post-soviet cool: the evil empire's cultural comeback
26 years after the Berlin Wall fell, the ex-USSR is having a fashion resurgence. On the catwalks of Paris, Gosha Rubchinskiy, Demna Gvasalia, and Lotta Volkova are setting fashion's new aesthetic.
I'm on the subway with a friend, and he is dressed in a Russian flag. He's heading back home to Bedfordshire, and his Gosha Rubchinskiy sports jacket has proud broad stripes of red, blue and white. I can't help looking around to see if people in the car notice. After all, politically, 2016 is not the best year to openly declare any relation to Russia. My friend is young, English, and he's never been to Russia, although really wants to go one day. Like many boys and girls worldwide, he's fallen for the charm of Gosha's creative universe. "Where I live no one understand why the hell I'm wearing stuff like this," he says. Well, there should be a good reason, I think to myself, why the hell you are wearing stuff like this.
Rubchinskiy was among the first to unveil the new youth culture which lies beyond the borders of the West. It wasn't just about t-shirts emblazoned with Cyrillic letters -- it was about stories from Russian urban edgelands and the effortless cool of Moscow skate scene, about the new face of youth, which was so familiar and yet so fresh and real. Rubchinskiy drew inspiration from the tower block estates of Moscow he grew up surrounded by, from radical style of 90s Russian fashion magazines, from new tribes of Russian club kids. Combined with support from Comme des Garçons, these ideas hailed rapid success for the brand -- and the birth of a new obsession for Western youth. Just like at some point in history kids used to dream of being American, kids in England, France, US, Japan suddenly wanted to be Russian, be part of this new mysterious and strange Eastern European gang.
When Rubchinskiy appeared on the Vetements spring/summer 16 catwalk wearing a DHL tee he sealed the deal: he wasn't alone, the new post-Soviet cool was on the rise with its own fashion gang. Demna Gvasalia -- the creative director of Vetements and Balenciaga, and the star of the Paris fashion revolution -- was born in Georgia and moved to Germany at the age of 20. In his interviews he repeatedly emphasized the influence of his background: the informational vacuum of his Soviet childhood, his hunger for and tremendous discovery of the Western culture. Stylist Lotta Volkova -- who was born and raised in Vladivostok in the Russian far east before moving to Paris via London -- provided the perfect link between the worlds of Rubchinskiy and Gvasalia. Styling numerous shoots and catwalks for both designers, she's created a powerful rebellious aesthetic -- a gender-bending hyper-sexual cool of tomorrow.
Vetements and Rubchinskiy clearly have different aesthetics and consumer appeal, yet a closer look reveals certain similarities in atmosphere and creative approach if not garments. The latest shows for both brands happened in churches, and both collections seem to have emerged from dark places. Opening for Vetements, Volkova walked the runway in a tiny mini dress, clasping flowers in her hands, as if participating in a strange religious ceremony. Slogans on sweaters in Rubchinskiy's collection read "Save and protect" replicating an inscription from a silver Orthodox cross. There was a shared air of strange detached and rebellious spirituality: a combination of a church and a dingy club. There were a few recurring faces too: both Rubchinskiy and Gvasalia cast models from Russian independent model agency Lumpen.
Gvasalia as a designer was of course shaped by Paris, his years at Maison Martin Margiela and Louis Vuitton, and the friendship with Volkova he developed in the dark corners of the city -- at underground parties they used to put on with DJ Clara 3000 and photographer Pierre-Ange Carlotti. Yet post-Soviet background for Gvasalia, Volkova and Rubchinskiy has always been something they kept within reach, something to muse on, dig into and recreate.
The key to the emerging post-Soviet cool lies in the 90s, and the turbulent years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Young people in the ex-USSR suddenly ended up in the midst of the major historical shift under the avalanche of Western culture. The 90s came with the hardships of major economical crisis, crime and corruption, but it didn't matter much for the emerging generation, hungry for the new. Everything was new: new imagery, new language, new clothes, new sex, new open free world, new possibilities. Vetements' huge hoodies and savvy deconstructed logos, Rubchinskiy's Tommy Hilfiger pastiche are rooted in Perestroika markets, among the fake Nike tracksuits and cheap Chinese knock-offs. Even Gvasalia's Balenciaga debut -- so completely Parisian and based on meticulous study of the brand's archives -- had huge multi-colored bags and leather coats which could be seen frequently at the same markets.
After moving to the West (although Rubchinskiy is still mainly based in Moscow) to produce work which is meant to exist in Western context, it seems that Gvasalia, Volkova and Rubchinskiy managed to keep the critical distance from Western culture. They are armed with the knowledge that you're free to do whatever you like with this culture: bend it, twist it, reinvent it. You're free to shift worlds and crush utopias. This is the knowledge only former outsider can possess. It sums up Vetements ethos pretty well: outsider yesterday, the coolest kid on the block today. This is what post-Soviet countries to the West are in a way -- an eternal outsider.
So why is the new post-Soviet cool so timely right now? Historical and political context undoubtedly plays its part: it's been 26 years since the fall of Berlin Wall, enough for the whole new generation to come of age, hungry for something different on both sides of the ghostly Iron Curtain. Contemporary culture from post-Soviet countries is gradually penetrating the mainstream. And most importantly, today's culture and particularly fashion is in need of the critical outlook on consumption and Western concept of success. The East has always been portrayed poor, but let's face it -- the prospects for today's Western youth are pretty hazy, with the housing crisis and unaffordable education everyone is pretty poor. Good thing is, there's no need to buy Vetements -- a cheap XXL hoodie from a discount store would do. The main thing is the attitude.
Text Anastasiia Fedorova