Talking to Avdotja Alexandrova, whose Lumpen agency models have leant their singular look to the runways of Gosha Rubchinskiy, Vetements and Balenciaga.
photography masha demianova
Lumpen is one of those words that means exactly what it sounds like. Misshapen, lumpy, ugly. Used to refer to the dispossessed, the unskilled, the uneducated. To social outcasts.
In these terms, it is not a word that you would imagine to be the first choice to describe a model agency, let alone one that is currently providing a stream of faces for some of the most celebrated designers working in fashion at the moment.
But Moscow-based agency Lumpen isn't typical. Set up by filmmaker Avdotja Alexandrova, it is spinning what it means to be a model off its axis - her street-cast Russian boys and girls turning the agency into the unofficial provider for the post-Soviet, youthful aesthetic that has dominated the season's runways. And there's more than enough proof that she's tapped into the zeitgeist - her models walking for Gosha Rubchinskiy, Vetements and now Balenciaga, thanks to the recent installation of Demna Gvasalia at the Parisian house.
The models, shown on Lumpen's website in square images that bear more resemblance to a mug shot than a typical model's polaroid, all variously decline the expected archetypes of what it means to be model. Pierced appendages, hunched bodies and tattooed skin fill the agency's books - eyes sit closely together, noses protrude, skin is weathered. There is a severity to the model's faces, a certain discomfort.
But it is these faces that provide the narrative behind Lumpen's world. "First of all, I look at the face," she says. "I am attracted to original features… only after these come other features such as height. There are no parameters in our agency - some of the guys are short, some are really tall." For Avdotja, it has never been about typical standards of beauty. Coming from a background in film, she has always cited the power of a face to tell a story, no matter what that face be, or look like. But the one thing that she always looks for? "Originality".
It was compatriot Gosha Rubchinskiy, who she met on Moscow's party scene, who first set the creation of Lumpen into motion. "Back then I was shooting videos at parties and various events and I really liked Gosha's face, I would follow him with the camera telling him he is very handsome and he would act shy and confused," she says. "Only after that I found out who he is and what he does".
Later, after striking up a friendship with the Russian designer she began documenting his shows, and just a couple of years later the agency followed, filling a growing need for street cast boys and girls to appear in both shows and short films. Just a few months before Lumpen was set up Gosha had already introduced her to stylist Lotta Volkova, who in turn introduced her to Demna Gvsalia, at that time just beginning Vetements. They liked her boys. Magazines came next. Luxury houses would follow.
The agency's success fits into a sweeping movement diversifying what it means to be a model, where boundaries have been set increasingly wide and imperfections are beginning to not only be celebrated, but craved. At Eckhaus Latta, the duo brought out a trail of "real" New York women, from performance artist India Menuez to Juliana Huxtable whilst New York-based Chromat filled the runway with models that celebrated the multiplicities of the female body, enhanced in powerful, tech-filled lingerie. At Hood By Air, radical gay artist Slava Mogutin walked defiant, tattooed and topless. Even at Gucci, Alessandro Michele cast artist Petra Collins in his last show, the transgender model and activist Hari Nef walking in the one before.
It comes with the growing necessity for designers to create a world that reflects their own increasingly diverse backgrounds. Whether Gosha's recreations of Russian subcultures or British designer Grace Wales-Bonner's rich, racially diverse milieus, models are now a means to tell a story, and not just perfect forms for which to display clothes.
It's why Avdotja, coming from film, has had a different type of success, one that opposes that of traditional agencies. "I came to fashion from cinematography and want to add "documentary" faces to fashion," she says. "I like the backstage of fashion itself, communicating with casting directors and brands. During communication I figure out what they need and suggest them the faces myself."
Eva Godel, head of Berlin-based agency Tomorrow Is Another Day agrees that there is no longer a set idea of who or what a model should be. "To be great as a model in fashion does not necessarily mean you are the boy in class most liked by all the girls. Actually mostly they are not those boys," she says of TIAD's models, where the line-up includes drag queens and skater boys, boys far away from the pumped-up models of old. "I think at the moment is totally open," she says. "It is about the person."
But there's something to be said about the specific, for want of a better term, "Russian-ness" of the faces that make up Lumpen. "I think Russians are alike and attractive only because of a certain pattern of behavior, and that is what attracts foreigners - generosity, recklessness, independence as a reaction to the system and along with that, distrustfulness," Avdotja says.
The idea of Russia supplying the West with models is nothing new - in fact, a long trail of models have been sent west over the years, from Natasha Poly to Natalia Vodianova. "Russian agencies work as mediators for foreign agencies - they find a girl or a boy, send him to a foreign agency and get the percentage off his work there for that agency. I am not interested in that way of work." For her, these models represent a fashion industry that was a long way from how she grew up. "I was very far from fashion, was working with movies, and that is a completely different world… tasteless, fussy and pretentious."
But more than this, Russia, long hidden behind the iron curtain provides a gritty exoticness to the West, a world of uncertainty that seems far away from our own. It is this uncertainty that seems to fuel the success of the prevailing post-Soviet aesthetic that has commanded the fashion world of late. To the west, Russia is a land yet to be discovered, yet to be mined. As Gosha Rubchinskiy said of his home country, "the entire time things happen that no one expects. That's why I like to stay there: the uncertainty makes it exciting and constantly creates change."
At the heart of it, Lumpen's models are embodiments of that change. In rejecting the typical conventions of the model, they are becoming a new archetype, one that challenges long held ideas of privilege. And, whilst we are a long way from true runway diversity, as the latest controversy around Balenciaga and Vetements' all-white casting demonstrated, what Lumpen sets forth is a commitment to individuality - something that appeals to an industry in flux, an industry craving change.
Text Jack Moss
Photography Masha Demianova