After several seasons making a name for himself in Paris, Georgian designer Irakli Rusadze returned to his mother country to stage a defiant AW23 show
Tbilisi, Georgia’s queer scene is flourishing right now.
Once hidden away in the shadows, with DIY cabaret shows taking place in dingy garages and drag nights in the back rooms of darkened clubs, the city’s transgressive, vibrant LGBTQ+ youth are emerging out into the daylight and defiantly doing things on their own terms. Despite this, however, the country’s overarching attitude towards queerness remains staunchly conservative – there may be safety in numbers when it comes to events like the now sell-out drag ball each month, but walking down the street holding hands with a partner of the same sex still feels unsafe for many.
It’s with this in mind that Irakli Rusadze chose the venue for his recent return to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi. Back in his mother country to show a concise menswear collection after a number of seasons on the Paris womenswear schedule, the Situationist founder originally toyed with the idea of debuting his latest line at a Soviet monument erected to celebrate the ‘friendship’ between Russia and Georgia, but given the brutal war Putin is currently waging against Ukraine, thought it a little too close to the bone.
“It’s not the right time for irony like that,” the designer surmised, arranging a bunch of white lilies into a tall glass vase, the late afternoon sun streaming into his white-washed studio. Like Ukraine, Georgia has long been threatened with Russian invasion, with much of the north of the country occupied by Russian militia – needless to say, there is little love lost between the neighbouring countries. And so, instead, Rusadze, who is gentle and considerate and softly-spoken, got to thinking about real, tangible relationships: the kind of love and friendship that’s really worth celebrating.
This meant that instead of dragging people out to a towering concrete behemoth overlooking a region of the Caucasus mountains ominously named the ‘Devil’s Valley’, Rusadze and his small team descended the uneven stone steps of one of Tbilisi’s most ancient bathhouses. Deep under the streets of the city’s oldest neighbourhood, the steamy, hot space was (and remains) a peaceful, restorative bolthole where men, originally, and now women too, could come to relax, unwind, and commune. More than that, though, it also offered the privacy necessary for romantic meetings and trysts – like saunas and steam rooms across the world, the bathhouse was a lifeline for LGBTQ+ lovers looking to meet away from prying eyes.
The sensual nature of the bathhouse was mirrored in the AW23 Situationist collection, with models pacing past pools and down halls decorated with intricate mosaics in the slinky, louche tailoring and tactile pieces Rusadze’s work has evolved towards. There were slim-fit leather trenches with sharp shoulders that sat over bare chests and wool trousers that were so wide they appeared like skirts as they swept across the damp runway. There was homespun knitwear that took the form of crocheted vests and tight, second-skin romper suits. And there was an array of dark, indigo-dyed denim, crafted to become crisp calf-length boxer-style shorts, slouchy bombers, and in one instance, a slinky a-line skirt complete with thigh-flashing slits. Particularly strong were the sinuous, strappy going-out tops including a red knitted strapless cami and a strappy black halter that snaked around the model’s torso. There was nothing shrinking-violet about those.
Casting was typically on-point. Diversity on the runway and within campaigns has long been core to what Rusadze and his team do: from day one, the Situationist’s line-ups were a standout on the Tbilisi fashion week schedule as the designer enlisted models from across the city’s close-knit queer community, including trans women he met on the dancefloors of packed clubs, heavily tattooed friends of friends, and people with bodies that don’t conform to fashion’s still-typical size zero standards for his shows. Now he’s made the move to Paris, it’s something that’s been cemented: for his AW23 women’s show, he teamed up with stylist Dogukan Nesanir and casting director Roxane Dia to bring together a uniquely diverse cast of models including Alva Claire. “She was very expensive,” Rusadze laughs, “But she’s so beautiful, and it was so worth it.”
And on Paris. As exciting as it was to see such a promising, talented young brand create such hype on a Sunday morning towards the end of fashion week – when editors and influencers alike are exhausted after weeks of shows across the globe – perhaps even more thrilling was seeing Situationist back on the schedule at the first Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week post-COVID. With most creatives – and particularly those from places far from anywhere on the fashion map – having to turn their back on their home countries in favour of places like Paris and Milan where they’re almost guaranteed to get the eyes of the world’s press on their work, it was testament to Rusadze and his generation's dedication to creating change in Georgia that he would return to familiar turf.
In 2018, when underground techno labyrinth Bassiani was raided by police, Situationist worked with the club to create t-shirts emblazoned by the rallying call that rang out on the steps of the city’s parliament building: ‘We dance together, we fight together’. Though Paris has beckoned – and brought with it success already – like countless others so fiercely proud of their Georgian heritage, Rusadze isn’t ready to give up the fight for equality in his mother country yet.