photographing the boys of vilnius
Photographer Visvaldas Morkevicius shoots the people and landscapes of the suburban estates of the Lithuanian capital he grew up in.
"One winter day in Vilnius, I was gazing through the trolleybus window and noticed two guys waiting at the bus stop. They were wearing tracksuits and had thick black plastic bags with them. My mind was suddenly filled with various images from my childhood... images of guys hanging around in my neighborhood, wearing the exact same gear and with the exact same attitude as the two guys I had just seen. I was both surprised and excited to see that some things just never get old," Sofija Rybakovaite explains. It was then that the idea came to her to start shooting the boys of Lazdynai, an area of Lithuania's capital Vilnius, with photographer Visvaldas Morkevičius.
Rybakovaite and Morkevičius, who are both Lithuanian, were seeking to channel their childhood amongst the typical estates of the city, built just before the end of the Soviet era. They picked Lazdynai for a reason, as a very significant example of the ideas and aesthetics of the USSR. "Lazdynai is the best of the worst Soviet architecture in Vilnius," Visvaldas Morkevičius laughs. "The project was launched in 1964, as a tribute to Soviet architecture. The group of architects were awarded the Lenin Orize for the planning of the neighborhood. Today, we have this slang word, Khrusciovka, which describes the three to five-storey blocks and brick houses built in the era of Nikita Khrushchev. Even though many residents of Vilnius tend to favor the buildings of the Old Town nowadays, Lazdynai still has a special place in the hearts of those who grew up there. For me this shoot was not just about fashion, but an exploration of our society, too. The modern context and people here are layered over that Soviet space that I find worth exploring."
The resulting photo story captures the languid laid-back attitude of the urban edgelands -- housing blocks poking out of a sea of green suburbs, clear summer light, boys lingering in tracksuits and sportswear. It's an aesthetic that came to define Eastern Europe, tough guys with buzzcuts and tracksuits on brutalist estates. It channels the current trend for post-Soviet cool, certainly, but also something more global; fashion's rising obsession with visual narratives of the working class. Lazdynai is not too dissimilar from certain corners of London and Paris, whilst Soviet aesthetics just happen to be the perfect embodiment of the working class look -- in the Soviet Union the working class was the only class, of course. Today its visual tropes are symbols of the larger issues: the vanishing world we remember from the 90s and a social order we grew up questioning.
One of the key reasons for the rise of rougher and more socially complex imagery in fashion is, of course, the major shift in its discourse. Times when fashion was used mainly to express privilege and wealth are long gone, hierarchies dismantled by the internet, and now, in the age of post-irony, the highs and lows are mixed to the point when it's hard to discern the ends. Adidas slippers with socks and tracksuits today are just another part of the new generation's wardrobe. In search of a new energy fashion tends to appropriate what used to look repulsive and was stigmatized. Tracksuits have come a long way from the wardrobe of petty criminals and soccer casuals to become a fashion staple. But what about the visual world the tracksuit belongs to? More than a mere setting, its appropriation is a symptom of social and creative change.
Traditionally fashion imagery was meant to provide an escape from the daily routine and create an aspirational world. Today, following the growing influence of subcultures in fashion and more documentary-style photography, more and more creatives are looking for inspiration in the places they are from, injecting some of fashion's magic into the seemingly unremarkable. Doncaster-born Alasdair McLellan has celebrated the benches, bus-stops, and shop fronts of his native town in numerous editorials -- often featuring Northern boys, too -- not for the sake of glamorizing it, but because that is what felt truthful and honest to him.
Gosha Rubchinskiy found his inspiration in growing up in Moscow in the 90s, and later hanging out with skaters in St Petersburg and Yalta, he kept the Orthodox churches and Lenin busts in the frame simply because they were there. Even Skepta's recent video for "Shutdown," shot in the Barbican, one of London's most iconic brutalist estates tells a larger story of a utopian vision, social failure, and gentrification.
At the same time, not everyone has embraced Brutalism or working class suburbs as a backdrop for a vision of working class fashion. London-based brand Cottweiler did exactly the opposite. All its visuals are stripped from urban backgrounds and shot in pristine gallery-like settings. The brand's conscious attitude to the myths surrounding the tracksuit as an item comes through in the tailored cut as well -- it's nothing like the baggy slouchy shape of the original. Taking it out of its obvious setting means denying the cheap trick of working class fetishization, a reaction towards lingering stereotypes, stigmatization, and cultural appropriation.
The aesthetic of poor but cool in fashion is almost always controversial, it doesn't matter if it's shot on estates in south London, Berlin, or Lithuania. There is always the uncanny idea of borrowing settings to shoot expensive garments to appropriate the socially disadvantaged. On the other hand, when treated correctly, it opens the whole new dimension for discussing the place of fashion imagery in contemporary culture. The key is finding the right approach: for his shoot in Lazdynai, for instance, Visvaldas Morkevičius cast two of his friends as models, one of whom grew up in the neighborhood.
But in the end, what is at the core of our obsession with the working class aesthetics? It could be the curious duality that we feel both detached from it and incredibly connected. Already nostalgic for the recent 90s, the generation making their money mostly from working on a laptop can't grasp the pains of deindustrialisation that so affected this vanishing world. On the other hand, in the classic working class imagery we often see people who were failed by the system. Perhaps in the current political climate this is how we all feel.