and while we were poor, we were young and hungry. Which is a very good background for creativity.” Just a year after the first Fashion Assembly took place, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Latvia was given its independence.  

The shows themselves were chaotic to say the least. British sculptor and founder of the Alternative Miss World pageant Andrew Logan remembers lighting failures, three hour-long delays, and being presented with his models at the first ever show: “I was given a very varied bunch,” he explains. “They weren’t professional models at all, they were like people off the street.”

As he was also showing only jewellery, he had assumed models would have their own clothes – but he was wrong. With the help of his assistant Scarlett, Logan fashioned costumes out of packing materials and sent his models out onto the runway. In the lead was a man dressed in a dark green, distressed looking cape and a jewelled crown, who carried a striped plastic bag and threw condoms into the audience, as a voice over the soundsystem informed attendees ‘for your safety, condoms are issued in anticipation of another of Andrew Logan’s orgasmic, artistic adventures’. “It was hell when you were there. No one ever turned up on time, nothing happened when it was supposed to. But there was a wonderful joy to life there, somehow.”

“It was hell when you were there. No one ever turned up on time, nothing happened when it was supposed to. But there was a wonderful joy to life there, somehow” – Andrew Logan

Elsewhere, designers presented Roman-style hats with burning oil lamps on top of them, sculptural windsock headpieces shown at the beach among holiday-goers (who looked on in amazement), and dynamic collections fashioned out of duvets and pillows. “Freedom was repressed here for so many years, and now each person has a place and a way to express themselves,” says Russian designer Ina Kjurkova, in a documentary detailing the event.

In 1999, The Untamed Fashion Assembly drew to a close. “It all came down to one thing in the end,” explains Birmanis. “Money. When you organise a big, alternative thing like this without sponsorship or commerciality, you’re never going to be able to do it forever. But the nine years it ran for were incredible, and it was an important moment for the creative scene in Latvia. And its legacy lives on, I think. Just look at what’s coming out of Eastern Europe when it comes to fashion now.”

Watch the an hour-long documentary and a special episode of BBC TV programme The Clothes Show documenting the first Untamed Fashion Assembly below.